George R.R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is a hit fantasy series that has sold more than 90 million copies worldwide, was adapted into the hit television show Game of Thrones by HBO in 2011, and currently has a prequel House of the Dragon airing on the network with subsequent spin-offs in the preliminary stages of production.
A Song of Ice and Fire is a modern literary zeitgeist. It has transcended the niche realm of political fantasy and penetrated the realm of mainstream culture, encapsulating audiences from a wide breadth of demographics and refusing to relinquish them from its unyielding grip.
Despite the series’ whimsical inclusions of dragons, magic, and semi-normalized incest, Martin has many times asserted that his goal was to craft a realistic world equipped with complex and morally ambiguous characters, political realism, warring philosophies, and logical and unapologetic consequences that occur despite (and at times, actively in spite of) the reader’s wishes.
It is clear that Martin has struck some universal nerve with his innovative storytelling, and that writers can and should look to author as a source of inspiration for bettering their craft.
In celebration of his recent 74th birthday, here are three nuggets of wisdom that all writers can learn from the mega-bestselling author.
#1: Be Well-Read in Your Genre
Being an avid fan of the fantasy genre growing up, Martin loved its escapist surrealism but simultaneously hated its unrealistic conventions that took him out of the story—such as the sharp dichotomy of good versus evil or the plot armor that always unfailingly protected the “important” characters.
His criticism of one of the genre’s most talented and notorious authors describes these failings. When asked about J.R.R Tolkien’s greatest mistake, Martin is critical of two things. One is the resurrection of Gandalf, which Martin says retrospectively ruins the emotional levity of his “death.”
His other complaint is the ultimate thesis of The Lord of the Rings: that a government’s successful reign is entirely dependent upon being led by a morally “good” individual—an admittedly naive fantasy even for a fantasy novel.
Martin has further questions after giving his answer. First, what does it mean to be infallibly good, and and when has that person ever existed? Second, what were King Aragorn’s tax policies?
No society can or has ever run smoothly simply because its ruler is moral (a vague term that itself opens its own can of worms). Such a person will face opposition from those who are not as innately good as them, are not that infallible themselves, and must contend with pragmatic and bureaucratic challenges in their reign that have nothing to do with morality at all.
Including such a “happily ever after” ending undercuts the immersion of the critical reader who can only suspend their disbelief so far, and trivializes the stakes of the story as a whole since it was all going to end up just fine the whole time.
Many fantasy authors rely on such tropes. Having read many fantasy works and thus being knowledgeable of these listed cliches and more, Martin set out on a mission to consciously play with and subvert them in his own writing. A massive part of his appeal is that the critical reader, upon picking apart Martin’s work, finds an addictive presence of layers rather than a maddening presence of holes. This is because Martin does not shy away from these hard questions. What is truth? What is good? What is a ruler? Rather, the success of his work relies upon his brazen insistence of their asking.
#2: Subvert Reader Expectations
Predictability is the enemy of the author’s craft. After all, what point is there in reading a story if it has already been told before? After being well-read enough in their chosen genre to be aware of its traditional tropes, cliches, and other conventions, the aspiring writer can learn from Martin how to craft an engaging narrative that cleverly subverts them. Here are a list of Martin’s characters who subvert common fantasy tropes and how they do so.
“Good” + “Bad”
One of the main tropes that permeates fantasy but also literature and storytelling in general is the black and white dichotomy of good versus bad/evil. Martin subverts this by making each character an amalgam of both good and bad. No character’s morality is easily condemnable or laudable. The characters we want to root most for have either done despicable things or have undeniably consequential character flaws. On the other hand, the characters who would be easy to write off as villainous stubbornly maintain laudable attributes, justifiable motives, and complex personalities.
Ned Stark is often deemed the unfairly martyred hero of the first novel of the book series, and perhaps rightfully so. He is certainly an honorable man; he is a doting husband and father, well-respected soldier and ruler, is bluntly honest (to a fault), is a devoted and humble worshipper of his gods, and soberly performs his duties even when he does not want to.
Although admirable to the omnipotent reader, in the world in which he resides, Ned’s honesty befalls his own demise. His Northern bluntness and honor do not fare well against his duplicitous, scheming enemies of the politically savvy south, who use his own honor against him. This flaw ultimately culminates in the emotional climax of book one, when he foolishly tells Queen Cersei and the King’s court that her son Joffrey is not the rightful ruler (he is a bastard she has spawned with her own brother). The inbred bastard king soon orders his execution for such an outwardly treasonous accusation.
Ned’s death in retrospect remains tragic, but makes sense. In fact, knowing who he was and where he was going, we should have always feared for his life. The fantasy trope that the good guy lives gave us a hope that Martin brutally denied us—masterfully so by making the decision both well-crafted and consequential.
Ned’s death was not done for pure shock value, but has substantial and substantive causes and effects. It marks an interesting jumping off point for the story’s future development. His daughter Arya becomes consumed by a cruel vengeance which both challenges and bolsters her inherited penchant for justice. His other daughter Sansa is jostled from her naive stupor, losing the rose-colored glasses in lieu of a cynicism that more accurately reflects her dismal reality and protects her from its many dangers. Ned’s death also has tangible political consequences. War is officially afoot between the North and South after the North defects from the seven kingdoms and names Ned’s son Robb Stark, “a boy so green he pisses grass,” King of the North.
We may be disappointed in Ned’s absence from the story going forward, but we are to be far from bored. Martin’s interesting ensemble of characters prevents any one character from being the story’s beating heart that it cannot function without.
Another fan favorite character, Jon Snow, has many great qualities. Like his father (wink wink) Ned Stark, Jon is honest, honorable, and kind. In the first book however, upon his arrival at the Wall to join the ancient order of the Night’s Watch, which he quickly discovers is now a run-down, underfunded abode of criminals and thieves, he is also arrogant and hot-headed.
Despite his novice status, he believes he immediately deserves a higher position than he is assigned because of his elite fighting abilities in comparison to his unimpressive brothers. He has a chip on his shoulder being a bastard, a victim narrative which fuels his own sense of entitlement.
Blinded by his own suffocating insecurities and overcompensations, he initially fails to recognize his poor attitude as well as privilege in comparison to his new brothers. They, unlike him, did not grow up wealthy in a castle, as the son of a highly respected Lord from an ancient noble house, with a family who (for the most part) loved him dearly. Jon does not initially recognize the advantages and privileges his life as an albeit neglected noble bastard have afforded him since he is so hyper-fixated on its lacks.
Despite Jon’s likability as a character, he struggles with his entitlement, naivety, and impulsive temper early in the narrative. These are not insignificant quirks or unintentional aspects of Jon’s character that Martin is uncritical of. Jon is repeatedly reminded and required to be more measured and humble if he wishes to rise in station at the Wall. The following reprimand given by Lord Commander Mormont to his newly assigned, subtly mutinous, and moody steward Jon Snow in the season two premiere encapsulates the critical tone the narrative takes with Jon’s flaws perfectly:
“You want to rule one day? Then learn how to follow.”
He is also chastised by his Uncle Benjen Stark, First Ranger of the Night’s Watch. Benjen tells him that a man at the wall is given nothing freely and must earn his station. Lord Tyrion Lannister, a visitor, also chastises Jon by telling him to employ some perspective. His brothers at the wall have led tragic lives worse than his. They are not good sparring competition because they did not grow up with a Master at Arms to teach them how to fight. His fellow brother and best friend Sam advises him to take advantage of being named the Lord Commander’s steward instead of reveling in his wounded pride at not being assigned a ranger.
Having been repeatedly put into his place, Jon resigns himself to his duties as steward. His humility and temperance is rewarded, as it positions him to be qualified and well-liked enough to take on the Lord Commander role himself later on via popular vote. Instead of bemoaning his brothers’ lack of skills, he gives them fighting suggestions, ingratiating himself and making friends.
It is refreshing to see a “good” character have legitimate struggles that they must overcome in order to be successful. Jon’s struggles are external (i.e obtaining a higher rank), but also deeply internal as well (combatting his own insecurities, exercising his immense inner ambitions, and killing his ego).
It is also nice to see a character being primed for leadership in real time as opposed to being naturally fit for the role, or already a fully formed leader by the time we meet them. Jon in the beginning of ASOIAF is a boy who has a good heart, but also youthful and flawed follies.
Similarly, characters we intend to condemn as the story’s antagonist grow on us, to our great confusion and continued disdain. Think Jamie Lannister, a sworn knight of the King’s Guard who slayed the last King, the infamously mad Aerys Targaryen, and is thus known by the insulting term “Kingslayer.”
Since our first introduction of him reveals an arrogant man who beds his own sister and cripples a ten year old boy after he witnesses them coupling, we are instantly inclined to hate his guts. However, Martin reveals a more complex vision of Jamie as the story continues on.
Jamie, despite his desire to be uphold his vows to always protect the King (which can be still interpreted as an extension of his own vain desire to be perceived as honorable), stabs him in the back after he threatens to burn thousands of innocent civilians with wildfire. He betrays his king and ruins his own reputation (which is of great importance to him) to save a city of strangers from certain death. He does care about people other than himself. He is also one of the few characters who shows his brother Tyrion, a disfigured dwarf, any shred of genuine unconditional love and kindness.
In the show, he knocks down one of the members of the kingsguard for unfairly interfering a fight between him and Ned, then refusing to kill his vulnerable opponent since it would not be “clean.” He possesses a jarring honesty when confronted by Catelyn Stark about what happened to her crippled son Bran, admitting plainly, “I pushed him out of the window. I hoped the fall would kill him.” He befriends female knight Brienne of Tarth, and swears to take on her failed vow of protecting Catelyn’s daughter Sansa. Vows and honor, strangely, mean a great deal to the otherwise villainous Jamie Lannister.
The White Walkers/Others
Martin does not select one antagonist or protagonist to lead his story. There is no one ”hero” or “villain,” nor is their pure good or evil. It is heavily implied that the story’s closest thing to “villains,” the White Walkers—a.k.a ice zombies who bring with them fatally freezing winter winds and the ability to raise the dead—were created by the native Children of the Forest as a defense mechanism against the invading First Men who pillaged and stole their lands. They are not mindless, evil zombies, but a magical defense mechanism created to combat humanity’s own apathetic brutality.
Life is Not a Song!
In ASOIAF, those who prioritize noble concepts such as honor and love are often dearly pay the price for such naiveté. The trope of fantasy itself is integrated by Martin with the character of Sansa Stark, who serves as a meta-critique of the genre.
By the beginning of book one she is a wide-eyed little girl who enjoys traditionally feminine past times such as sewing, singing, and playing princes and princesses with her siblings. She wants nothing more to be the queen with a gallant lord husband, like those from the songs she loves, ruling justly by her side.
By the end of the first book, this innocence is literally butchered as she watches her father get unjustly decapitated in front of a crowd of bloodthirsty commoners on false charges of betraying the psychotic boy-king, her very ungallant betrothed. Sansa’s shock at encountering the harsh reality of her world, after having been essentially groomed her whole life to be a perfect lady and idealist, emulates the readers own jarring realization of what Martin is up to with trope subversion in service of at times brutal realism.
What is Dead May Never Die
Another example of clever fantasy subversion is Catelyn Stark’s arc, a character who suffers a gruesome death and then gets resurrected. This is, by fantasy standards, a genre whose inclusion of magic allows for such evasions of permanence, a perhaps predictable turn of events. However, upon her reanimation, she has morphed into a vengeful monster whose sole goal is to inflict torment upon her enemies, a far cry from her fierce but (mostly) maternal origins.
Her death and rebirth have severe consequences for her character, and is not a mere plot convenience meant to console the reader. The essence of Catelyn that the reader may have once loved remains ruthlessly dead, even though the body she once inhabited is physically reanimated (in a way, a worse kind of torment).
. . . . . . . . . . . .
The greatest strength of A Song of Ice and Fire is that it commits the ultimate act of art imitating life. Nothing is clean cut and obvious, and no one person or ideology is overtly favored or denounced. Every character is humanized by being given a relatable motive subject to honest, nuanced scrutiny that does not fall easily into the trope conventions that we are used to reading. No matter how seemingly infallible or irredeemable they are, there is always more under the surface. Martin makes us subject our innate biases to more critical consideration than we are traditionally used to.
It is important to note that Martin does not, and neither should any writer, rely purely on shock value in creating their own subversions. Subversions should come as a shock, but in retrospect, should have been adequately built up to enough so as to feel earned and not random.
Martin may certainly be an author with a plan—if his impressive ability to weave together such an intricate world is any indication–but he is not one with an agenda. In his writing, Martin paints his reality with a cruel and yet realistic stroke. He grounds his writing with an intense realism that keeps the reader absolutely hooked, willing to endure ruthlessness in exchange for near constant intrigue. His unwillingness to categorize people or situations in one-dimensional categories is what makes this possible.
#3: Don’t Bite off More Than you can Chew
The final bit of advice Martin has to offer an aspiring writer is an admittedly cheeky inclusion on my part as a fan adamantly anticipating the ending of his seven part series (which has waited over 11 years for its newest penultimate installment). With Martin ever getting older, having celebrated his aforementioned 74th birthday this past September 20th, many fans are anxious that their favorite story may never be finished.
Martin is a very detail-oriented writer who must manage the story arcs of dozens of characters who exist inside of a vast, complex, and fantastical world. In Martin’s defense, there is clearly a lot to juggle here—especially for a meticulous writer who takes his time and whose success has catapulted him into a stratosphere that has left him even less of it to work with.
To be fair, good things do take time, and great things take even longer. Regardless, one does have to wonder, as Martin himself has before, if he has bitten off more than he can chew.
Aspiring authors likely will not have the same sway Martin does to get away with perennially prolonging their work. The aspiring writer should set reasonable deadlines, and perhaps, cut their writing down to size down if it grows too unwieldy and doing so will not sacrifice its quality. Of course, if you reach GRRM status, these tips may not apply. For the average plebeian however, not doing so could cost you your book deal.
Be ambitious. Do your research! Ask yourself, what kind of story do I wish existed, and then create it. Expand the boundaries of your genre to give readers an imaginative, fresh, and exciting read. But, in doing all of this, be feasible about what it is you can accomplish and disciplined in doing it.