Swordplay and Beer Drinking; The Trouble with Mastery

My friends and I have this game called Shotgun-Shotgun. You take a can of beer, put it on a stump, shoot it with a pellet gun, then run forward and drink the beer spurting out of the can. I can tell you with confidence that I’m good at this game, and although we only play it rarely, I’m unlikely to get much better. That is because it’s really quite a simple game.

In this, it is almost exactly unlike chess. Chess, we are told, takes about ten thousand hours to master, ten thousand hours, mind you, for someone who is already pretty fucking good at chess to begin with. This ten-thousand hour rule seems to apply pretty broadly across the spectrum of complex, multivariate activities, things like basketball and the playing of the violin. To achieve a top level in any of these fields, the evidence suggests, you really need to put in about ten thousand hours of sustained, intentional study.

This is a serious problem for writers of fantasy. Or, to put it more precisely, a serious problem for the characters about whom fantasy writers tend to write.

Take, for example, the hoary old trope of the farm boy who becomes a blademaster. Let’s assume the kid has the necessary natural talent. Let’s further spot him a few hundred hours due to his ability to handle a hoe. He’s still about 9,700 hours in the hole when it comes to the mastery of Kvaaana’va, the glowing, bedragoned, unbreakable antique blade of his people.

Consider the curious case of Rand al’Thor.

SPOILERS TO FOLLOW.

As far as we know, the first time Rand’s ever held a sword is in the third or fourth chapter of The Eye of the World. And yet, by the end of the second book (The Great Hunt) he holds his own in single combat against one of the Forsaken, evidently on the strength of a few dozen lessons squeezed in between a lot of wandering, running away from Trollocs,  and playing the flute. Barely half a year has elapsed since he first holds a sword, and yet he’s capable of battling a full blademaster to a standstill. For those of you not near a calculator, half a year is about 4300 hours, and that’s all the hours in all the days.

Given Rand’s piecemeal, ad hoc practice schedule, a schedule not really suitable for a middle school scrabble club, let alone the martial training of the most important person in the world, it’s more than a little surprising that he gets so good so fast.

Of course, there’s something assholish about totaling up hours and insisting on certain tallies for certain activities. This is fiction, this is fantasy, and I’m totally willing to admit a little flex into the calculation. Rand’s case, however, involves more than a little flex. It strains credulity so violently that the whole fabric of the fantasy is in danger of tearing wide open. If this kid can master a sword in a few weeks, it would seem that anyone can do anything – which, as it turns out, is not far from the truth, given the extraordinary abilities mastered by the other characters. Keep in mind that the whole series, all fourteen books, span just two years. The final eight books cover less than twelve months.

Jordan is far from alone when it comes to this issue of implausible mastery. Part of the reason is that fantasy often doubles as a coming of age story, a fact that puts the writer in a bind. Her first choice is to compress the learning process (whether of sword or magic or bow or politics or whatever) into a preposterous time frame. The second is to dilate the space of the novel in order to accommodate the necessary training. We’ve already seen the dangers of the second approach. Expanding the time frame avoids these dangers, but runs the risk of diluting the narrative urgency.

Of course, writers have found a way to tackle this problem. Anthony Ryan, for instance, in his brilliant first novel, Blood Song, makes use of the frame story, a narrative unfolding in a compressed present, to keep his multi-year tale of training, mystery, and self-discovery from coming apart. Without the frame, Blood Song might seem rambling, unfocused. The frame, however, reminds us that the whole thing is aiming at a clear climax. It gives us a particular lens through which to understand the passage of many years. It’s a smart approach, and Ryan handles it masterfully.

Ursula K. Le Guin does something different in her Earthsea novels. Each book covers a relatively short period of time, a few weeks or months (although Wizard is longer). This gives us the intensity and focus that can be lacking in longer, more wandering narratives. The passage of time, the consolidation and mastery of Ged’s skills, takes place primarily between volumes. The years pass, Ged’s abilities grow, and yet we aren’t forced to witness every step along the path. Instead, Le Guin draws us in for the inflection points, the most crucial forks in the road.

A third approach, quite common in the genre, is to start the story with a young character whose training is mostly behind her or him, who is just at the cusp of a major breakthrough. N.K. Jemisin uses this approach quite skillfully in her beautiful, gut-punching novel The Killing Moon, where Nijiri has already mastered the bulk of his training before the book opens. This allows Jemisin to focus on the crucial final steps, the last lessons imparted from master to student (and dredged up from the depths of the student’s own being) in the story itself.

I’m sure there are other ways to handle the dual issues of training and time. I’d be curious to hear from other readers and writers on the subject. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get back to my own ten thousand hour apprenticeship. If only Lan al’Mandragoran could make me a master of writing in half a dozen quick lessons squeezed in between beer drinking and sledding.

39 thoughts on “Swordplay and Beer Drinking; The Trouble with Mastery

    • I try to avoid assholity, with various degrees of success…

      I love those Wheel of Time books, actually (at least, the first ones and the last ones), but that particular aspect always bothered me. That and the fact that the Fade doesn’t kill Rand on page 2.

  1. Great post, as usual. There is also (of course) the character-has-magic-powers-which-escalate-the-process-cop-out. Which isn’t always a cop-out, and comes with its own complications, I suppose.

    And I’m not sure how the hours would come out on this one if I dug out my calculator, but I was impressed in Brent Weeks’ The Way of Shadows by how many years and stages of Kylar’s life he covered without losing my interest. I would have to re-read to see how exactly that worked, but it worked for me…

    Also, I just have to add: If this is a problem in adult epic fantasy, it is WAY WORSE in Young Adult. Even spanning into genres like Urban Fantasy–the age constraints of the main characters can lead to some gravely implausible situations. But I’ll spare you, because that’s another story entirely. ;)

    • You’re right about Kylar, Susan. I wasn’t thinking about Weeks when writing this post, but he’s a good author to draw into the discussion.

      Also, to your point about magical powers, someone else pointed out (can’t find it now) that SPOILER ALERT

      Rand does have Lews Therin stuck inside him, which might plausibly accelerate the learning process. Similar to what you’re suggesting…

      • Exactly. Lews Therin explains a lot. And, there is discussion during the training process that Rand is using techniques for archery that his father taught him to control the tainted magic, so that suggests that his father — who was a soldier in the Trolloc wars, after all — trained him at least somewhat.

        There are other, greater implausibility issues with The Wheel that bother me a great deal more … but that may be because I’m a woman and it involves female characters.

        • Agreed. I love the Wheel of Time, but it’s a hot mess in all sorts of ways. I have great respect for Sanderson for taking that million-headed hydra and wrestling it into something resembling closure…

          • Sanderson made me a fan of his by his take on WOT. For me, it was the village girls who became masters so quickly and the Asia man leader who hadn’t gone mad after years. Maybe I’ll get that answer in the last book, which I will read this summer.

            Love your series, BTW. You cover such a wide breadth of fantasy topics. My bugaboo is inconsistencies with basic physics. If the world agrees on all things but one, that becomes a glaring issue for me. For example, a scene in a movie where people are freezing and no fog comes out of their mouths. Alaskans know cold and fog comes out of your mouth when you talk in cold weather. Seeing that, I couldn’t enjoy the rest of the story for seeing aeeing all the inconsistencies.

  2. This is making me crazy. WOT SPOILER ALERT. Someone somewhere left a comment pointing out that Rand has the spirit of Lews Therin trapped inside him, and that this could plausible accelerate the training process. I thought that was a good point, but I’ll be damned if I can find the original comment anywhere! Oh, maybe it’s over on Twitter. Or FB. That’s where I’m going next…

    • On reading your thoughts re: Rand’s accelerated learning I went into an immediate and uncontrollable defensive geekrage and scrambled down here to the comments section to make this very point. As long as you understand that you were very, very wrong I’m satisfied.

  3. For sword-work and other physical skills, it is quite necessary to show the long, long training hours, one way or another. Anthony Ryan’s technique is brilliant in keeping the excitement high while leading through the story.
    But this problem doesn’t exist for magical skills. It might be alright for an extraordinarily powerful wizard, though untrained, to be able to hold his own against the masters.

    But I’ve found it doesn’t quite work when this is applied to other skills. For example, in Blood Song, (SPOILER ALERT), its not very convincing when Vaelin crafts a statue (‘aided by his Song’), though he has no such previous experience or help.

  4. I like the ten thousand hours bit. It’s true to life, because no skill just falls from the sky. It takes a lot of effort to get good at anything. When I read an epic fantasy that fails to respect this reality, it undermines my belief in the story, and the whole secondary world collapses.

    • I completely agree. It’s an interesting technical problem for the writer. Characters who are already experts are easy to write, of course, but those who are still developing their skills… that’s where it gets tricky. Do you know Bakker’s Prince of Nothing series? The main character of those novels displays a startling degree of mastery at a young age; I’d be curious to hear what you make of them…

      • I’ve never read that series, but now I’ll check it out. I think one of the factors at work here is the length of the novel an author wants to write. A sprawling epic, gathering pace as it goes, leaves lots of room for character/skill development. A shorter novel, by necessity, is likely to have a more fully formed hero right from the beginning.

  5. It’s been a while since I read the Wheel of Time books (and I never did get around to the last few), but honest to God I never had any idea that they were all crammed into such a short period of time… Maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention, or maybe my brain just decided to time-dilate them into something a bit more believable.

    • It’s crazy, right? I didn’t realize it either, until I did a little research on the various wikis. Did you read my post just before this one — on the handling of time in fiction? I think it’s hard to believe that the WoT books cover such a short time frame because we, as readers, were following these characters for more than a decade!

  6. I’m working in a shorter time frame. The characters have spent years and years of intense training between “missions”. Personally I enjoy the “coming of age” story but it often strains my sense of disbelief. Of course right now I’m more focused on writing a first novel and figuring out how to get it published. Plus wondering if what I’m writing is worth a darn anyways. ;-)

  7. I have over 200 hand written pages, and about 25 pages typed into Word. I do the handwriting during down time at work, basically outlining where I want things to go, then edit and re-write when transferring to the computer. I’ve had a couple of friends read what I’ve got so far and they both like it and say they want more. Still I wonder if what I’m writing is any good, or just some fan-fic derivative crap?

    Many thanks for the response and interest.

    • I say keep writing until you have a whole novel. There’ll be plenty of time when it’s done for editing, second-guessing, and self-recrimination, but at least you’ll be judging and working on an entire project rather than a fragment!

  8. A reader whose simple goal is to enjoy the story, can forgive or overlook the swift process through which fantasy characters develop experience and gain mastery of their abilities. Consideration should be given to Rand Al Thor’s experience and memories gained in previous lives which had some effect on this character’s quick development. It was certainly a factor that I picked up on as a reader of WoT (last book still unread).

    • The Lews Therin/Rand al Thor connection does mitigate some of the problem. This particular issue is also more of a bugbear for some readers than others. I’m usually on your side — if I’m pulled into the story I’m not looking to nitpick stuff like this. Once I get yanked out, though, it’s really hard for me to immerse myself again…

  9. I also have issues with something else along these lines. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve read where there is some unrivaled, deadly female assassin/warrior and the author fails to give any explanation as to why she would be more deadly than your average well trained male soldier who would be much bigger, stronger and faster. Technique matters, yes, so I’ll throw a few points in for someone who has studied some remote, obscure form of fighting or something, but technique can only do so much. Make the female warrior have some cool power that gives her the edge in one on one combat, because if you don’t then the guy has a power that will always give him the edge: a lot more muscle, i.e. a lot more speed and strength. The expertly trained female warrior will never be as quick as the expertly trained male warrior, that’s just a fact. I’m not being sexist, I’m being factual, and sometimes I feel like my biggest suspension of disbelief in fantasy books comes from the things that AREN’T magical. A bowman hitting someone from 200 yards away twenty times in a row, the girl warrior with no extra powers somehow being some unstoppable force, etc. I don’t know. Food for thought.

    • Thanks for the thoughts, Garrett! I do, actually, have a few female badasses in Blades: Gwenna, Annick, Ha Lin, Daveen Shaleel, and one other I don’t want to mention because it’s something of a spoiler. While I think you’re right when it comes to comparisons of absolute strength and speed — the sort of thing that might be relevant in a boxing match, for instance, I felt good about including these women warriors because speed and strength are just two of the many, many ingredients that go into the making of a soldier. In fact, they’re arguably not the most important two ingredients by a long shot.

      I’ve written elsewhere about the fact that I compete in a sport called Adventure Racing. In a nutshell, co-ed teams spend anywhere between six hours and six days moving between checkpoints marked on a series of topographical maps. Sometimes you’re on foot, sometimes paddling, sometimes skiing, sometimes mountain biking. It’s not unusual to stay up for fifty hours at a stretch, and usually everyone on the team has at least one injury or another by the end of a long race. You have to think (to navigate and put together navigational strategy) while exhausted, dehydrated, hypothermic, or some other miserable thing. You have to carry all your shit. And you have to move fast. I’ve raced with a lot of men and women over the years, and I’ve always been struck by the parity between the genders. Men usually start out a little faster, but the first vicious climb has a way of slowing everyone down, and after about twenty hours, it seems like women have a slight advantage, at least those women I’ve raced with.

      Of course, Adventure Racing isn’t battle. You don’t have to swing a war club around for half an hour. But in order to be effective in battle, you have to be able to do all this other shit first — hump big loads long distances, keep your cool in difficult circumstances, make good decisions in bad environments, hold the team together, just generally never quit — and the women I’ve raced with have been really, really good at that. I’ve never been to war — I need to stress that fact — but if you told me I needed to pick a small team from among my acquaintances to sneak over difficult terrain in hostile territory to attack a fortified point, I can tell without a doubt that the team would include a few of my female racing partners.

      So, to you come back to your original observation, I think I’d be more inclined to share your skepticism if I were reading about a one hundred and five pound woman who fought bare-handed in an arena against men twice her size and regularly defeated them. When you’re dealing with the messy complexity of other types of warfare and battle, however, nothing about a woman warrior strikes me as at all unbelievable.

      Thoughts?

  10. You bring up some good points and I’m not saying that there aren’t some extremely athletic and capable women out there, but I think the strength, speed and size advantage that men have over women give them a significant edge in more than just boxing matches. It really gives them a huge advantage in any kind of fighting or soldiery. Bottom line is how many elite combat squads of women do you find in this world? Better yet, how many woman at all do you find on elite combat squads? None. Not a single one. There is nothing that women can do as a combat operative or warrior that men can’t do, but there is a huge list of things that men can do that women can’t. They can’t carry the gear, they can’t drag a downed fellow solider out of combat, they would get dominated by any trained male enemy in hand to hand combat, they simply can’t handle the physical demands. And in the off chance that you find one that can, there’s a guy who will do it better because he’s been getting a steady dose of natural steroids since he was 13.

    When you look at warriors fighting one on one in fantasy books just think of Ronda Rousey fighting Cain Velasquez, or Jon Jones, or Chris Weidman, or Johny Hendricks or any male UFC fighter in any weight class. She would get murdered. Hell, Ronda Rousey would even get murdered by any male UFC flyweight.

    Women could be skilled trackers or survivalists or whatever, but every time a fantasy book makes a woman out to be some renown feared fighter (without some cool power to give her the edge) it’s really hard for me to not roll my eyes. There can be women warriors, but they are not going to be feared by any elite male warrior and I don’t see why any Middle Earth version of Seal Team 6 would have a woman on it.

    • I’ll be curious to hear what you make of the Kettral, Garrett. I modeled them on modern special forces, so it is, in effect, like finding a mixed gender SEAL team in a fantasy novel. I suspect it will strike you as implausible, but I’d be interested to hear your thoughts either way!

    • Your argument would suggest that seal team 6 would be completely made up of body builder types but in fact they are looking for more rounded individuals and the physical training is more about testing mental endurance and ability to work under pressure than it is selecting the biggist gym rat. The fact is in our modern culture men are pushed from a young age to be that type of person and women are discouraged. In a fantasy universe, a women growing up on a isolated farmsteads might be encouraged to be mentally and physically tough. I’m not saying that in our world there aren’t parents out there who push their girls to be tough, but if your going to take the SEALS as an example they are a elite group of men from millions of individuals. Yes there might be a few 1000s women out there who have been pushed from a young age to be aggressive athletic warriors, but they have to compete with the millions of males out there, all of whom from day one have been told by their culture that the warrior is the ultimate profession for the young male. In a fantasy universe this might no be the case, I’m not saying that the physical differences would be irrelevant, but I’m saying that you are ignoring the mental differences that our more to do with culture than genetics.

      Also in a fantasy universe there is no reason why the physical differences between women and men might be less pronounced. Sure the writer probably describes the female char as having a womanly body, so she cant be quite as strong, but other differences like strength of bones and endurance might be less pronounced.

      Your idea that the biggest strongest man as the ultimate warrior would seem to be contradicted by history. Take the romans for example, they where generally shorter and weaker than Celts. This forced them to adapt their fighting style and utilize team tactics to overcome this. Meanwhile the Celts continued to utilize their strength in battle and used the same tactics they had always used. In the end the romans became much more effective warriors because of their disadvantage in height and strength. The deciding factor was their ability to out think the enemy.
      I dont see why this should not be applied to an individual basis. A skinny short man might be brought up in a warrior society would not bother trying to use the tactics of the bigger stronger men but would utilize his own tactics specifically designed to counter the advantages of the stronger men. Because the skinny man is in the minority the other men would not concentrate on tactics to defeat him. the skinny man would however of trained all his life to win the asymmetric fight that the stronger men are not prepared for.

      This to me seems an obvious tactic for a women to take. She might have a further advantage due to the fact that she will inevitably be underestimated by her opponents. This seems to be reflected on most fantasy where female characters utilize unusual weaponry.

      Your MFC fights should not be relied apon too heavily as in real fights the winner is decided by the application of deadly force not a choke hold. This is normaly dilvered by sword or arrow which rely on penetrating power not brute force. the deciding factor will be precision and speed not strength. Physical strength will have a role to play but it is not the deciding one. look a military history book for any battle. I guarantee you the historians will not be too interested in the physiological differences between the two sides.

      Another reason not to bother too much with sports analogies is that sports are highly refined completion. The competitors most likely know all the tactics and how to counter them. A game of football by and large uses the same rules and pitch every single time. All the moves and tactics have been attempted countless times. The players are relentlessly drilled to respond to all the possible events. In this situation the one deciding factor is physical ability as it is the one thing that separates the two things.

      War is nothing like this. Tactics are based upon experiences from the last war, but the methods of war evolve constantly. Going into a war you have only the vaguest idea of what to expect. Take ww1 for example, they had know idea that it would devolve into trench warfare, in fact they expected it to be more like the battles of Napoleonic times. In this situation the deciding factor is your ability to react and adapt in the chaos of war.

      This holds equally true for one on one combat. You can practice all you want but you might only get one go at the real thing and it will be very different from practice. In practice you may have learned to be aggressive, but in battle your fear will hold you back. In battle you will be pumped with adrenaline this will make you faster but make it harder to make decisions. In this chaos it will be the mental that makes the difference not the physical.
      Saying that men can have all the advantages of women and none of the advantages is not the point. no one warrior is the physical embodiment off all positive characteristics. They are some unique balance of all. Sure men have an advantage in that their strength tips them one way, but that does not preclude the possibility that there will be some women who can make up for their weakness’ in other ways. The number of elite warriors that are women would depend on how much of an advantage strength is and so how much it puts a weight on men vs women, it is not binary it does not preclude women from being warriors unless you think it is the only advantage.
      Ask your self a question, do you annoyed when a male character is described as skinny but lithe and fast, and able to out wit stronger opponents? if not maybe you just don’t like warrior women.

  11. I think there’s also a “Two Rivers” factor… Throughout the books it is made clear that people from the Two Rivers are more ethical and capable than most… So, I don’t know, maybe Rand had some hours of practice on something different that made him good with the sword? Yeah, it’s also a cop-out, but at least makes more sense in-universe.

    Also, Rand seems to have some innate ability (which is why the Queen’s guard says the sword seems to belong to him) and he’s also a Ta’veren.

    At least, while reading the series, that’s how I thought about it. Still a stretch, though.

    • You’re absolutely right, Hector. Jordan built in enough possible explanations that Rand’s skill can be explained (if you’re so inclined) in a few different ways. I’m often jealous of the notion of Ta’varen, which smooths the path for so many plot implausibilities!

  12. I wish more books dealt with it with time skips. I feel like a lot of writers these days have had the whole ‘show don’t tell’ bludgeoned into them and now think they have to go over every little bit when they CAN and SHOULD summarise boring parts in one paragraph.

    I also think it can create a bit of excitement/mystery when the author just skips forward two years and throws you into the middle of things. How did character A get into this bizarre, exciting situation? You keep reading because a) they’re in an exciting situation, not travelling around sampling cuisine and b) you want to find out how they got there and what has happened to the other characters you care about in the intervening time.

    IIRC George R R Martin was going to skip forward a few years but decided not to. He really should have, Dance with Dragons was boring, eg. tyrion’s chapters were boring travelogues, I don’t give a toss about Dany’s problems in Esseros, just invade already (YMMV of course) and skipping forward would have reduced the skeeviness w/ Arya and Sansa.

    • It can go either way for me. I like a good tale of exploration and struggle. The Odyssey would be a lot shorter if we just skipped past all the wandering, and I wouldn’t want it to be shorter. On the other hand, I agree with you completely about the Tyrion chapters in DwD — they felt totally aimless to me.

  13. Rothfuss, Jim Butcher (Dresden files), Scott Lynch (Gentlemen Bastards), and Stover’s Caine series all do a good job of developing bad-ass-ery in believable ways, primarily through flashbacks.

    • Of those listed, I think Lynch does a particularly good job with this. Locke Lamora is one of my favorite fantasy characters, in large part because of his flaws.

      • Locke Lamora is such an amazing character namely because he doesn’t have any mythical fighting skills. He’s not an expert swordsman, or skilled martial artist. He’s a schemer and false facer. Lynch did an amazing job of showing all the training that the various members of the Gentlemen Bastards went through over years to gain the skills they have. Especially with Jean Tannen and his Wicked Sisters. He got the years of training and it was in a style that both suited him and is the most effective way to deal with the situations he and Locke end up in.

        Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera is another favorite that I think did a reasonably solid job of progressing Tavi from a young shepard to everything he eventually becomes. He made solid use of the “fastforward effect” between novels giving the main characters time to learn, grow, and improve without me as the reader having to sit through every training session, bruised ego, and elaborate explanation. The training sessions you do sit through are just enough to show you what most/all of the previous and future trainings entail.

        • These are great examples. I’m a huge fan of both series, too. The fast-forward effect between novels is an interesting technical opportunity and challenge, as I’m discovering at the moment. It allows you to stay right in the center of the action at all times, but it creates some interesting problems of exposition. I’m enjoying working through those right now, as I work my way well into my third book…

  14. The way my mental math rationalized Rand Al’Thor’s skill with a sword: Rand is Lews Therin Telamon reborn… And Lews Therin was a blademaster… So basically, Rand wasn’t starting from scratch, he was remembering, or relearning, his previous abilities. One could argue that Lews Therin did all the training he needed to get to blademaster, all outside the scope of the main series.

    • Hi Roxana —

      I think that’s the best way around the problem, and it’s not at all implausible. Jordan basically does the same thing with Mat and Perrin, too — they each have access, NOT TO DELVE TOO DEEPLY INTO SPOILERS HERE, to minds beyond their own, minds that can essentially download massive amounts of information really fast. It works, I think, from a plotting perspective, but I find it a little less satisfying on the level of character. On the other hand, there IS something awesome about having the instincts of the most powerful Aes Sedai ever built into your brain!

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