HERE BE SPOILERS FOR GAME OF THRONES, BOTH THE SHOW AND THE BOOKS!
The reason to write this post has two origins. First of all, I’ve caught up with the TV show of Game of Thrones, and now I’ve joined the great amount of people who are waiting for the next season. It’s better to be late to a party than to never arrive, right? Second, a comment from the Nerd Maids on my previous post about Game of Thrones has prompted me to share my opinion on the way Martin handles popular characters and death in his works.
First of all, thank you for commenting and sharing your opinion! You have valid points, and I can understand that killing off popular and cool characters seems counterproductive: readers care about them and use them as a way to interact with the written world, and so their deaths are all the more cruel. Plus, why not end the lives of characters nobody cares about, like the Freys in Game of Thrones? You can tell better stories with the “cool cast” still alive than with those…weirdos. I can relate to that opinion, but let me explain why I can’t agree with it.
You see, I’m also a person who really gets into the characters of a book, a show or a movie. If their story is intriguing and well-written, I’m hooked and reeled in like a fat carp. I’m a fan of good versus of evil, of knowing who I should cheer for or having the possibility of choosing a “team”. If both sides of a conflict have interesting characters, the whole conflict gets even more interesting. If you add an epic climax to it then, something that has been built up for multiple books or episodes, you have found a sure way to please me. However, you have also found the easiest way to please me, by serving me a meal I have eaten so many times the flavor has dulled my senses. If you happen to be George R.R. Martin though, you throw a plate in front of me with food that looks familiar, but with a taste that will overwhelm me.
Alright, enough of the weird culinary metaphors. What I’m trying to say is that Martin dares to cross lines other authors don’t, and all of this “trespassing” of his makes his work all the more interesting. Where other writers are afraid to kill their or their reader’s darlings, Martin will rip them out of his stories in a cruel way to propel the entire plot into a new direction. Sure, one might argue that death is the cheapest way to add drama, but it’s also the most efficient way to add emotion and the chaos it causes. Killing someone is final, it presents the reader and the characters in the story with an event they can’t just ignore. Everyone has to take a stance, and these stances will drive the story into an unexpected direction. Sure, the Red Wedding is bloody and cruel, but it turns the entire War of the Five Kings upside down and makes you, the reader and viewer, re-think your opinion about certain individuals. It keeps you engaged in a cruel, yet effective way.
A result of this murderous tendency Martin shows is that no character is ever safe. Fantasy writers tend to save the “heroes” of the story in that last, dramatic moment, just so that they can save the day, free the kingdom and rule with a gentle hand. Martin doesn’t do the “hero”-thing, and he puts everyone and their mother into permanent danger. Every character in his books can be killed, and you should learn that rather sooner than later. This fear of death is a good thing though, since it will make you care even more for the individuals in the story. Why hope that the hero will make it, when you know that the author is using every trope in the universe to make it so? What use is appreciating the depth of a fictional character, when he cannot be taken from you at any moment by some malicious enemy? This fear you feel, and your wish that your “beloved” character will make it actually strengthen your bond with the story, turning the reading of a simple book into a fantastic emotional rollercoaster ride.
I’m not saying that all fantasy authors should be like Martin. We still need the “classic” novels, where good and evil are clearly separated and where the brave hero gets the girl. However, we also need more writers who raise the stakes and add danger to their stories, having their own beloved creations entering the lion’s den multiple times. They might make it out…or they won’t.
No matter the outcome, you are cheering for your favorites, and you will remember their story. You should not weep for the dozens of characters Martin has killed, but the dozens of new plot hooks their deaths have spawned. Where one story ends, a new one begins. Trust Martin to make them good ones, and you will find out that he does not slaughter for fun, but for crafting an epic masterpiece of a story.