Robert Jordan and face strategies

February 11, 2008

This is something I have surely mentioned before, but for me, there are three main components to a book that can make me like it or not: style, plot, and characters. Of these, style is probably the most central. There are books I know are really good that I just really dislike because of the style.

At the moment, I am reading Dorothy Dunnett and, for some reason, Robert Jordan. Yes, I am indeed reading the Time Wheel series, skipping as much as possible of the dialogue and the descriptions of people, not to mention inner monologues; some chapters I avoid entirely. Jordan could really plot a story, and I am curious to see what will happen. I have read the first six books before, as a matter of fact, and even rather liked the first four of them, then. Not so much this time.

There are some rules about how people in Jordan’s books behave. All people, without exception. Most important of these rules is that if a man is talking to a woman or a woman to a man, the main purpose of the conversation is to score a point of some kind. This is usually also true when women are talking to each other, and occasionally when men converse with each other. However, many men are able to carry on a conversation that is at least reminiscent of something two real people could have. Never, ever so in discourse between people of different genders. Of course there are people like that in real life, but in Jordan’s world it is true of everybody. My theory is that Jordan was overly obsessed with the strategies that sociolinguists refer to as positive and negative face, strategies that people use quite unconsciously to negotiate communications (at least this is true for English, and also for Swedish and many other Indo-European languages. It is always dangerous to assume that a feature of language is universal.) But Jordan’s characters don’t do it unconsciously, they think about the negotiating strategies all the time, the same way we do when we meet people from a very different culture, for instance, or our new boyfriend’s parents, or some other situation where we are very anxious not to offend and to say the right thing. Or, on the other hand, there could be situations where we consciously use these strategies with an aim to say the wrong thing; my point is that the normal case is not to pay this much conscious attention. Even people like me who often feel quite awkward around other people including people I know well, don’t think about the face strategies that much. Jordan’s people do, though. All the time.

They also sometimes ignore the basic face strateies in a rather unrealistic way in order to score points. Communicating is a game played to win. Again, yes, there are peple like that, but there are also people – the majority – who are not like that, in the real world.

And that is the heart of why his characters are so unrealistic, unlovable and all-out annoying, I think. It’s not primarily that no men can ever understand a woman, and no woman ever understand a man (although all women understand one another perfectly even when they are from radically different cultures. The men are again somewhat closer to real people, but only somewhat.) It is not primarily that every single person acts and thinks like an extreme stereotype of a moody teenager, and that none of them develops or matures – they are still very young 13-year-olds, mentally, by the end of book 6. It is not primarily that values and morals are American conservative values and morals, everywhere on the supposedly very huge continent and outside it. All these things are annoying, but the obsession with face, and the underlying premise that communication is a game where you win or lose, that’s what makes the dialogue and characterisations jar so much that I have to skim rather than read them.

And yet I do read these books, for the story. And I read Dunnett at the same time, as a balm for the soul.



  1. […] övrigt insåg jag att jag borde länka till Linnéas “Robert Jordan and face strategies“, för det är ett roligt inlägg värt att kika på. There are some rules about how people […]

  2. […] Néablog har ett huvudet på spiken-inlägg om hur karaktärerna i Robert Jordans The Wheel of Time beter sig. Det är en sån där grej som sätter ord på något som legat och gnagt i ens bakhuvud i åratal. Det är inte ofta jag stöter på sådant, speciellt inte på nätet. There are some rules about how people in Jordan’s books behave. All people, without exception. Most important of these rules is that if a man is talking to a woman or a woman to a man, the main purpose of the conversation is to score a point of some kind. […]

  3. […] utmärkt artikel om att ett samtal mellan en man och en kvinna alltid är en tävling hos Jordan (https://neablog.wordpress.com/2008/02/11/robert-jordan-and-face-strategies/). Så är det även i Knife of dreams, och jag tycker att det är … ja, orealistiskt helt […]

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