Believe, Care, Invest: Our Choice of Heroes in George R. R. Martin’s “A Game of Thrones”

  • The fantasy kingdom of Westeros: Three rangers patrol north of “The Wall” and encounter ice zombies. One survives and flees, but he is caught south of the wall and executed for desertion by Lord Eddard Stark. We see this through the eyes of Eddard’s young son Bran. On the way home, the Starks find a litter of direwolves and adopt them.
Massive spoilers for the book series and TV show! Skip to the next chapter if you don’t want to know how it all ends!

It’s fascinating to re-read this first chapter, knowing what we know now.  For the past twenty years, readers have been saying to themselves, “Why do we start with Bran?? He’s such a minor character!” Little did we suspect that he would win the game of thrones! Maybe Martin knew what he was doing all along.

But before we get to Bran, we start with a prologue. As with “Hitchhiker’s”, these pages are not yet identified as “Chapter One”, so we sense that we need not fall in love with these characters, but this prologue is longer, so if we didn’t find the characters and situation compelling we’d probably stop reading.

Ultimately, we will realize that these opening pages prefigure the whole series. Our POV character watches as a grizzled old veteran ranger, whose sword is “nicked from hard use,” is led into disaster by a “lordling” whose sword has never “been swung in anger” (the ultimate insult in this manly world). Over the course of the next three books, both the North and South of Westeros will be led into disaster by too-young lords that are ill-prepared for leadership.

We never find out enough the prologue’s POV character Will to Believe-Care-Invest, but we certainly do so for the veteran Gerad, who gets lots of details, suffers mightily, and shows his clever skills. We even come to appreciate the lordling Royce who, in a nice ironic turn, dies bravely. We sense that these aren’t our heroes, and don’t really invest our hopes and dreams in them, but we can tell from these pages that Martin can make us identify with heroes, if he wants to, and we trust him going forward.

Another thing this intro establishes is Martin’s greatest strength: his ability to put the audience on an emotional rollercoaster. Over and over in this series, Martin will fool the reader into thinking that the heroes will triumph, only for something awful to happen. The most essential line in this introduction is this:
  • For a moment, he dared to hope.
That’s a dead-simple trick that any writer can use: Just insert that line into your book, as often as possible. Lift the reader up, then cut them down. Martin has a curiously sadistic relationship to his readers. Perhaps more than any other popular writer, he really likes to torture his heroes (to death), which also tortures the readers who love those characters …but we love him for it. He triggers a pleasurable masochism within the reader. Every time Martin tricks us into daring to hope, then viciously punishes us for it, we get a thrill.

But we still haven’t met any main characters, so let’s move on to Chapter 1, which is named “Bran.” Right away, we start getting a little nervous: We find out in the first paragraph that Bran is seven years old! Is this a kids book? It doesn’t seem so from the page count. Martin is basically counting on us to flip ahead and see that the book’s 73 chapters will be credited to 8 different third-person POVs, and Bran will only get 7 of those chapters. We sense that Bran is not going to solve the book’s big problems, so we need not fully invest our hopes and dreams in him.

So Martin has a tricky task, we’re meeting our main cast now, but we’re meeting them though the POV of a (seemingly) minor character. His goal in the first real chapter is to get us to believe in and care for this family, and then, through Bran’s eyes, search for some member of the family other than Bran that we can invest our hopes and dreams in.

Believe In: After reading the prologue we already believe in the reality of this world. Martin is mostly Italian-American and grew up in a New Jersey housing project in the 1960s, and yet he convinces that surely he must have lived in medieval England at some point with his wealth of detail.

And Bran is a believable seven year old: Eager to be included in adult things but anxious about what he might see. We are told it’s been summer for nine years but winter is coming, so seven year old Bran is about to know the cold for the first time, which is a metaphor for the chilling step into reality we all must take on the brink of adolescence.

Care For: This is tricky because Bran is not suffering all that much. Sure, he feels cold, and he’s being forced to watch a man being beheaded, which disturbs him, and later he almost has to watch some wolf-puppies put to death... but the real reason we care about Bran is because we sense, from reading the prologue, that the ice-zombies will eventually come for him, and he’s so terribly unaware of this. (In fact they will come just for him, though those who stick to the books may never find that out). We care for him because we can see what he can’t see.

The novel’s multiple-POV structure ensures that we will always know more about what’s going on than any of the POV characters we’re reading about, not just plot-wise, but also morally. We know from the prologue that the deserter had a good reason to flee, which none of the Starks bother to elicit. Each POV-jump for the rest of the book will follow this pattern. There will never be a character that understands this world as fully as the reader does. Only we can see the ironic contrasts between these points of view. Only we know how tragic all of these events truly are. We care about these characters in an almost godly way: What fools these mortals be.

Invest In: We’re in an odd position: We discover that we were correct not invest our hopes in any of the characters from the prologue, and we can’t really invest in a seven year old boy, but we can tell that the Starks are going to be our main characters, so we examine them through Bran’s eyes, looking for a hero.

The most obvious choice is Eddard, who seems like a manly and responsible Lord in his insistence on being the one who swings the beheading sword himself. And if we’ve flipped ahead, we know that he will have the most POV chapters. But we also can see that Eddard has a limited perspective. He dismisses what Will has to say without really listening, leaving his kingdom eventually vulnerable to zombie attack. And of course, as fantasy readers, we’re conditioned to seek out young heroes so we’re also looking at his sons, whether adopted, blood, or bastard.

It’s easy to dismiss Theon Greyjoy, Eddard’s ward:

  • The head bounced off a thick root and rolled. It came up near Greyjoy’s feet. Theon was a lean, dark youth of nineteen who found everything amusing. He laughed, put his boot on the head, and kicked it away.

But it’s not so easy to choose between Eddard’s bastard son Jon or his official heir Robb:
  • “Ass,” Jon muttered, low enough so Greyjoy did not hear. He put a hand on Bran’s shoulder, and Bran looked over at his bastard brother. “You did well,” Jon told him solemnly. Jon was fourteen, an old hand at justice.
  • It seemed colder on the long ride back to Winterfell, though the wind had died by then and the sun was higher in the sky. Bran rode with his brothers, well ahead of the main party, his pony struggling hard to keep up with their horses.
  • “The deserter died bravely,” Robb said. He was big and broad and growing every day, with his mother’s coloring, the fair skin, red-brown hair, and blue eyes of the Tullys of Riverrun. “He had courage, at the least.”
  • “No,” Jon Snow said quietly. “It was not courage. This one was dead of fear. You could see it in his eyes, Stark.” Jon’s eyes were a grey so dark they seemed almost black, but there was little they did not see. He was of an age with Robb, but they did not look alike. Jon was slender where Robb was muscular, dark where Robb was fair, graceful and quick where his half brother was strong and fast.
  • Robb was not impressed. “The Others take his eyes,” he swore. “He died well. Race you to the bridge?”
In the introduction it was easy enough to choose between the two men that were being described: Gerad was full of manly virtues and the lordling Royce was not. Here, it’s harder: Robb and Jon offer two different visions of manhood that both seem equally appealing at this point. Ultimately, we (correctly) invest more in Jon, because he perceives more of what we know, and shows more compassion to Bran, but it will take three long books before we can be sure we’ve made the right choice.

Of course, on some level, the moral of the prologue lingers in our minds: Don’t trust lordlings like Robb. They’ll get you killed.

As with any fantasy author, Martin is asking a lot of his readers: He’s asking us to commit to a long book with lots of characters. In the end, this book will not end satisfactorily, demanding we read the next and the next in a search for satisfaction that will never end, because it’s more than two decades later and it seems likely Martin will never finish the book series.

Ultimately, there’s only one reason to read this series: Because it is pleasurable to read each chapter. Martin will not honor the pledges that most authors make to their readers, but we will forgive him for that, because the books are so enjoyable.

Game of Thrones: The Archive

Here’s the recent series I did about the first book:

And two earlier things I wrote about the books and TV show:


Game of Thrones, Conclusion: So Why Do I Like It So Much?

I could go on for another week about “A Game of Thrones”, but I’m wearing out, so let’s flip all the cards back* and get to the big question: I’ve laid out several reasons why the book shouldn’t work, and talked about how Martin turned many of his potential weaknesses into strengths, but we still haven’t really established: Why is the writing so addictive? Why did I get so sucked into reading, even though:

  • I’d already decided I couldn’t countenance Martin’s worldview and abandoned the show.
  • I knew everything that was going to happen so I didn’t need to read to satisfy any plot curiosity.
  • I’m wary of fantasy books, and long books in general.

This gets to the heart of my book. This is the “stranger on an airplane” test: How do you learn to write so well that you win over even someone who doesn’t want your story? I think what really grabbed me was the “warm slipper” quality of the writing. What created that feeling?

  • Supremely confident world-building: World-building is where most sci-fi and fantasy loses me. I end up saying “That’s not the way the world works”, even if it’s not our world. The rules of the world being presented just haven’t been properly thought-through. Martin, by combining his encyclopedic knowledge of the medieval world with his boundless imagination, has created a free-ranging world in which all of the (thousands of) pieces fit snugly, and it’s astonishing to watch it all come together. It’s all-enveloping, like a warm slipper (even though it’s a cold world, in every sense.)
  • Intimate limited POV: I’ve already talked about this. The multi-sensory writing and strictly-limited POV create a sense of intense intimacy with whatever character we’re reading about. It’s the opposite of alienation. The full-identification also creates a warm slipper feeling.
  • Martin is not afraid to use the oldest tricks in the books to intensify our emotional experience, which makes the book an intense thrill. A simple line like “For a heartbeat he dared to hope” right before a gruesome death works every time.

My two favorite reading experiences are also super-long, multi-POV, and set during wartime: “War and Peace” by Tolstoy and “The USA Trilogy” by Dos Passos (which I originally encountered in one volume). Martin isn’t in that league, but he’s doing the same thing they’re doing: Creating a vast world at a tragic time, though many intensely intimate points of view. In all three cases, I found it addictive and didn’t want it to end.

(One difference is that Tolstoy and Dos Passos didn’t abuse my addiction.  They finally wrapped up their epic sagas just before I could exhaust myself. Martin just keeps his junkies on the hook year after year. The other difference is that I ultimately agree with Tolstoy and Dos Passos’s worldview, but disagree with Martin’s, which is why I was able to painfully break away a few hundred pages into the second book.)

*Never let it be said that my pop-cultural references are not super-up-to-date.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Prologues Can Be a Microcosm of the Story

We’ve talked about the pros and cons of having a prologue. “A Game of Thrones” has a particular kind familiar from genre fiction: the “kill everybody off” prologue. (As it happens here, one of the characters runs away, only to have his head lopped off immediately in the next chapter as a result.) We get things off to an exciting start and establish the seriousness of the dangers our heroes will face in the rest of the book.

Martin identifies it as a prologue in order to hint to us that the real book hasn’t started so maybe we shouldn’t be looking around for a hero yet. We aren’t that surprised when things end badly. So Martin gets to tell a little contained short story with its own beginning, middle and end. He gets us to care about the characters a little bit, but not too much, just enough to find it horrific when they’re dispatched.

But Martin is also doing something else interesting: He’s telling the whole story of the novel, indeed of the whole first trilogy (Martin was still planning on just doing three books at this point.) Martin’s story has a definitive moral: Young men should not lead old men. In this book, we get two horrific young rulers in the form of Joffrey and Robert Arryn, and we get hints that Robb Stark might be rashly declaring himself King in the North. (Robb’s rise will indeed turn out to be disastrous in the next two books.)

But you don’t need to read the whole book because it’s all right there in the prologue. Three rangers have been sent north of the wall, the youngest of whom is the son of a lord, so he’s been put in charge of the other two. This young “lordling” has a beautiful but unnotched sword that has “never been swung in anger” (not a good thing!) He cares more for his honor and glory than he does for the lives of his men. We get a line that could be used in many storylines throughout the book:

  • “If I need instruction, I will ask for it,” the young lord said.

So our prologue is a cautionary tale in more ways than one. It’s warning about the danger of the white walkers, but also about the dangers of the lordling class. We may only notice the first danger, but the second has been subconsciously planted. It’s never too early to introduce your theme.

Straying from the Party Line: The Power and Peril of POV in “A Game of Thrones”

Last week I focused on the ways that George R. R. Martin intentionally (and boldly) broke the rules with “A Game of Thrones”, and mostly got away with it. This week, I promise, I will finally get to more of what the book does unambiguously right, but I thought I would feature one last broken rule, this one seemingly unintentional. But here it’s the exception that proves the rule, because it shows how well Martin does it the rest of the time.

I think one of the great strengths of these books is the use of strict third-person limited-POV with strong sensory writing. This is Writing 101: Build identification (whether in 1st or 3rd) by keeping us in one head and use all five senses to make that head come to life. And it’s especially important in a book like this that has a different POV each chapter. As with Tolstoy, the POV keeps shifting but while we’re in one head, we’re intensely and intimately in that one head.

Martin not only tells us what his limited-POV characters see, hear, feel on their skin, touch, taste, smell, and think, he also tells us how each sense affects the others. He tells us how thoughts affect senses: “It made Bran’s skin prickle to think of it.” And how senses affect thoughts: “The taste of cold iron in his mouth gave him comfort.” This is intimate. Here’s a classic Martin sentence: “His muscles cramping and his fingers numb with cold, he climbed down.” Two feelings, then an action. That’s a good ratio.

But let’s talk about the Martin’s odd prologues, and why he does them that way, and something he does on his first page that I can only describe as a mistake.

For 71 of his 72 chapters, Martin has a named POV at the beginning of the chapter, but he sets up a convention that he uses in each book: Only the prologue has no named POV. This is an odd choice. It would seem to me that the beginning is when you want a POV the most, to quickly bond us to a character when we’re seeking around for one. (Although Rowling does something similar, doesn’t she? The key difference there is that she adopts a truly omniscient voice for that first chapter, including a little authorial commentary, which Martin remains limited even in his prologues, with no authorial voice.)

So why does he do it? Possibly just because he’s going to kill these characters off, so he doesn’t name them so as to let us know not to care about them. All of his other POV characters return at least five times.

But here’s Martin’s bizarre mistake: You should never have a chapter that’s almost entirely from one character’s POV, but drifts into another character’s POV just once, even though you don’t need to. 

The first time we see into a character’s head, in the fourth line of the book, it’s the older man Gared: “Gared did not rise to the bait. He was an old man, past fifty, and he had seen the lordlings come and go.”  But then in the seventh line we enter Will’s head: “Will had known they would drag him into the quarrel sooner or later. He wished it had been later rather than sooner.” And then we’re limited to Will’s POV for the whole rest of the prologue. The subsequent non-dialogue paragraphs begin “Will could see…” and “Will shared his…” etc.

Martin was already a veteran novelist when this came out, but this is something I see beginners do all the time: Limit themselves almost entirely to one POV, only to slip into another character’s head just for a second. It ruins all the good work of your POV-limiting.

And indeed I was alienated by the opening pages of this book. The book didn’t grab me right away. It was only when we had settled into Will’s POV, and I started feeling his five senses, that I was finally able to figure out who each of these three characters were and how I should feel about them.

Martin in no way needs that slip into Gared’s head. Gared’s opinion on Royce could have been evident from what he says, what he does, or just a look Will sees in his eyes.  In fact, throughout the book Martin does a great job letting us know what other characters are thinking just using his POV character’s senses. Here’s an example with Will, looking at Ser Waymar: “Ser Waymar was panting from the effort now, his breath steaming in the moonlight.” Will sees and hears what Ser Waymar is feeling, simply by observing the outward manifestation of those emotions.

It doesn’t matter if the prologue has a named POV or not: If it’s 99% from one character’s POV, then it’s a bad idea to stray into another character’s head for just one line. An editor should have cut it.

The Book that Breaks All the Rules, Part 6: Only Name Important Characters

When we start “A Game of Thrones”, we’re quickly overwhelmed with names. Why does Ned have to take twenty riders with him out to chop off this man’s head? Couldn’t he have taken six? And a lot of them get names and some dialogue, even though we’ll never hear from again:

  • “Direwolves loose in the realm, after so many years,” muttered Hullen, the master of horse. “I like it not.”
  • And later: “You cannot do that, boy,” said Harwin, who was Hullen’s son.

Couldn’t he have just given that second line to Hullen? Why does the horse master’s son, who we’ll never see again, have to be in this chapter?

Well, don’t worry, if you get confused as to who everybody is, you can simply turn to the appendix at the back, right? If you do, you’ll find yourself buried in hundreds of names. At times, the sprawling story resembles Gabriel Marcia Marquez, but at least Marquez kept his cheat-sheet down to one page. Like Marquez, Martin is already repeating names in the first chapter (Robert and Robb)

This breaks the rules. As I say here, you want to keep the character list down as low as possible: by limiting the number of characters, limiting the number of speakers, and using a naming convention that makes it clear who’s important (he could have just said, “said Ned’s master of horse” without giving a name.)

Does it get away with it? Yes and no. I’m notorious bad at keeping up with these sorts of things, and I suspect that the only reason I was able to follow the book was because I’d seen the TV show first. I’ll never know if this would have been a dealbreaker with me or not.

But I can see that Martin does everything in his power (short of, you know, telling a simpler story) to help us keep track of everybody. He does this through an old trick that goes all the way back to grey-eyed Athena: He uses consistent descriptive language over and over. Let’s look at Theon: He’s introduced with “Theon was a lean, dark youth of nineteen who found everything amusing.” That’s a great character description we haven’t heard a million times before. Then after that we get:

  • He laughed, put his boot on the head, and kicked it away
  • Greyjoy was laughing and joking as he rode
  • …Theon Greyjoy said with wry amusement

Each character is strongly characterized. The important characters are well-distinguished from each other and come alive.

Once he’s done the gargantuan task of getting us to understand who everybody is, the number of characters becomes a strength, not a weakness. This world feels real and lived in. It sprawls, but that means that we enjoy sprawling out in it.

The Book that Breaks All the Rules, Part 5: Commit to your Genre

Martin has an odd relationship to his genre. We begin with a raid north of the Wall where our rangers are killed by zombies, who are pretty clearly supernatural (with maybe a 1% chance that it’s not supernatural.) Much later, we get another zombie attack, this one more clearly supernatural. Finally, we end with dragon eggs hatching. But that’s only 3 out of a whopping 72 chapters. In the other 69 the drama is mostly socio-political. Occasionally magic beasts will come up in conversation, but they always seem to have the status of dubious legends. Every time someone mentions fairy folk or giants existing years ago, there’s another character to ridicule the whole idea.

So who is Martin’s ideal reader? Is he writing for those who prefers the realistic push and pull of historical fiction, or does he truly want to be the American Tolkien and fully embrace his fantasy setting? Is his biggest influence not Tolkien but, as he has intimated, the French author Maurice Druon, author of the “Accursed Kings” historical fiction series?

You’re supposed to establish a genre in the opening pages and then consistently deliver the familiar pleasures of that genre. You’re supposed to assure one type of reader that you will satisfy them and then pay off that promise.  That first scene breaks the rules.

Does he get away with it? Pretty much yes. I know that there are some readers who put the book aside when they realize that they’ve been falsely led into reading a socio-political book, saying, “Eh, not enough magic.” But for most readers, it’s actually kind of cool: Yes, he’ll give us some magic, but he’s also confident in his ability to make the intrigue just as interesting while we’re waiting, and we enjoy those 69 chapters just as much as the other 3. We get just enough genre thrills, but spend most of the book feeling like we’re maybe smart and sophisticated enough that we don’t need them.

But there’s definitely a tension: Martin sets up a situation in which zombies and dragons are on the very fringes of the narrative, literally and figuratively, but he also tells us that he comes to sing to us of ice and fire. Much is made of the fact that the zombies and dragons will play a bigger and bigger role in later books, even though they’re barely glimpsed here.

Yesterday, I proposed one reason Martin has been slow to turn out more books. Here’s another: Maybe he never really wanted to write about these magical creatures, and included them only to sell his fictionalized history to the fantasy crowd, but he’s set up a situation where he’ll have to write that stuff more and more, and he’s just not interested in doing that. Let HBO handle that stuff.

The Book that Breaks All the Rules, Part 4: Love Your Characters

As I said yesterday, Martin grew up as a very powerless kid, yet he’s writing about the rich and powerful. Does that affect his ability to feel empathy for them? Let me be clear: Martin is a master at getting us to love his characters, even characters working at cross purposes. Ned wants to put Stannis on the throne, Tyrion is willing to prop up Joffrey, and Daenerys wants the throne for herself, but we fall in love with all three characters, as well as at least four more.

In this post, I said that the only one of the eight POV characters that it was hard to love was Sansa, but I got good pushback in the comments, so let’s focus on different examples: Ned and Daenerys.  In these cases, Martin definitely gets us to love them, but does he do so by loving them himself? Is it possible to create empathy for a character without feeling empathy for the character? This gets back to an old-post: Be a Good God. A good God is not just all-knowing and all-powerful, but also all-loving. Is Martin all-loving?

The second half of this book is all about suffering. Specifically, the good suffer and evil triumphs (except the capture of Jamie, which feels inconsequential, and indeed will turn out to be in future books). What is Martin’s point here?

  • Is he just trying to be realistic? To show the way the world works? It doesn’t seem so to me, because if he was, good and evil wouldn’t be so clearly demarcated. Jamie, Cercei, and Tywin, at least in this book, seem like the sort of exaggerated mustache twirling villains one does not associate with realistic fiction.
  • Or is he trying to make a moral point? Is he saying the good deserve to suffer? Is he harshly punishing naïveté and idealism because he wants us to know that these things are wrong?

In this and subsequent books, the good don’t suffer because they’re the victims of fate, they suffer because of their naïve decisions, because of their belief in goodness. Ned trusts Cercei to leave, then he doesn’t want to upset Robert before he dies, then he trusts Littlefinger to help oust Cercei. Daenerys tries to stand up for the women being raped, only to have one of them turn her husband into a zombie and her baby into a dead demon. In later books, Robb will lose everything, first by trusting Theon and then by trusting Walder Frey.

When we watch Ned getting his head chopped off from Arya’s POV or when Joffrey later taunts Sansa with that severed head, it’s hard not to use the word sadism, but is it merely the victimizers’ sadism to their victims, or Martin’s sadism to his readers? Do the readers feel masochism, and is that masochism part of the appeal of the book? (Masochism was certainly pleasurable for Masoch.)

May I indulge in some armchair psychology and speculate that Martin’s disadvantaged childhood might have caused him to be dubious of the noblesse oblige of the well-to-do? He loved Stan Lee comics, but did he come to believe that Lee’s good-triumphs-over-evil narratives were naïve and didn’t match his own put-upon experience? Did he come to posit himself as the anti-Lee, rewarding evil and punishing goodness? In the opening chapter, Martin repeatedly uses “lordling” contemptuously. Growing up did he see the other kids as lordlings, and resent the “good” ones even more than the self-interested ones?

(Some of you will say I’m being ridiculous. Martin is able to create a lot of love for his characters, so surely he must love them, and punish them with a heavy heart. This is possible.)

Does the book get away with it? Yes and no. This gets back to readers’ frustration with Martin for never finishing the series. One reason some readers are desperate to finish the series is that some continue to believe that, in the end, good will triumph over evil, despite the fact that nothing we’ve read so far has prepared us for that. It’s possible to reject the obvious moral if we can believe all will turn out for the best in the end.

And this is perhaps why he hasn’t finished, why he’s left Jon Snow bleeding out on the floor all these years. He wants to let his readers have it both ways. He will let some believe that Jon is going to pop back up and win the day, but the rest will suspect that, even if Jon survives, all will be for naught.

Some readers remain idealists, even after all that’s happened, and believe that Martin will eventually reward them and his remaining good characters. Others accept their own masochism, and warily crave more, even though they know that things will only get worse. Perhaps Martin can’t bring himself to let either side down.

The Book that Breaks Every Rule, Part #3: Write What You Know

This is maybe the best known of all writing rules. Anyone who has merely dabbled in writing in high school has been told this by their teacher. But this book blows this rule out of the water. Let us examine the ways:

  • It’s set in a fantasy world, but it’s based very closely on medieval Britain, and Martin is American (New Jersey born and raised, primarily of Italian and Irish heritage.)
  • It’s about war and armies, and Martin was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. He volunteered for Vista instead.
  • It’s about power and wealth. There are no peasant characters here. Even in the army setting, which is mainly working class, the only three characters we get to know are from lordly families. Almost every character in the book is a lord or related to one. Martin, on the other hand, grew up in a housing project.

Does the Book Get Away With It? As to the first two bullet points, the answer is very much yes. How? Massive amounts of research. I’ve always said that you can write about anything if you’re ready to do years of research, and Martin’s understanding of medieval life could not be deeper or more convincing. As opposed to Tolkien, who was celebrating his own country and heritage, Martin is playing in a sandbox not his own, but he clearly loves it. Even the military, which Martin specifically rejected in his own life, is lovingly and precisely rendered.

(I should point out here that two of my own major projects were set in England, despite the fact that I am not English, nor even much of an Anglophile. I just found great true stories that happened to be set there and did a ton of research about those eras in that place. It can be done.)

But what about the third bullet point? Well you might recall that though this is one of the best-known writing rules, it’s not my rule. Rather, I’ve recommended that you don’t have to write the details of your life, but you do have to write the emotions you know. So is Martin doing that? Yes and no.

The original writing guru, Aristotle, said that all tragedies should be written about royalty, not because those are the only important people, but because they have farther to fall. Readers like stories that are big. If this book was about jockeying to be on the town council, it might have all the intrigue, but not the pathos.

So you could argue that Martin’s just following Aristotle’s rule, and by extension, mine: The book is emotionally convincing, so clearly Martin has found a way to tap into real emotions he knows well, then made them bigger by projecting them onto royalty.

But are there any downsides to a kid who grew up so working-class writing about the rich and powerful? The danger is that he might have resentment towards such characters that might show through. We’ll pick up there next time.

The Book that Breaks Every Rule, Part 2: End the First Book in a Series in a Satisfactory Way

(Big spoiler for the later books!)
This was a recent rule of mine. It was based on manuscripts I’d been reading that ended on cliffhangers, without providing any sort of satisfactory conclusions to the events of the novel. But what about “A Game of Thrones”? Our POV characters never come together. One dies, but the other seven are all spinning off in different directions when the book ends.

Does the book get away with it? Yes and no. The reader is definitely left frustrated and unsatisfied. There’s a reason that the very first edition (pictured below) prominently said “Book 1 of A Song of Ice and Fire”. They’re saying, “No, this won’t wrap up satisfactorily, or really at all, but don’t worry, more are coming.”

So why was the book a success? In this case, I would say it’s a special dispensation of the genre. And I would argue that it’s only this very specific genre: epic fantasy. They get away with it because Tolkien got away with it (though he wanted to publish “Lord of the Rings” all at once.) I don’t think any similar genres, not even epic science fiction, can really get away with this.

Of course, the frustration has only grown over the ensuing twenty-two years. Book after book ending in cliffhangers, with the characters and storylines getting more and more diffuse, no Stark child ever again meeting up with any other Stark child four books later. Now we’ve had six years without a new book and an aging, physically unfit author in no hurry to finish. Never before has there been a case where the biggest fans were more furious with their favorite author.

But let’s stick with this book: Are there more satisfactory ways this installment could have wrapped up? Obviously, the good guys could have definitively beaten the bad guys, or vice versa, but clearly that’s not the story Martin wanted to tell. Given that this was intended to be the first book in a long series, was there a way to end it more satisfactorily?

  • The books ends neither at the beginning nor the end of the war. There have been two major battles and each side has won one. The good guys have Jamie Lannister captive, but they’ve backed off and hunkered down. The ending may have been more satisfying if it had ended with the very outbreak of war. That would have said, “Okay, this was the pre-war book, and next we’ll have the war book.” Ending a few battles into the war feels odd.
  • The main mystery that drives the book is who killed Jon Arryn. By the end, we think we’ve solved it (Cercei doesn’t deny it), but many books later, we’ll find out that it was actually Littlefinger and Lyssa. I think the most satisfactory ending would be to have Littlefinger admit that to someone and gloat that he had manipulated all the events of this book to create a Civil War. It would definitively wrap up this book’s storyline with a big shocking ending. This would also be good because Littlefinger’s actions aiding both sides, which are so key to the plot, are pretty baffling in this book. Martin owed it to us to let us know what Littlefinger was doing and why, and it would have potentially made for a great ending.
  • The great injustice of the book is that Cercei gets away with putting her bastard incest-born son on the throne because she seems to lop off the head of the only person who knows. But then, a hundred pages into the next book, Stannis reveals that he knows too and sends ravens all over the kingdom announcing it. I think that should have happened at the end of this book: Ironically, all Cercei’s work was for naught, and now the shit has really hit the fan, really escalating things for the next book.