Loial (reading from the Book of Translation): And the Creator spake, saying “there shalt be six main characters, no more, no less. Six shalt be the number of main characters, and the number of main characters shalt be six. Thirteen shalt thou not count, neither count thou three, excepting that thou then proceed to six. One is right out. Once the number six, being the sixth number, be reached, then I shalt tell thou who I think they are and why those six.”
(SPOILERS for the entire series, including the ending.)
- Rand al’Thor
- Perrin Aybara
- Matrim Cauthon
- Egwene al’Vere
- Nynaeve al’Meara
- Elayne Trakand
I’ll start with the easy evidence: number of POVs (I will be relying on the stats from the WOT Wiki here). See below:
|Character||# of POVs|
Not only do those six characters have the most POVs, the character with the sixth most, Nynaeve, has almost twice as many POVs as the next two characters, Min and Moiraine, with 35 and 33, respectively. (It should be noted as well that this includes 22 Moiraine POVs from New Spring, which isn’t really part of the single, sprawling story told in the main series.)
Their presence in the books is nigh ubiquitous. All six are in The Eye of the World (as are Min and Moiraine, though). Rand, Perrin, and Nynaeve get POVs in the first book (as far as I’m concerned the Raven prologue never happened). Egwene is added in The Great Hunt (with the second most POVs in that book). Mat makes his POV appearance in The Dragon Reborn in a big way, getting the third most POVs (and more than Rand). Elayne still doesn’t have a POV, but the other five dominate the book with all but 7 POVs. She makes her POV appearance in The Shadow Rising, and again a main character’s POVs are introduced in a big way. She has the third most POVs in the book, and the six main characters fill the top six spots for most POVs. Perrin famously disappears in Fires of Heaven (Oh, you want more Perrin? Just wait.), but the other five take the top five spots. They take the top six spots in Lord of Chaos and A Crown of Swords. That doesn’t happen again for the rest of the series, as each of the main characters steps back at least once, but the only character with a really significant presence in any one book is Cadsuane, who isn’t introduced until late in the series. The Big 6 are back in a big way in A Memory of Light, taking the top five spots (Nynaeve again gets the short end of the stick, with only four POVs). They dominate in general, with 123 of the 258 total POVs (just short of half).
Over the course of the series, Rand, Perrin, Egwene, and Mat all get at least 486,000 words each. To put that in perspective, the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy was only 450,000 words. Elayne and Nynaeve still get more words over the course of the series than are in most novels.
They are all roughly of an age. Robert Jordan may have first envisioned a grizzled veteran in the lead, he abandoned that to write a story at the border of YA and adult fiction. It’s their story, not that of the older characters with all the power and knowledge at the start of the story.
Rand is undoubtedly the lead. So why not just Rand? As seen above, the other five get a lot of words devoted to them. Not limited the main characters to just Rand is a stroke of genius, because Rand suffers from a bit of a Frodo problem. He becomes defined by what he endures and loses agency through much of the series. Post-Veins of Gold epiphany Rand isn’t very interesting either.
Rand, Perrin, and Mat are all ta’veren, an Old Tongue word meaning “main character.” Why not just those three? Jordan is playing with gender expectations again. And story expectations. We are conditioned as fantasy fans for our heroes to upend the hierarchy (which makes the sneering about fantasy as reactionary a bit odd). The Farm Boy Chosen One gets two entries on TV Tropes, after all. And the three ta’veren upset in-world gender expectations. But Egwene, Nynaeve, and Elayne also massively upset the tradition-bound Tower, no small matter considering it is the more powerful and important institution in Randland.
The Supergirls are counterpart to the three ta’veren men. Nynaeve, Egwene, and Elayne are three of the most powerful channelers in the book. The only channelers on the side of good that are of equal or greater power are very minor characters, with the exception of Cadsuana. Aviendha, Moiraine, and Siuan are relatively quite powerful but not quite as powerful as the Supergirls. Moiraine and Siuan also lose much of their power during the series. (More on why I think Aviendha and Moiraine aren’t main characters below.) Each makes a landmark discovery with the One Power—Egwene rediscovers the creation of cuendillar, Elayne rediscovers how to create ter’angreal, and Nynaeve discovered a way to heal stilling/gentling/severing. In The Wheel of Time, women are the equal to and—this is the more important theme for Jordan—complementary to the men. It should come as no surprise then that the three main characters who are female each complement Rand in their own way. Egwene as Amyrlin is the counterpoint to his position as a world leader; Nynaeve is his ally and most loyal supporter; and Elayne is his lover and role model.
Most important, perhaps, the key role each played in the end-game. As it turns out, those roles tell us much about Perrin’s and Elayne’s much maligned third act plotlines.
This is the easy one. Let’s move on.
There is no question of his importance if we’re measuring by presence. But much of that was heavily criticized (including, at the time, by me). As it turns out, though, the overlong Faile kidnapping plotline and Perrin’s fight against his nature (which wasn’t really about the wolves at all) build to his actions in A Memory of Light. It was what he learned in all those books that allowed him to defeat Slayer and to break Lanfear’s Compulsion and kill her. (I asked Sanderson about his storyline in the three final books, and he told me that Jordan left basically no notes on Perrin.)
As with Perrin, Mat’s storylines in the rest of the books lead to his role leading the armies of the Light in A Memory of Light and to a lesser extent to his role with Tuon and the Seanchan. He was also Jordan’s favorite character, as Perrin is Sanderson’s, and as Rand is mine.
She’s the easy one for the female characters. She starts the series as a counterpoint to Rand and rise to become the most powerful woman in the world. She gets three of the Crowning Moments of Awesome in the series—leading the defense of the Tower against the Seanchan, crippling Mesaana despite being shielded, and sacrificing herself to defeat Mazrim Taim and most of the Sharan channelers.
As with Perrin, Elayne has an overlong and much-maligned plotline, the Andoran succession, which builds to her role in A Memory of Light. She is my least favorite of the Big 6 by a wide margin, and unlike Perrin’s story, it didn’t grow on me with the rereading, but it does naturally build to her taking the supreme command and, my prior complaints notwithstanding, I thought her role in the final book was very effective. (I asked Sanderson about Elayne too, and he confirmed that Elayne’s role as supreme commander was in Jordan’s notes.)
Interestingly, in this analysis it was Nynaeve, not Elayne, who presented a harder case. Her POVs disappear for long stretches later in the series. But it is later in the series that she shows why she is a main character. She leaves the Two Rivers in The Eye of the World to protect her people, and she never, ever forgets that. In the end, she is the one that Rand can trust. She fills a role that Egwene, Cadsuane, and even Moiraine never could. She helps him cleanse saidin. She heals gentling. How important was the deeply seated trust for her that Rand held to preventing him from completely going off the deep end in A Gathering Storm? And of course she is with Rand in the end in Shayol Ghul (and it never crosses her mind that she needed to ask permission). Her initial impression is hurt because she’s a bit older than the other four main characters from her village is in a position of authority over them. They react badly to her and we start from their POVs. A lot of people also probably first pick up The Wheel of Time as teens, as I did, and are much quicker to identify with the other teen protagonists than someone older, in a position of authority, and primarily motivated by a desire to protect her charges. I appreciated her much, much more re-reading the series as an adult. Leigh Butler has expressed similar thoughts in her WOT Re-read and Kaushal at Adventures of a Bookworm, reading The Wheel of Time for the first time as a college student (I think) likes Nynaeve a lot.
(Interestingly, originally (back when Tam and Rand were still the same person) Nynaeve was to be the love interest.)
It may be tougher to show why everyone else shouldn’t be included than to show why the above six should. Moiraine is gone roughly half of the series (although she tends to loom over it nonetheless) and doesn’t really step back to the forefront when she returns. Aviendha plays an important role at times, but steps back and doesn’t play a key role in the Last Battle. Lan is mentor to Rand and lover to Nynaeve, but he is always secondary to both. Min has the seventh most POVs, appears in the first book, has in my opinion by far the deepest relationship with Rand of his three lovers, plays an important role in several important plotlines, and helps deduce keys to the Last Battle. But her power of prophecy, while providing much grist for fan theorizing, isn’t proactive, she acts primarily as an adjunct to Rand (and earlier to Suian), and she also takes a step back in the final book.
In closing, why and so what? A few thoughts: First, The Wheel of Time is too big a story–the biggest story ever?–to settle for one or two or three main characters. What other story has six? For a story so thematically concerned with gender and with so many important female characters, of course the women match the men. And of course they match the men, three women to three men, in a story with the central theme that men and women are different, complementary, and must work together to reach their full potential. The structure of main characters dovetails with the Big Ideas Jordan embedded into his work. It also shows that while Perrin’s and Elayne’s storylines in roughly books 7-11 were perhaps misfires, they were intentional misfires that were built with the final book in mind.
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 Nynaeve is tied for sixth with two other characters.
 Elayne is tied for six with two other characters.
 Rand, Mat, and Perrin are all the same age. Egwene is two and Elayne 2-3 years younger than Rand. Nynaeve is five years older than Rand.
 There is a discrepancy in the relative power of Cadsuana and of Aviendha between The Wheel of Time Companion, which I use in the main body, and the relative power rankings compiled by Linda at the Thirteenth Depository.
 “Brandon of course wouldn’t tell who is the character not in The Gathering Storm at all, though he gave a few clues. Piecing all his bits of answers together, the character isn’t Aviendha, Cadsuane or Nynaeve, nor Mat (the only character he confirmed is in the two first books, but we already knew this). He basically destroyed the speculation it could be Perrin by hesitating on the words ‘major character’ and then adding the bit that the vast majority of fans would actually place this character at the very bottom of the list of characters to be considered ‘major’. The way he put Elayne over and over among the five really major ones during the Q&A suggests it’s not her either after all.” (Link.) (It was Elayne, after all.)