When diversity in fantasy becomes a wealth: from an interview with Brandon Sanderson

The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon - The Way of Kings

WARNING: in this article there are some minor spoilers on oathbringer

Brandon Sanderson needs few introductions, as one of the most prolific and famous fantasy authors the past ten years, climbing the charts of the New York Times. Sanderson then received the task of continuing the saga de The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan. Of the latter, then, is about to leave a new posthumous book!

One man, a thousand characters

Generally, when we talk about this author, we focus on the care of his worldbuilding, on his complex systems of magic and on the quality of his characters. In addition to how quickly he can write his books, of course. But it is difficult to dwell on it how much Sanderson explores the human soul. Because it does, and how it does! And it is also one of the best qualities of his books, in my opinion, since he shows off a commitment equal to that dedicated to the creation of his worlds.

Now, even just reading his works, it is clear how Brandon Sanderson loves to experiment not only with ever new magic systems, but also with a great variety of characters. These differ greatly from each other both in background and in personality. But let's not forget the remarkable diversity of genres, physical aspects and social backgrounds they exhibit.

I will not list them one by one, because I know that readers will know them even better than I do. But I would like to point out that this is a not quite common way of doing, in western fantasy like Terry Brooks or Licia Troisi that we are (perhaps) used to reading. In fact, in these works the protagonists of the various sagas are often nothing more than the copy-paste of each other - with small modifications, otherwise the teacher will notice!

Brandon Sanderson giving a speech at the Provo City Library - Image by Gene Nelson
Brandon Sanderson giving a talk at the Provo City Library - Image by Gene Nelson

A heterogeneous cast to put yourself in the shoes of others: Brandon Sanderson's strategy

The really interesting thing, however, is that the human crowd that inhabits the Cosmoverso is not made of patchy specks, made only to stamp the tag of the diversified cast or to introduce pink quotas, but it shows off a cast whose diversity is the result of study and research. It would have been easy for a Mormon like Sanderson to cling to a very partial view of people, stuffing their books with atheists without morals and religious always heroes of the situation, or with an Almighty God about whose existence no one has doubts. But the danger has been avoided. One would wonder how, and why.

In an interview a Deseret News, Sanderson tells of how the writing profession pushed him to understand how different people see the world, trying to put themselves in someone else's shoes to investigate the reasons for their faith (or their lack of faith). One of the reasons? The fact that Sanderson himself often found himself reading stories in which the only strongly believing character - and evidently sketched as a Mormon - was an idiotic speck. Given how much these stereotypes irritated him, it is better to avoid repeating them on someone else.

And the only way to avoid the stereotype is to get to know other people's ideas. It is to understand them even where you do not agree, just to be able to re-propose them in that specific character. Thus, some will be able to meet again with honesty and without feeling ridiculed, while others will be able to confront each other critically and seriously, putting themselves in his shoes in a way that normal discussions do not make possible.

However, one should not think of writing to impose one's morality on readers. According to Brandon Sanderson, in fact, the real question is never "what is the moral of this story?". Much more interesting is to reflect on the meaning of "human being".

Oathbringer is a prime example of this approach - Cover by Michael Whelan
oathbringer is a prime example of this approach - Cover by Michael Whelan

Finding information and asking those directly concerned is always a good and right thing!

In this sense, Brandon Sanderson explains the importance of confront with people belonging to realities other than their ownespecially when trying to bring those realities into your books. It is very difficult to talk about how homosexual or transgender people live when one is neither. But asking your gay and / or transgender friends can help a lot and allows minorities to be told truthfully. We talked about it, about trans people, in this article!

Similarly, Sanderson turned to third parties to accurately describe all the characters with life experiences other than his own. Teft's drug addiction, for example, mirrors that of a fan, a heroin addict at the time, whom the author interviewed and who was asked to review some chapters of Oath, the third volume of Stormlight Archive. Let's not even talk about the help Sanderson must have asked to describe Shallan's drunkenness in that book! In fact, on the admission of the same author, the first draft of the scene was bad.

Also because to the family problems Vin gives a clean cut - Fanart of endoftheline
Also because Vin gives a clean break to family problems - Fanart di endoftheline

Brandon Sanderson is a universal fantasy

It is a way of writing, that of Sanderson, which aims to be universal. He wants to speak to the widest possible audience, not lowering the fantasy within everyone's reach, but bringing it closer to everyone's sensitivity, bringing you the diversity of the real world. Because the real enriches the fantastic much more than is often led to believe, but as many of the best fantasy authors know well.

As is well underlined in the interview, focusing on representing these realities well does not mean writing a book that sees them as protagonists. Indeed, Stormlight Archive it's not a fantasy series about depression as much as Mistborn it does not revolve around difficult parenting relationships. And yet, if we want to see fantasy as part of that art that reflects reality to say something interesting about it, to make us reflect by proposing a new point of view, we cannot ignore representing reality in all its variety. Also because we would miss a lot of inspiration. We have seen how a stereotyped view of many cultures does harm, with Sullivan e J. K. Rowling.

After all, it was Terry Pratchett which said "I use a lot of the fantastic, but I also use reality a lot and, in fact, every time Bilbo Baggins gulps down beer, Tolkien also uses a lot of reality".

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Cover image: The Thrill by Pines