Monday, 10 June 2013

Why George R. R. Martin is wrong about killing characters

I'm going to begin by taking my share of the public moment of smugness that everyone who's read A Storm of Swords felt last week after all the fuss about the Game of Thrones episode (you know the one). You know how all along, those of us who've read it have been saying 'You ain't seen nothing yet'? Well, now you have.

Aaaaanyway, smugness aside, today I want to talk about why George R. R. Martin is a terrible writer and you should read someone else instead. And yes, I'll be retracting at least half of that sentence in due course. I'll try to avoid anything too much in the way of spoilers, but the biggest spoiler in GoT is that everyone dies, and you all knew that anyway.

Martin's theory (in the first two minutes of that vid) is that when the hero of a story is in danger, it should feel to the reader as if he's in danger - that is, it should feel like he could die. Joss Whedon said the same thing about a particular character death in the movie Serenity. It sounds reasonable enough - after all, it's certainly true that in most fiction, and particularly fantasy, we take the survival and triumph of the hero for granted - but it's always bugged me, and I finally figured out why.

The problem is that survival and triumph in themselves aren't generally the sources of the interesting tension in these kinds of stories. As such, making the reader feel like the characters could die or fail doesn't add very much. I take it as axiomatic that what's really interesting in any story is how the characters change. Fear of death or of losing a loved one can change us, but it certainly doesn't always.

I actually gave up on reading A Song of Ice and Fire at the end of A Storm of Swords, but not because of what happened in last week's episode (it might happen in this week's, so I'll keep quiet for now). But one of my favourite parts of that book was the storyline with Jaime Lannister. Now, spoiler alert: he gets his sword-hand cut off. The thing is, as a knight, that's basically everything he knows how to do and his entire place in the world gone.

Does fearing for his life create any interesting tension? No, because you know that actually, death would be a kind of relief for him. All the tension in his story comes from him being determined to stay alive, to keep his place in the world and his prominence, to maintain the relationships that matter to him. For him to die would be a terrible waste of an interesting character. Something similar goes for Arya Stark, the other character whose story I really enjoyed.

By contrast, the main story in the first book, Ned Stark's, was bland as hell. It's just 'Ned is noble and just - Ned is noble and just - Ned is noble and just - and now he's dead'. Nothing that actually matters about him changes at all. He just goes from being alive to being dead. The storylines where a character has reasons to welcome death are all far more interesting.

And of course, GRRM knows this. He actually is an excellent writer, really great at twisting the screws that make Jaime's and Arya's lives miserable. The whole thing about killing characters is a smoke-screen, really, because the bits that are really painful to read don't come from character deaths at all (while I can't pretend to have enjoyed Sansa's story much, the whole arc of her puberty and marriage was far more painful and powerful than any of the character deaths, and will stay with me a lot longer).

My favourite fantasy author, Janny Wurts, very rarely kills her characters. Some of her major characters are functionally immortal, and others have prophecies or blessings of very long life. She kills huge numbers of bystanders, soldiers and civilians, of course, because you have to in high fantasy, but very few characters. And her books are laden with exactly the kinds of tension, fear and surprise Martin claims he's trying to create.

It's not that you fear for the lives of her characters - you fear for their choices. For their pride and integrity. For their reputations. Their relationships and passions. The tension that comes from 'will this character die?' is a very poor substitute for the tension that comes from 'how will this character go on living?'.

So, if you like Game of Thrones for anything other than the sex and murder, you should read Janny Wurts. You should also, of course, read The Second Realm, because I promise not to kill any major characters in that series at all. I'll just make you wish they could receive the sweet relief of death ;)

Go on, give it a try - it's my birthday on Thursday.


  1. Don't your comments subsequently require each character to behave like a sphere in a vacuum? Ned's death wasn't about Ned dying, but about the changes it wrought.
    Surely the whole Stark family wouldn't have been thrown into so much turmoil if Ned hadn't died. Would your argument then be that if Ned had to die we shouldn't have followed Ned's perspective at all? But he gives us a unique view - his - on everything.
    As an RPG player in any system with combat that allows death, do you as a player not want to fear death? Being immortal detracts from the experience, and I claim it's no different in a book. A particular character has, presumably after a fall off a cliff and "... struck the ground with a bone-shattering crunch". I expected this character to have the usual immortal status of a main character, and was shocked when they have, apparently, died. (It's the last line for god's sake ><)
    This break from the norm is highly entertaining,and one reason why killing characters works.
    Plus, it becomes surprisingly obvious which direction Martin is taking his series of books plotwise, and you can't do that without slaughtering a few main characters.

  2. I certainly think it's a bit of a cheap trick to have spent so much time on Ned only to kill him without letting him grow at all. The shock at his death is cheap, too, since it's not grounded in anything happening in the world - it's purely a refutation of an expectation you had as a reader familiar with the genre.

    I don't know if I'd agree that immortality detracts from the experience of role-playing, either (though I think the vicarious experiences produced by roleplaying are very different to the character-loyalty produced by a book). I've played characters who were in absolutely no danger of dying whatsoever and still had a fantastically tense time of it.