WIRED Book Club just wrapped up their readthrough of The Name of the Wind and to cap off their introduction into The Kingkiller Chronicles, they have interviewed author Patrick Rothfuss about his writing process, magic systems, and why he considers his first draft such a “hot mess.”
Perhaps the most inspiring bit for writers is Rothfuss’ admission that it took 15 years to shape his first novel from an initial draft into the addictive magical romp we love. A lot of personal growth and work went into crafting The Name of the Wind.
When discussing the first draft of The Name of the Wind, Rothfuss explained to WIRED that “Science has no scale to measure the hotness of that mess.” His ideal going into the book was to create “something a little new and a little different. But at the same time, I wanted it to be familiar and warm and exciting in nostalgic ways.” This was already a challenging balance to strike, and as he finished the first draft he realized that striving for that balance produced a story that seemed disconnected from itself.
I had no idea what I was doing in terms of structuring a story. I put words together fine. I could write dialog and scene. I could even make an interesting chapter. But a book is so much more than a series of interesting chapters. And that’s what it took me a fucking decade to figure out.
These early struggles of learning to inject more tension into the book “made [Rothfuss’] life a hell for 15 years.” As he worked he also had to learn to write beyond his own experience. WIRED asked him about writing the character of Denna in particular:
The truth is, Denna has always been the hardest character to bring into this book. Part of that is because I started writing it in ’94 when I was, like, a 20-year-old straight white boy. To say that I didn’t understand women is a vast understatement—and also implies that I understand what it’s like to exist as a woman now, which is also not the case. The other part is that, narratively, she’s the one thing that Kvothe can’t opine on in an objective way. It’s so hard. I’ve made mistakes all over, but if I have a genuine failure in this book, it’s my lack of ability to do with Denna as much as I wish I could have.
Rothfuss also notes that The Name of the Wind underwent such a radical reworking over the course of those 15 years that main story threads vital to the novel, such as Auri, Devi, and the mystery of the school archives, were barely present in the initial draft. “There was no Devi in the early books. There was so much that wasn’t in those initial drafts, simply because I had no idea what I was doing in terms of structuring a story.”
Experienced fantasy readers may be surprised to learn that while the story constantly shifted and morphed, the sympathetic magic system in Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles has remained stable thanks to its scientific underpinnings:
It’s hard to get more scientific [than sympathy]. I literally have the math for a lot of these things. I have run the numbers about how much heat it takes for this and that, and accounting for slippage, or whatever. I can look at my chalkboard here and see all of the delta calculations for how much energy it takes to boil gold. So I do the math…Once I explain that framework to you, if my characters are clever using the framework, then you can appreciate their cleverness at a different depth, and it’s very satisfying. You cannot get that same satisfaction in a world that does not have a cohesive, understandable, and explicit system.
The secondary magic system in the series, Naming, is a bit more… hand wavy, but Rothfuss has put just as much consideration into it as he has for sympathy:
Well, for one, it’s super hard to actually do the math and have a cohesive system that actually bears up under the scrutiny of intelligent readers. Two, you miss one of the other things that magic has to offer in a story, and that is a sense of delight and wonder. Sympathy is many things, but it’s usually not wondrous. You never get true shock and amazement. So I wanted both. I wanted my cake and to eat it, too. On the other end of the spectrum is magic the art of which cannot be explained.
Finally, WIRED asked my favorite question: who makes it into the coveted Author’s Favorite Character spot?
Auri will always be very close to my heart. Elodin is also a treat. But it does change, and sometimes a character I really start out liking gets on my nerves—because it’s hard to keep writing them, and then they piss me off and I end up liking them less. In some ways, it’s harder to like Kvothe, both as a writer and, I suspect, as a reader. It’s way easier to be infatuated with somebody than to be in a long-term relationship with them.
In addition to specific answers about his books, Rothfuss also had a more free-ranging discussion of how his life as a writer differs from the mythology of what it is to be a writer. He emphasizes the hard work it takes, and talks about bad habits and laziness that people can fall into as they’re starting out. It’s especially interesting to hear his take on slowly drafting an epic story. Rather than dwelling on his initial inspiration, or talking about writing workshops, Rothfuss gives the sense that he simply wrote and wrote and re-wrote, painstakingly learning his craft with each new draft.
Because Rothfuss was willing to take the time to dig in and retool these drafts, he was able to create a great work of fantasy. You can (and should) read the whole interview over at WIRED – there’s a treasure trove of fun facts for Rothfuss fans, and some great advice for writers.