Three Lessons Writers can Learn from George R.R Martin

Three writing lessons from successful fantasy author George R.R Martin in celebration of his recent birthday.

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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 and was adapted into the television show Game of Thrones by HBO in 2011, with a prequel House of the Dragon currently airing on the platform and subsequent spin-offs in the preliminary stages of production

A Song of Ice and Fire is a modern literary zeitgeist that has transcended the niche realm of political fantasy and penetrated the realm of mainstream culture, encapsulating audiences from a wide breadth of demographics and seemingly 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 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 that of the sharp dichotomy of good versus evil, or the plot armor that always seemed to unfailingly protect the “important” characters.

His criticism of one of the genre’s most talented and notorious authors describes this very failing. On J.R.R Tolkien’s greatest mistake, Martin cites 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 wants to know two things. 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), since he will definitely face opposition from those who are not as innately good as him and is most likely not even that morally infallible himself. 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.

Tolkien is not alone. Many fantasy authors rely on such tropes. Having read many fantasy works and thus being knowledgeable of these cliches and more, Martin set out on a mission to consciously play with and subvert them in his own writing.

#2: Subvert Reader Expectations

Predictability is the enemy of the author’s craft. After all, what point is there in writing a story if it has already been told the same way 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 by subverting them.

One of these main tropes is the dichotomy of good versus evil. Martin subverts this trope by making each character an amalgam of both good and bad. No character’s morality is easily condemnable or laudable. Some of the characters we want to root most for have done despicable things, and even if not, still have undeniable major character flaws.

IMAGE VIA HBO.

For example, Ned Stark, often deemed the unfairly martyred hero of the first novel of the book series, is certainly an honorable man; he is a doting husband and father, is honest to a fault, 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, ultimately culminating in his own death and a subsequent war between the North and South.

IMAGE VIA HBO.

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. He believes he immediately deserves a higher position than he is assigned, despite his novice status, 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. He is reminded by both his Uncle Benjen Stark and temporary visitor Lord Tyrion Lannister that he must first earn his station, and that his brothers at the wall also have tragic origin stories—perhaps even worse than his, since they did not grow up rich and safe behind the walls of an impressive castle, son of a highly respected Lord from an ancient noble house, nor with a Master at Arms to teach them how to fight. Despite Jon’s likability as a character, he struggles with his entitlement, naivety, and impulsive temper early in the narrative.

IMAGE VIA HBO.

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), only stabs him in the back after he threatens to burn thousands of innocent civilians with wildfire, saving them from certain doom and revealing 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.

IMAGE VIA HBO.

In ASOIAF, those who prioritize noble concepts such as honor and love are often dearly pay the price for such naiveté. The fantasy trope of fantasy itself is integrated and critiqued 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 wants nothing more to be the queen with a gallant lord husband like those from the songs ruling justly by her side. By the end of the first book, this innocence is 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.

IMAGE VIA HBO.

Another example of clever fantasy subversion is Catelyn Stark’s arc, a character who suffers a gruesome death and then gets resurrected, which is by fantasy standards—a genre whose inclusion of magic allows for such evasions of permanence—is 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. 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.

IMAGE VIA HBO.

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. 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. 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.

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.

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, grounding his story with an intense realism that keeps the reader absolutely hooked, willing to endure ruthlessness in exchange for near constant intrigue.

#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 himself is obviously a very detail-oriented writer, who has managed to balance the story arcs of dozens of characters who exist inside of a complex sociological, historical anthropology which also manages to be fantastical in nature. In Martin’s defense, there is clearly a lot to juggle here, especially for a meticulous and methodical 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.

This is the final lesson aspiring writers should take from Martin: be ambitious, and look to expand the boundaries of your genre to give readers a new, fresh, and exciting read, but be both disciplined and feasible about what it is you can accomplish. Set reasonable deadlines, employ help when needed, and perhaps, cut your writing down to size down if it grows too unwieldy and doing so will not sacrifice its quality.

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