Tag Archives: Way of Kings

The Power of Pain

A guest post by Joshua David Bennett.

Way of KingsKaladin Stormblessed, hero of Brandon Sanderson’s thousand page monster Way of Kings, is one of my most deeply satisfying character reads in recent years – because of his response to pain.

We first meet Kaladin in chains – enslaved and bound via wooden cart for the far reaches of the world. Sanderson piles the suffering on in subsequent pages, littering Kaladin’s past and present with indignity upon indignity.   His family is cheated by the same community they work so hard to heal.  His thirteen year old brother Tien is killed in a senseless battle before Kaladin’s own eyes.  His comrades and friends are slaughtered.  He is betrayed, falsely accused, branded and enslaved.  He is forced to serve as a meatshield, cheap and expendable fodder in a protracted war that exists solely to line the pockets of the rich.

Catalyst of growth
Part of what makes Kaladin so engaging is that each wound serves to further draw out his strengths as a leader. When Tien is unfairly conscripted, Kaladin goes to war to keep his brother safe.  When Kaladin is enslaved, he includes others in his escape attempts, even though doing so dooms him to recapture.  When he is forced, unarmored and unarmed, to carry a bridge toward a line of enemy archers, Kaladin draws their fire to himself to save others.  When the other bridgemen curse him, he binds their wounds.


Stormblessed - Kaladin and the Stormfather. Image by Kelley Karris. Used with permission.





It is this pattern of acting with honor that draws a spirit named Syl, who awakens within Kaladin his own power to control the very forces of nature. At his lowest point, Kaladin is stripped and exposed to the oncoming wall of a highstorm – magical tempests that make Earth’s hurricanes look tame.  In the storm, Kaladin has an encounter with the divine and is called to refound an ancient order of knights who protected mankind.

Origin of fatal flaws
And yet, the same wounds that spur his growth also cause his greatest failings. Betrayal at the hands of the highborn “Lighteyed” caste causes Kaladin hatred of nobility.   He is rash, impulsive, and plagued by his own poor decision making.  Like Edmond Dantès, Kaladin thinks he is pursuing justice, but what he really wants is punishment – to hurt those who have hurt him.  And like Dantès, his quest for revenge jeopardizes every positive relationship in his life and threatens to nullify all of his sacrificial acts.


Kaladin by Craig Paton.  Used with permission.


After building an unlikely friendship with a general who is noble not only in title but also in action, Kaladin throws away everything he has built, choosing a monumentally poor moment to challenge the man who betrayed him. His actions land him in prison and endanger his friends as well as his new powers.  Syl, the spirit who was attracted to Kaladin when he acted with honor, is repelled when Kaladin acts with hatred.



Life IS pain, anyone who says different is selling bland fiction
Suffering and loss are fantastic tools to kick off a character’s arc. Trauma is the inciting incident in many stories, sustaining Edmond Dantès in prison with thoughts of revenge, launching young Bruce Wayne’s unconventional career in crime fighting, and prompting Luke Skywalker to follow a crazy hermit off planet.

However, pain should not only impact a character’s origin. Consider Batman.  The murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents is not only a critical starting point, it is also an ongoing source of inspiration and struggle.  Despite his great physical strength and massive fortune, Batman still struggles with the passions of fear and anger that were created that night in a Gotham alley.  Contrast Luke Skywalker.  Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru’s smoking corpses are seemingly forgotten the moment Luke hops behind the controls of an X-Wing for the first time.

This is not to say that our characters ought to mope. Characters are sympathetic when they overcome pain, not when they wallow in it.  As Orson Scott Card says, “if your characters have good reason to cry and don’t, your readers will do the weeping.”  And even better if the characters emerge with both wisdom and scars, overcoming in both healthy and unhealthy ways.

Avoiding a world of orphans
I’ve been a gamemaster for Star Wars and Pathfinder role playing games for years, and I have yet to see one happy origin story. The Galactic Empire has seemingly carried out a systematic campaign to orphan every youngling before the age of ten, sometimes even murdering the family nerf just to rub salt in the wound.  In a game, this is rarely a problem beyond the first session – once the shooting begins, the power is in the group’s shared experience rather than the story on the character sheet.

In our fiction however, even having two or three main characters with traumatic childhoods might come across as farce. Fortunately, pain comes in many forms and it need not all be at the hands of villains.  Characters can be victims of circumstance, nature, or their own past failures, as is the case with Tony Stark or Jack Bauer.

If you do choose to incorporate suffering into a character’s backstory, how do you avoid infodump or yanking your reader out with overblown flashbacks? Thankfully, Fictorians has covered the topic, as have multiple episodes of the Writing Excuses podcast.

Now get out there. Ruthlessly put your characters through maximum pain and (mostly) bring them out the other side, stronger and more interesting for the experience.


Josh Bennett

Author Joshua David Bennett is a scotch lover, history enthusiast, graphic artist, and world traveler. His first novel, Seacaster, is a Caribbean-Aztec fantasy that tells the story of a young man at war with the magic coursing through his veins. Joshua lives in Colorado with his wife and son.

Multidimensional Conflict

5707821514_23b89e4164_bI used to confuse conflict with action. In film, we decipher conflict from dialogue and character’s actions and reactions. In writing we have the added dimension of thought. We can introduce the reader to conflicts through our characters in an intimate way.

We spent a month discussing how to develop characters and it may be beneficial to review those posts. In order to have good conflict we must start with great characters.

When developing a plot I place my characters together wondering how they will interact, asking myself if they’ll fall in love or want to kill each other and everything in between.

Then I start to develop these interactions into a story.

As readers we desire conflict, because we crave the resolution. We want to feel that relief. The greater the conflict the greater the potential resolution.

Some ways to deepen the conflict is to harvest the POV character’s minds, telling their tale of woe and enlisting the reader to the cause.

Add another dimension to that conflict by blowing the reader’s mind when you reveal the antagonist’s motives for his/her actions.

Warning the following might contain some spoilers, though I’ve tried to leave them vague enough.

For example, in Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings, Szeth (Picture courtesy of Flickr) is a bit of a hit man and the book opens showing him as the tyrant of the story. As we get to know Szeth more we understand that he is deeply torn between his actions and his religion.

Side note, Religion is a great tool in developing conflict because it can cause characters to do things that otherwise would seem wrong.

Back to Szeth. As a reader I care for Szeth even though he is committing heinous acts. I fear for what he might do and fear for what might be done to him. I suspect in the next book there is a battle between Cal and Szeth, two characters that I adore and wish the best for and would love to see succeed, but they are on a crash course and I am fearing the worst. That’s great conflict.

In Dan Wells book, I am Not a Serial Killer, the protagonist is very likable, even though he admittedly would like to do some terrible things. Likewise the Antagonist does horrific things and yet his motivation is sweet and kind. It makes me hate and love both characters at the same time and makes for some incredible conflict seeing it from the antagonist POV and longing to understand more the antagonist’s motives because the character is so unique.


koon_9780345533456_cvr_all_r1.inddIn Tick Tock by Dean Koontz, all of the conflict arises from the relationships of the characters. The conflict by itself, the plot of the story would be pretty haunting and neat, but adding in the relationship the protagonist has with his mother and a woman he only just met, adds dimension upon dimension to the conflict. Additionally, the reader discovers more about the characters as the story progresses creating new layers to the conflict.

Here’s a short example from film—Star Wars, episode IV. Pay attention to how the conflict arises out of the interaction of characters and advances the story along.

Conflict from Luke wanting to leave but Uncle and Aunt won’t let him. We later find out that one of their motivations was to protect Luke from Darth Vader.

Conflict arises from Droids. Luke and Uncle debate what to do with the droids. Droids try and run away. The empire is looking for the droids. Each of these is on a different vector, travelling in different directions, but all collide at the family farm and then Uncle and Aunt are killed.

Their deaths facilitate Luke’s deciding event. The Droids lead Luke to his mentor Obi Wan and the protagonist is whisked away on a great adventure to save the galaxy.

So in summary, develop your characters first and then ask how they interact with each other. What crazy situations may arise as their different motivations and directions collide? Then go deeper. Add more layers and more dimensions to those conflicts by further showing motivations and developing reader empathy for both sides of the conflict.


jace 1I live in Arizona with my family, wife and five kids and a little dog. I write fiction, thrillers and soft sci-fi with a little short horror on the side. I’ve got an MBA and work in finance for a biotechnology firm.

I volunteer with the Boy Scouts, play and write music, and enjoy everything outdoors. I’m also a novice photographer.

You can visit my author website at www.jacekillan.com, and you can read some of my works by visiting my Wattpad page.