Skip to content

Things I’ve Learned from Brandon Sanderson

April 7, 2022

Brandon Sanderson, prolific author of fantasy books, finisher of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, and now creator of the most successful kickstarter campaign in history, teaches a writing class at BYU every year. In 2020, he decided to film the classes for all to enjoy. Each class is about an hour and fifteen minutes and I’ve watched all of them except the last two on publishing (I don’t think I’m quite ready to tackle that yet). I think that authors of every genre could benefit from Sanderson’s thoughts on constructing plot, world-building, and creating interesting characters.

Photo from Pexels.com

Some of the highlights for me (in no particular order):

  • Start with your characters – If you don’t have interesting characters, then it doesn’t matter how interesting the plot is or the world you’ve built.
  • Building characters includes three pieces – Establishing empathy, establishing motivations, and showing progress toward accomplishing goals despite flaws. You can think of these three things as the likability of your character, their proactivity, and their competence. You can’t have a character that is good at all three – they have to have room to grow in one or more of the three characteristics.
  • A character’s motivations (their wants) aren’t necessarily what they need. Progress can be toward either goal. A reader will be satisfied if the character reaches either payout, as long as you’ve explained the difference between “want” and “need”.
  • Viewpoint – there are lots of options, and what you use is going to depend on how it feels with the characters you want to portray, your writing style, and the genre of book you’re writing.
  • Promise, Progress, Payoff – Start a book with a promise, spend the middle parts creating progress toward the goals with rising action, then have a satisfying way the character uses their progress to uphold their promises.
  • Introspection – Less is more, try to break it up, and make sure that progress has been made.
  • Sanderson’s Laws – Can anyone just make up their own laws? I want some of my own! These are specifically for writing fantasy or science fiction where there is some kind of “magic” involved in the setting/characters.
  • World-building/setting – This is always in service of the story, not in service of itself. Avoid info-dumps about your setting. It’s much more interesting to describe a world or setting through dialogue or action. Focusing on one or just a few specific aspects of the world in detail, and describing them well, will garner trust from your readers to graze over other aspects of your world.
  • Workshopping Advice – The most helpful feedback to solicit during workshopping is to ask your readers about their emotions. Were they confused? Were they bored? Did a certain section make them feel all gooey inside or scared to go to bed? It’s generally not helpful to get suggestions on how to change things at the workshopping point, but based on your readers’ emotions you’ll be able to see which parts of your story are working and which aren’t.

Sanderson has lots of helpful tips on crafting characters and building plot for the early stages of novel writing. He is a self-proclaimed outline writer, as opposed to a “discovery” writer, which means that he does a lot of his thinking about characters, setting, and plot arcs before he starts writing his novels. I know I’ve learned a lot and I’m excited about putting some of his suggestions into practice.

What are your favorite resources for learning how to write novels?