Every once in a while, I like to go back to older stories. As the genres change with the passing of time, always in pursuit of originality while fleeing the cliche, it’s important to remember the history of the genre itself, whatever that genre might be. That is, in large part, why I returned to The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. It was an epic saga, the first book of which was published in early 1990, and the last book of which was published in early 2013, written by Brandon Sanderson after Robert Jordan himself passed away in 2007.
It’s important for me to address early on that The Wheel of Time was written as an Adult series. One of the biggest differences I’ve noticed between YA and Adult novels is the focus of development. Young Adult authors tend to spend most of their time developing their characters, with plot coming in second (the better the author, the smaller the gap), and world-building almost always coming in at a distant last. Books targeted to an older generation allow themselves a lot more wiggle room when it comes to world-building. They don’t worry about deep PoV. Instead, you’ll find a richness in setting and a (general) carefulness with the plot that lends credence to the characters.
That said, I wanted to discuss a particular element that has caught my attention in The Eye of the World, the first book of The Wheel of Time series: history. Based on my own reading experience, the inclusion of history is an element that can really help make the setting lifelike. It puts the current story into perspective of continuous change. In the fantasy genre, it also opens up avenues of curiosity and wonder, as past heroes are often romanticized. In A Song of Ice and Fire, another series that targets an adult audience, we’re given snippets of history regarding the Children of the Forest and the Long Night, all of which span thousands and thousands of years and put the current narrative into perspective. Lord of the Rings is the same way, suggesting and telling old stories within the main narrative so that readers can place the events of the now.
Robert Jordan quickly settles in with the same trend. Even the small village of the Two Rivers has ancient history, as Moraine Sedai shares even before the main characters depart from their home to evade the great evil force known as the Dark One. Similarly, events such as the Breaking of the World and heroes such as Artur Hawkwing are mentioned frequently throughout the narrative, indicating the presence of time in the overall narrative.
History is a tricky beast, however. In real life, big events take place with little to no connection with one another, not in the sense that you’d find within a narrative. The novel’s history requires focus on the narrative itself. Ideally, what should eventually become apparent, if it is not immediately so, is that the events mentioned within the narrative are actually part of the same conflict that the protagonists are trying to defeat now. Lord of the Rings ends with the defeat of Sauron, the great darkness that threatens to devour all that is good in the world. A Song of Ice and Fire, while unfinished, will likely end with the defeat of the White Walkers and the army of the undead, the great force that again threatens to devour all that is good in the world. The same goes for The Wheel of Time series and the Dark One threatening to break free.
Essentially, the whole point of history within a narrative is not to simply show that interesting things have happened before and are happening again. Instead, it should essentially be used in a way that presents vital information to the readers about the set-up of the current conflict, without having to delve completely into the narrative. History as a narrative element should be used for brevity, so that you don’t have to write an entire separate history book like Tolkien did with the Silmarillion. If, as an author, you include interesting snippets of history just for the fun of it, you risk alienating the readers, who might wonder why you wrote about the current hero instead spend of the historic one. Don’t let the intrigue of past events eclipse the current narrative you’re writing.
In contrast, while YA novels tend to be less thorough in their world-building, one thing the most applauded novels have in common is the stakes. They are not slow burners by any means, perhaps in large part because they do not get swept away in their own lore and other world-building aspects. When developing the setting, it’s difficult to know how much of it is relevant and how much of it is unnecessary information, and Adult novels can get bogged down by too much focus on irrelevant details. By including key elements of history, contemporary books could theoretically add another layer of realism to their own world that made stories like Wheel of Time and Lord of the Rings so interesting, without sacrificing the fast pace that can generally be found in YA novels.