The Inheritance Trilogy That Could’ve Been*


A trilogy is a set of three works of art that are connected, and that can be seen either as a single work or as three individual works.

Per Wikipedia, page last modified 23 October 2010 at 11:14.

I note this because I’ve gotten some questions lately about my choice to make the Inheritance Trilogy three individual stories as opposed to the usual epic fantasy trilogy structure of a single story stretched over three books.

First, a clarification: the Inheritance Trilogy is a single story. It’s just not the single story of any human character.

Spoilers love you very much, plus long post is long:

I’ve mentioned before in interviews that I chose to pattern this trilogy after the structure of old-school epics — and by old school I don’t mean Tolkien, but Homer, and whoever first told/jotted down the sagas of Gilgamesh, Beowulf, and so on. Most of those old epics consisted of multiple complete/separate stories, each focusing on a different episode in the hero or god’s life, and usually showing how the hero’s actions impact random people and places in various ways. But even in these old epics, there was usually a particular endpoint that the story was aiming for. Anybody who read the early tales about Achilles knew somebody was going to go for the heel eventually. (Homer Does Chekhov: if there’s a vulnerable body part on the mantle in act 1, it’s inevitably going to be stabbed in act 3.) Gilgamesh and Enkidu were always headed toward a sad end, regardless of how many monster butts they kicked or goddesses they annoyed, because they were both mortal and would someday die. Even in the sagas of the immortal gods, there’s usually some endgame predicted, even if it hasn’t yet come about — Ragnarok, for example. Cheery stuff like that.

Modern epic fantasies kind of shortcut all this — and lighten things up — by selecting a particular endpoint somewhere before the gloom of inevitable death (but after lots of exciting brushes with death), and sending the protagonist(s) toward it at a steady clip. It’s not always the same protag(s), granted, and the selected ending isn’t always a happy one… but modern times being what they are, books that do have the same protag(s) and happy endings tend to do better commercially. (The happy ending thing may be a particularly American addition to the modern English-language fantasy zeitgeist; us ‘Murcans does love our happy endings. The Brits seem a little more willing to go for the Rocks Fall, Everybody Dies endgame — but even there, it’s rare.)

There is a single set of protagonists in the Inheritance Trilogy: the gods. The mortals are protagonists too, note; it’s just that their protagoning (no, that’s not a real word) is limited to the local, immediate events that involve them specifically. The gods’ protag’ing is a little more, hmm, big-picture. But like the mortals, they have a rather obvious endpoint: the (possible) reunification of the Three, and by metaphysical extension the stabilization of reality. This reunification/stabilization could take many forms, though. We’ve already seen that individual members of the Three can be killed and replaced without causing the end of existence. We’ve also been told that there were other states of existence before the present one — Enefa’s early experiments with life, for example, which she apparently wiped out and started over from scratch more than once. From the gods’ perspective, it’s not a huge deal to reboot the cosmos. It is a big deal to reboot themselves, as with Nahadoth’s and Itempas’ respective dips into madness and back. And it’s a whopping huge deal if something transforms the whole concept of three gods — e.g., if one of the Three dies, or if the Maelstrom births a new god. Speaking of the Maelstrom, there’s really no knowing when or if It might develop a taste for a bit of the old Ragnarok, Itself. Unknowable entities do stuff like that, y’know.

It’s tough to make these kinds of events engaging by focusing on the gods’ perspectives, though — that perspective is just too remote from the everyday human experience. Which is of course why I’ve avoided that perspective thus far, even though the trilogy is ultimately focused on their actions. Orson Scott Card, in his excellent Characters & Viewpoint, notes that viewpoint characters are not always protagonists; the former are the eyes the reader sees through, but it is the latter whose actions drive the story. In the case of the Inheritance Trilogy, I decided that I wanted four specific story arcs: the three micro, or per-book, arcs; and the overarching story that covers the whole trilogy. The viewpoint character of each book is the protagonist of its microarc. But it is the gods who are the protagonists of the whole trilogy.

Aside from a brief dip into Nahadoth’s thoughts in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms — page 201 in the US trade paperback, if you missed it — and the last chapter of that book, every event we’ve seen has been filtered through the perspective not of the gods, but of the mortals most affected by the gods’ shenanigans. This changes in book 3, though; as many of you now know, The Kingdom of Gods will have Sieh as a viewpoint character and protagonist. Being a god himself, his story will be important on both a micro and macro level. (…Which is why book 3 was so damned hard to write. But that’s another story for another time.)

All this said, I could have made the Inheritance Trilogy a more traditional modern epic, if I’d wanted. All it would’ve taken was scaling down. That is, I could have focused solely on Yeine and the events of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, but stretched those out over three books. This of course would’ve required the addition of subplots, more characters, and so on. Yeine would’ve had to face a series of stepped challenges along the way to the Arameri succession ceremony — one subclimax in books 1 and 2, followed by an uberclimax at the end of the third.

So in book 1 of this hypothetical trilogy, the challenge would’ve been to save Darr. Yeine could’ve struggled to raise enough capital to hire her own mercenaries, or maybe she would’ve only had time to scrape together the usual Five Man Band to parachute into Menchey and kill Minister Gemd. Then in book 2, The Empire I mean Scimina Strikes Back, Yeine would’ve suffered some massive setback. Let’s say Scimina unleashes the Walking Death on High North and forbids the Enefadeh to cure it. Yeine would’ve sought help from the scriveners’ college, then maybe bribed or blackmailed Viraine into giving her the cure — thus leading to Horrifying Revelations about her mother, Viraine, her soul, and so on. I probably would’ve ended the second book on a melancholy note, since that seems to work well in these kinds of trilogies. Maybe kill off T’vril, maybe leave Darr an uninhabitable wasteland with only a handful of Darre surviving in secret somewhere; something like that. It’s important to establish the stakes around the midpoint of that kind of trilogy, so readers will know that the protagonist faces real jeopardy.

Then in book 3, Yeine would have to face The Dark Lord Bright Itempas, which pretty much would’ve brought us back to the existing plot of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms: Yeine would agree to the Enefadeh’s plan to use Enefa’s soul and the Stone of Earth to set them free, but things would go Horribly Wrong before the plan’s implementation. I’d have added a subplot about Yeine obtaining some demons’ blood in hopes of threatening Itempas — since we’ve seen as of The Broken Kingdoms that there are still demons in the world. But that would’ve been a red herring, in much the same way that the battle at the gates of Mordor in The Return of the King was a red herring for the real climax — Frodo and Sam reaching Mount Doom — of that trilogy. (I think Gandalf himself describes the battle as a diversion.) The real climax in this case would be not killing Itempas, which would be kind of a pyrrhic victory, but freeing Nahadoth, since he can at least balance Itempas. Naha’s freedom means there’s the potential for some sort of stability/stalemate to be achieved, though there’s the significant danger of their battle trashing the mortal realm in the process. But without Enefa, tenuous stability is as good as it gets.

So events would proceed to the succession ceremony in much the same way as they did in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, but — big difference here — Yeine would not be the one to use the Stone.

See, this trilogy would not, could not, be centered on the gods. There’s no way to achieve the gods’ endgame — the reconciliation of the Three — on a human timescale, and certainly not within the two-week timescale of the first book. (If I expanded 100K into three books, I would lengthen this timeline, but not by much. Couple of years, tops.) Even if Yeine becomes a new Enefa in this scenario, Nahadoth would still loathe Itempas, and Itempas would still be a complete wackjob. At best I could end this with Itempas sentenced to humanity on the off-chance that he might heal, but the series would end before this could be confirmed — and given Itempas’ stubborn resistance to change, readers would be left with the distinct possibility that Itempas would never get better. If Yeine becomes a goddess at the end of the trilogy rather than at its beginning, there’s no way for the gods to achieve closure.

And under these circumstances, killing Yeine would be equally lacking in closure. For the heroine and viewpoint character to die at the big climax would mean a singularly unsatisfying ending. So as an alternative, someone else would have to set Nahadoth free, and die in the process. That person would have to be one of Enefa’s children and have possession of Enefa’s soul, and the character would have to hold major importance in the eyes of the readers, for best dramatic effect. No sense in offing Dekarta, the twins, or some redshirt. I would’ve had to kill Sieh.

Here’s how I envision it: Viraine goes to stab Yeine, and Nahadoth or Sieh — having figured out that Kurue betrayed them — stops him before this can happen. As in the existing version, Viraine becomes Itempas, Sieh and Zhakkarn jump Kurue, the twins attack each other, and the succession ceremony rapidly descends into chaos. Nahadoth and Itempas start fighting, though it’s pointless because Nahadoth is still a slave. Yeine is left with demons’ blood (per the subplot), the Stone, and a bunch of pissed-off relatives who dare not let her anywhere near the Stone.

So Sieh intercepts the ball. (Yeah, sorry, sports analogies aren’t my thing usually, but it fits here.) He drinks the demons’ blood to kill himself. Yeine then transfers Enefa’s soul into Sieh’s body, with appropriate drama and agony. This kills Yeine too, since she can’t survive without both souls. Sieh — now bearing the soul of Enefa — takes up the Stone and wills the Enefadeh free. He gives the Stone to Yeine, which brings her back to life. Then he keels over himself, since godlings can’t handle gods’ power much better than mortals can. The soul, I imagine, would return to Yeine, since there’s nowhere else for it to go.

But Nahadoth is free now, so Gods War II, Apocalyptic Boogaloo, ensues. But because Yeine is now undead, able to wield the Stone of Earth permanently (actually, she’ll die without it), she tells the boys to stop fighting, and they listen. They decide on a truce, since that’s really the only option that works out well for mortalkind — the human race really doesn’t want Nahadoth to take over as the new sole god of existence. The Arameri now become, not the servants of the gods, but the referees; in the future Arameri rulers will be charged with keeping Nahadoth and Itempas from each others’ throats. Then Yeine puts Relad and Scimina in prison for life, Nahadoth sentences Kurue to eternal mortality for her treachery (but at least she’s free to Walk the Earth), Dekarta regrets destroying Kinneth’s legacy and helps Yeine establish herself before he dies of old age, and then Yeine reigns over the world as Lady Arameri forever. Maybe Naha visits every once in awhile, though probably not, as Sieh’s death will have driven home that she’s not really Enefa. So Yeine marries a nice (wealthy, politically connected, Amn) boy and rules as she thinks her mother would have, not very happily ever after, though at least there’ll be peace. For awhile. Oh, and I imagine she’ll name her firstborn son Sieh. Or Enefa, since she’d have to pass on the soul as well as the Stone to whoever becomes her heir. The end, roll credits.

This isn’t a bad story, IMO. (Well, OK, I’m being a little facetious and silly here; the actual thing would’ve been more Serious.) But it definitely wasn’t the story I was interested in telling, for a variety of reasons. For one thing, it ends with everybody miserable. Yeine will have become her worst nightmare, an all-powerful Arameri tyrant. She could never trust anyone else to wield the Stone, so she’d never be able to go back to her life in Darr. The gods will all still be pissed at each other; the mortal realm will still be stuck with a totalitarian regime; the world survives, but nobody wins. For another thing, it ends with the status quo upheld: Enefa’s still dead, the universe is still incomplete, and the Arameri are still in power even if Yeine’s the one wielding it. To keep the ending happy, I would’ve had to stop the narrative before the uglier endpoints that would inevitably come later: Yeine’s First Genocide; the inevitable next spat between Nahadoth and Itempas, which will kill off millions of people before the Arameri manage to cool the boys down; the eternal limbo of Enefa’s soul, which would never leave the mortal realm so long as the Stone exists.

And worse, the pieces of the story that I really wanted to explore — the theme of mothers and the legacies left to their children, for example — would’ve taken a distant second place to the usual epic-fantasy focus on MacGuffins, magic systems, and battles. Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with these things; I want to emphasize that. I appreciate a good Dark Lord Smackdown as much as the next girl. But I wanted to do something different in this trilogy. Several different things, actually, and I think I managed to achieve some of them successfully. But there was really no way to do that, IMO, other than to play around with the traditional epic fantasy trilogy structure. So this is why my Inheritance Trilogy is the way it is.

So. Thoughts?

* Aside from Paolini’s, that is.

11 thoughts on “The Inheritance Trilogy That Could’ve Been*”

  1. I think telling the story the way you’re telling it also has the benefit of not descending into soap opera or bogging down, which I think is the way of a lot of epic fantasy.

    Ultimately, regardless of whether they are protagonists or not, your viewpoint characters need to have some major stuff happen to them to make the story interesting and gripping, to make the part of their life depicted in the novel important enough to make the story worth telling from their perspectives. The longer you stick with one character, the harder this is to do, and the more it can seem like an endless seesaw with no major progression. Because at some point, there’s nothing left you can do to a character to push the drama beyond where it already is.

  2. This post was really fascinating to read. I liked hearing about your thought processes in creating a story and how you can look at the same story in different ways.

    I think what you’ve done with your trilogy works wonderfully – at least in the two thirds of it that I have read. There is definitely cohesion because of the gods and the excellent world building. But I liked that Yeine and Oree had two distinctive voices and that they were both clear and well written characters. I liked that the Itempas we hear about in the first book isn’t exactly what we get in book two. Having Sieh narrate the third book will bring in a godling/male voice (which should be VERY cool!). So you have two male gods and one female goddess making up your protagonists using the voices of two female humans and one male godling. Nice balance!

    I just finished Broken Kingdoms this weekend and I loved it, maybe even more than book one. You have gotten me to cry with both books, which means I cared about the characters and no book can be truly great in my eyes without caring about the characters. Oree almost broke my heart! You have an amazing writing talent and I am happy to be a fangirl!

  3. This was a really interesting ‘what-if’ scenario; however, I must say I’m delighted that you went down the path you did. The ending of 100K left me sitting there, the book closed, trying to fathom after the incredible events that had taken place exactly how there could be another two books.

    And to me, that was exactly what I want from a well-told story; to leave me with a sense of wonder and awe. And since my fiancee stole my copy of The Broken Kingdoms before I got a chance to read it, I’m still in the dark ;)

  4. Jann M.,

    I totally hadn’t thought about how having two female and one male protag balances the Three being two males and one female! Nice catch.

    Though I have to admit that I don’t really think of Nahadoth as male. He is such, during the course of the trilogy; we catch only glimpses of his female form, as when he shifts through several shapes in the Sar-enna-nem chapter of 100K, or the murals that Yeine finds in the library. But in my head, he’s firmly the “swing vote” of the Three on the gender continuum, adopting maleness, femaleness, or his own made-up genders whenever he wishes.

  5. Rob,

    What kinda fiancee is that?! A woman who would mooch good books… sounds like my kinda spouse, actually. ;) Good luck getting it back!

  6. Reading this post brings to mind how much bits and pieces of the Inheritance trilogy reminds me of the Kojiki, one of the main books of the Shinto spirituality from Japan. The fact that there are so many godlings coming into being or recognition that govern even the smallest things really reminds me of kami (there are ya-o-yorozu [eight millon/countless numbers] of them). But moreover, there are arcs, like you describe in Western epics, in the Kojiki as well. I won’t TL;DR at too much length about it, but it just goes to show how universal the story structure you’ve pulled together is, beyond publishing trends and genre expectations. I prefer what you’ve done because I would argue that it’s speaking to something more primal.

    I’m glad you went with what you did though, because if you had killed off Sieh in the hypothetical third book during that scene, I would have thrown my book against the wall in a rage. I don’t take character deaths well, despite the fact that I normally eat up bittersweet endings far better than I do happy endings.

  7. Good stuff. I read it all, but skipped anything that smelled like a spoiler LOL.

    I can say that I’m doing something similar, with regard to writing standalone works, with a proposed 3-4 book series I’m working on and, for me, it’s probably an application of the golden rule: I don’t want to saddle readers with a story that forces them to wait for an ending in book III (or book x). I just don’t enjoy being manipulated like that and after investing the time and money in a book, I want a satisfactory ending.

    Of course, I seem to be in the minority with that opinion, because the best-selling series so often have that sprawling element to them. But for my time and money, that you write in this way makes ME a lot more interested in checking out your works. That way if I read book one and then get hit by a bus, I won’t have to reincarnate because of my unfulfilled desire to find out if the Dark Lord is defeated. Because, you know, that could happen.

  8. N. K.,

    Thanks. Unfortunately she appropriated it shortly before hopping the Atlantic to visit her family, so it looks like I’m going to have to track her down at Christmas in order to reclaim my reading material. Should never have introduced her to 100K in the first place ;) *grumblegrumble*


    I thoroughly agree; I recently read Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself, and while generally well written, stocked with interesting characters, the entire book seemed to be stuck in a holding pattern, waiting for something interesting to happen in Book 2 of the series. As it was, I was so unimpressed with all the hanging around and the forced false-climax to Book 1 that I have no interest in reading any more of the series.

  9. I have to admit, I like that hypothetical story and its ending. Of course, I’m a fan of bittersweet endings where there is no sweeping victory, no vast shift in the status quo – when it’s done right, that is. Your example may be unhappy, but it’s neither pointless (no one achieves anything meaningful) nor hopeless (things will continue to change in ways more positive than they have been). It would have been a great set up to a universe of stories, with the trilogy about Yeine being only the start.

    That said, though, I do appreciate the path you decided to take. Seeing this hypothetical just showed me how much I would enjoy a traditional fantasy from you.

  10. DM,

    Like I said, there’s nothing wrong with the hypothetical story, or similar “traditional” epic fantasies. But while I don’t doubt my ability to pull it off, I also wasn’t interested in pulling it off. There are lots of epic fantasies that follow this pattern already. I’ve enjoyed many, but I find new ones in this vein to be predictable and kind of boring. So I decided to try something a little more… gonzo. :)

    You might be pleased, though, to know that the Dreamblood series is a little more traditional. I’m still not sure I’d classify it as “traditional epic fantasy” — it takes place in an Egyptian setting, for one, and is a duology rather than a trilogy, and its protagonists are priests rather than warriors or kings… ah, hell, OK, it’s not all that traditional. :)

  11. A little late to this post(finals and stuff), but I’m glad I went this far back in your blog and found it. Interesting that the trilogy could have gone in this direction, though I feel like it would have been ultimately more mundane and typical than it turned out to be. I finished the first one last year and was blown away(you became one of my top favorite authors ever right after) and just finished the second one last night(also amazing). Definitely glad you decided there was something more to be said for this universe, but I digress.

    This post was very insightful, and now I sorta wish I had paid more attention in class. I’m writing a novel myself atm and was wondering how to tell this story efficiently and tell it all in a certain space without it dragging on… Almost started ranting XD. What I’m trying is thanks. I think this story will be better for it :).

    But, how did you decide which character’s viewpoints to tell it from?
    I have 3 characters I feel are integral to the story and am trying to tell it from 3 different viewpoints, but I dont think it’s really working, at least for one viewpoint. Thought of giving that character his own story since he’d be more important in the next one than in this one, but idk its hard to decide, since the story opens up with him

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