Writing Lessons from the Seven Kingdoms, Part One

game of thronesOver this past weekend I did something that I’ve been meaning to do for a long, long time. I started reading A Game of Thrones, by George R.R. Martin. And pretty much as I expected, I kind of love it. I’m going to wait to watch the series until after I finish the books (well, I’ll watch season one after I finish book one, season two after book two, etc.), so just in case you were wondering, this post has no spoilers…and hopefully no one will spoil it for me in the comments! I’m only 25% through the book.

I knew I would like this book going into it, but right from the start I noticed a curious phenomenon in my reading of it. I’ve been reading a lot of books lately. A LOT. The majority of them have been Romance, but many of them have not. Some of them have been a real chore to read. A couple have been CNFs (Could Not Finish). Then I started GoT, and suddenly I find myself mentally shuffling my schedule to find time to read, thinking about the book when I’m not reading it, and absorbing it when I am reading.

So what is it, I asked myself, about GoT that has me itching with anticipation to get reading where so many of the other books I’ve been wading through lately have seemed like homework? I knew I needed to understand this in order to make my own writing better.

The first conclusion I’ve come to about what makes this book so damned irresistible is Character. Yes, I know Martin likes to kill his characters off. You can’t be anywhere around the internet without knowing that characters in A Song of Ice and Fire have very short life expectancies. But you know, there are other books and series out there where the author kills people. What makes GoT special is that the reader really cares about the characters to begin with, and so misses them when they’re gone.

This is super important for writers like me to understand. We love our characters to pieces because they are our characters, but in order for the reader to love them too, we have to communicate all those things about them that we love…without overloading the reader with facts and information. The single biggest problem I’ve had with so many of the Romance novels I’ve read lately is that the characters are cardboard. They’ve been done a thousand times before, usually better. And yes, tropes are important for genre fiction, but there’s a difference between writing a familiar character with a certain freshness to them and propping up a cardboard cutout of a cliché.

ned starkI don’t think that the circumstances of a character’s life or the uniqueness of their back story is what gives a character three dimensions either. A lot of the characters I’ve run into in GoT so far actually have stock backgrounds for epic fantasy. We’ve got the reluctant hero, the trodden down maiden who comes into herself and her power, the conniving queen and her conniving cohort, the outcast son, the brilliant but misunderstood anti-hero, and a plethora of others. They are tropes as much as the rakish alpha hero or the oppressed but feisty heroine in Romance.

What makes me impatient to read more about the characters in GoT is not how unique the situation of the characters are, but the vibrancy of their emotional responses to their situations. The frustration that Ned feels when he ends up in the situation he ends up in has so many conditions and factors and implications for not only his life, but the lives of his entire family, that I feel myself trapped in his limited choices with him. And yes, I know what happens at the end of the book, but knowing that kind of just makes the steps he takes and the futility of everything he’s doing seem all that much more impressive. The fear and smallness that Daenerys (totally my favorite character so far) feels knowing she is a pawn in her brothers game seems so relatable, even though I’ve never been a lost princess in exile, and her journey to discover her inner strength and that sense of home within herself is kind of epic. The way these characters live and breathe apart from and embroiled in their situations is magic.

Contrast that with the stock Romance characters I’ve read too much of lately. You’d think that there would be an equal amount of emotional intensity from people whose stories revolve around emotion. Too often, though, I’ve found myself caught up in detail, in plot tricks, and in stock scenes that every novel seems to have as requirements for dramatic action. Maybe it’s because the particular Romance characters I’ve been reading about lately are trying to think their way through their situations a little too much. There’s a lot of social maneuvering in these particular novels that I’ve been reading (which, I should add, fall into historical, contemporary, suspense, and inspirational categories). It almost feels as though the authors have been moving chess piece characters through the board of the story.

It’s not just a genre thing either, I might add. My two favorite romance novels ever, The Leopard Prince, by Elizabeth Hoyt and Mine Til Midnight, by Lisa Kleypas both had the same spark that GoT has. Both of those books kept me saying “Ooo! I didn’t see that coming!”, but not so much in the events that transpired in the plot as the reactions that the characters had to them. The depth of the characters’ emotions and the realness of how they felt in reaction to their situations was second to none. And yes, it also helped that the heroines in each of those books found themselves operating outside of the bounds of social norms. Then again, just about every Romance involves the characters operating outside of normal.

So I think the important lesson here is to keep your reader on their toes by having your characters feel and react with as much emotional intensity as possible as opposed to sticking them in clever situations and having them think their way through. That’s one thing, at least. The other, which I’ll talk about in a couple of days, is the whole concept of stakes.

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3 thoughts on “Writing Lessons from the Seven Kingdoms, Part One

  1. Thinking your way through can be fun too — but you need the delight, if not of the characters, of the author. Read some of Niven’s short stories — the “I’ve got an Awesome Story” just sort of sparkles

    Just a note about feeling intensely…Be sure to not overact.

  2. You’ve really hit the nail on the head here; it truly is the characters and how completely entrenched you are in their stories that makes ASoIaF so appealing and drawing you back in. Honestly, I don’t even think GRRM kills off that many characters…it’s a lot, but it never seemed shockingly hefty to me as an avid fantasy reader. But what he does is kills off plenty of characters that people like. I’m lucky enough that most of my favorites are still alive (or maybe I can just pick out the ones with longevity written all over them), but I think it’s really a testament to how powerfully the characters are written that it leaves such a mark on people.

    Not an easy task, but definitely something to strive for.

  3. That’s it! That’s why I keep finding myself drawn back to Laini Taylor’s “Daughter of Smoke and Bone” series, which I’m currently working my way through (nearly finished…) It’s the fastest I’ve read anything in AGES, and it’s because of this: The EMOTIONAL choices the characters have to make.

    It’s making me think about my own editing in a new light…

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