Tag Archives: George R.R. Martin

Game of Thrones and the Permission to be Unpredictable

*Contains no spoilers for the current season, but does contain some spoilers for past seasons.*


I love Game of Thrones for the reason everyone seems to hate it: no character is safe. You can’t be sure if your beloved favorite character will survive the entire season, or will die in a completely unexpected way. And at the same time, you don’t know which awful character will be victorious in his or her pursuits, making it that much harder for your favorite character to survive.

Game of Thrones started off innocently enough. Sure, I screamed “Noooooooo!” at my television along with everyone else when Eddard Stark was beheaded, but that’s not enough to make me quit watching (although, can someone write Sean Bean a character that doesn’t die, please).

Fast forward to season three. I’d been enjoying a fantastic season so far, updating my husband as it went along. He had read the books years ago, and I knew he had read at least the first two or three. The first time he had thrown one of the books across the room, he had just read Eddard Stark’s beheading.

So my husband surprised me when he asked if we could watch Game of Thrones together one Sunday night. And like a naive fool, I felt excited my husband actually wanted to watch it with me! As the episode went along, I almost felt guilty because it was turning out to be a so-so episode, not the most exciting I had seen. Then, we came to the part of the episode with a wedding. Robb Stark was supposed to wed one of Walder Frey’s daughters, but handed that *honor* over to his cousin or somebody.

Violin music started, and I said out loud, “You know, I have a weird feeling about this.”

“Oh?” my husband asked innocently.

As we watched on, the insanity unfolded. My husband watched me as I gaped, horrified, to the end, through the credits, and continued to watch me as I stared at the blank screen in total silence.

“And now you know why I threw the third book in the series across the room,” he said and turned off the television.

For days after, my mind reeled with possibilities, replaying the scene in my mind. I felt horrified, shocked, and so very sad.

But I didn’t feel betrayed. I felt satisfied because George R. R. Martin, the show’s creators, and cast made me feel, and feel very deeply.

Think back to the hardest thing you’ve ever gone through in your life. A blind-siding break up. The death of a loved one. Losing a part of yourself, whether physically or emotionally.

Now consider the reason it happened. Chances are, and more often than not, the reason doesn’t feel good enough. It feels flimsy, unbelievable. Sometimes, there is no reason. No reason at all. It just is.

During the Red Wedding and all subsequent twists in Game of Thrones, I didn’t feel betrayed by George R. R. Martin,  or by the writers and producers of the show David Benioff and D. B. Weiss. The moments they create continue to shock me, and the story continues to captivate me and draw me in. Because, just like life, just like the real world, the show and its creators promise nothing. Sometimes people die. Horrible, unspeakable things happen to some of the characters. But the story keeps on turning, keeps on spinning. Ironically, that’s perhaps that’s why so many people feel betrayed by Game of Thrones. They expect entertainment, but instead are shown too many situations true to life in the real world.

Although Martin wasn’t the first author to do it, I’d argue Martin is paving the way to make unpredictability of mortality acceptable in epic fantasy.  In the coming years, I’ll expect to see many more deaths of main characters because that’s what keeps readers and viewers on their toes. It’s what bridges the gap between fantasy and the real world: unpredictability.

As writers, we often feel that certain things aren’t allowed. We aren’t allowed to make our readers sad at the end of a book – it’s almost taboo. You’re supposed to leave them with a lift, right? Leave them with hope, closure. But life doesn’t always close a chapter with hope and happiness. George R. R. Martin knows this and teaches us an important lesson with Game of Thrones: It’s not your job as a writer to make your readers (or even your editor or publisher) happy with your story. It’s your job to make them feel.

Thou Shall (Not) Kill Your Darlings

Don’t you do it, George.

There is a popular piece of advice that has gone around (and around) writing circles since William Faulkner said it: “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” Joss Whedon has since advised writers to cut what they love most from their manuscripts or screenplays if they’ve come up against a serious case of writer’s block. The advice is, succinctly: take out what you love the most to get “unstuck.” And writers have agonizingly cut their beloved characters and scenes out of their first and second drafts, thinking they are heeding valuable advice.

While I personally think authors like George R. R. Martin kill off beloved characters particularly well in order to elicit emotions from the reader, that’s not exactly what we’re talking about. I mean when a writer gets some alpha or beta reader’s feedback suggesting they cut a character or scene the author particularly loves. Forcing a character out of a first or second draft can be devastating to a newer writer. Sometimes, it might be necessary. But other times, it’s important to recognize when you have something special.

We can safely assume Joss Whedon has been stuck on many occasions because he’s a writer and that’s in the job description. Let’s imagine Whedon came down with a serious case of writer’s block while working on episodes of Firefly. Following his own advice, what would he take out? My favorite part of the show is Malcolm Reynolds, the captain of the firefly ship Serenity. Now let’s just imagine Firefly without Malcolm Reynolds for a minute. I can’t help but ask myself… What’s the point, anymore?

Would the show have reached its famed cult status if Whedon replaced Mal with a different, less Han Solo-esk character? Perhaps, but an absolutely vital piece of what makes Firefly so memorable, part of its magic, would have been buried in old drafts, never to see the light of day. Mal is special. He’s important to the story, and the story would be weaker without him. Imagine if we never knew Nathan Fillion as Mal because Whedon was under a deadline, or had had a bad week?

Put down the knife; back slowly away from the computer. Before immediately killing off your favorite character or deleting your favorite scene, I offer you an alternative: questions.

1. Did I develop this character to his/her full potential?

2. Is there something buried in my character’s past that could be vital to this story and increase conflict?

3. *Gulp* Is there a conflict?

4. What about my character could cause conflict with: a. others, b. his/her surroundings, c. his/her culture, or d. him/herself?

5. Did I outline this story? (Most writers report writer’s block when they skimp on pre-writing and outlining)

6. Am I holding back, or waiting to reveal something pivotal until the end? What if I put it near the beginning instead? How would that change the story, and could it make the story stronger?

7. What would make my side characters more interesting to play as a foil to the main character? Are the side characters just as developed as my main character?

8. Would taking this character out of my story make the story stronger or significantly weaker?

9. Pretend you have cut the scene or character in question. Are you just as enthusiastic about the project as you were before?

10. Are you willing to put in the time and work to fix the issue, deepen the character, conflict, or scene, in order to keep it in your project?

When it comes down to it, writers either run on enthusiasm or discipline. Ideally, at least a little of both. If the character or scene you love is giving you trouble, ask yourself if you’re still enthusiastic about the story, and committed to telling it. If it’s one of your first stories or drafts, you may find it’s better to cut your losses and either begin again or start a different story entirely. But if you love the story and are committed to telling it, there is always a way to fix the problem without resorting to cutting or killing your beloved darlings.