Masters of Storytelling: George R.R. Martin

George R.R. Martin (hmmm, double R’s, like J.R.R. Tolkien…) is best known for his series of novels, A Song of Ice and Fire, which are being converted into the HBO show, Game of Thrones.


When I first heard about A Song of Ice and Fire, I didn’t much like the sound of it. I could respect an author breaking the conventional rules (the nonconformist in me always likes that sort of thing), but I was at that stage where I hated everything that could be summarized as “everybody dies.” Technically, I still have a bit of that with me, but it was all I really knew about the series for several years, so, even while I grew out of the phase, I didn’t touch it. Actually, I didn’t even think about it.

Then I heard they’d been making a show based on it, and that piqued my curiosity. Not enough to immediately pursue it, just enough to make it roll around in my head for awhile. Eventually, as you may be suspecting many of these stories go, I found some clips on YouTube which intrigued me.

I found myself taking a particular like to the dwarf, Tyrion Lannister. Here was a man who was not well loved even within his own family, due to his diminutive stature, yet he was intelligent, and applied his mind with some skill. He had the resolve, I saw, to inspire weary soldiers to defend their city, and the wits to outmaneuver those who played political games. It was Tyrion who persuaded me to watch the show and read and the books. (needless to say, he remains my favorite character)

I’m still only part-way through the first novel Game of Thrones, but I think I have a very general feel for George R.R. Martin’s style, the texture of his work.

Great novel-length essays could be written on this particular subject, so please forgive my brevity.

To start with, his characters are quite complex, with their own motivations, strengths, weaknesses, and thought processes. Their interactions are believable and poignant, serving to drive the characters forward, changing into new people through their respective experiences. The scope of the tale is broad, covering several kingdoms across continents and detailing at least three overarching plots, which do have a certain amount of influence on each other in the long term. Yet we can often imagine that we, ourselves, are standing where these characters are standing, seeing what they see, and contemplating their actions as if they were our own.

It’s not perfectly done, as there are things mentioned only briefly and with no great detail given, but the world is obviously wide and varied in a way few storytellers can truly envision. The history is deep, alluded to sometimes in detail, sometimes only in passing, and what history you are given depends on the perspective of the character telling the story. The characters are clearly the result of this world’s history and culture, and that is no small feat for a period-accurate work of complete fiction.

Even Martin’s bending and breaking of rules and stereotypes has more craft to it than I imagined. These are not just a dwarf, a eunuch, a cripple, an exiled princess, and a girl who wants to be a knight. These are people with their own perspectives and desires. In most stories, such roles as a dwarf or a cripple might provide an inspiring example for the main protagonist, but these people are main protagonists, whether they are friends or enemies. Martin uses the many perspectives quite well as he plays with light and darkness, with deeds both kind and brutal, and asks the question of who is really in the right. It’s less simple than one might think, much like real life.

(personal theory, the sides of light and darkness, or ice and fire, are both dangerous and undesirable in some way, so a balance must be found between the two)

In regards to the many people dying, Martin has commented, in an interview with Conan, “I always like the suspense to be real.” It’s true, it has become predictable for us to know who “the hero” of the story is, and know that he or she will escape any mortal danger “because he’s the hero, and you don’t really feel any fear for him. I want my readers and my viewers to be afraid when my characters are in danger.” I agree with Conan, he has accomplished this.

Personally, I see that as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it adds a certain tension to any situation, and certainly we feel more for these characters we have come to love and now see dying horribly. On the other hand… well, like anything else, it can get old. When you can achieve new levels of suspense, it’s best to space it out a bit, instead of mowing down all these beloved characters left, right, and center. In time, even if it breaks the rules at first, it sets itself as a new rule within this particular story, so the surprise comes more when these characters survive instead of when they die, but we’re still just twiddling our thumbs, waiting for them to go belly up.

Speaking of twiddling thumbs, these are some seriously long books. Martin has commented on how writers generally are either like an architect, planning everything in detail in advance, or a gardener, who allow things to grow on their own during the writing process. Most have a bit a both, but Martin is much more a gardener than an architect. This does bode not-good things for the HBO show, having now caught up to the books, with two more massive novels yet to be released, which could keep us waiting for a couple decades.

Just one of those logistical issues a writer should consider before allowing his work to hit the screen. It also argues for having a smaller cast to follow (though Martin’s cast is somehow easier to follow than Robert Jordan’s).

That being said, I do enjoy, very much, how so many people from so many walks of life are all the heroes of their own story, and they all commit questionable actions. As we have fun figuring out what we would do in their place, we learn that nothing is so cut-and-dry as we’d like. Even in our own real-world history, we tend to either whitewash the telling, or judge quickly and harshly the people we can only catch bare glimpses of through the cracked, fogged lens of time. We take our modern morals and apply them to people who never learned them. I find that rather disgusting, and so it is, in a twisted way, quite refreshing to see a story that tells a period tale completely unvarnished.

That being said, there could be some due varnishing.

I’m not sure what bothers me more about the sex scenes in the books and especially on the show: that there’s so much of it, that it’s so tastelessly done, or that it’s utterly irrelevant. We do not need to know that Khal Drogo’s “manhood was still damp” (not a verbatim quote, but that was the gist of it) when we join the couple directly after they’ve had sex. It adds nothing to the story, so could we please just skip it? Please?

As much as people talk about the violence and sex in Martin’s story, I am convinced that it is popular despite their presence, not because of them. And what makes it popular is the characters and their experiences.

I would go into detail about these experiences, and how they transform the characters into better, worse, or just different people than they were before, but that would be the atom bomb of all spoilers, and take a looooooong time to complete. Heck, just talking about what I would do in their place (Ned Stark could have easily defeated the Lannisters and kept his honor if he had just utilized all the resources available to him, and if he’d simply, well, broken one single rule) would take forever.

To end with, I think A Song of Ice and Fire serves best as a tool for discussion, which is an essential function of stories. We have cultures and morals which are foreign to us, but with such intriguing characters that we can’t help but be drawn in. That is the spark for contemplation, and whatever imperfections there are in Martin’s work, that is something I can truly appreciate.

That is, after all, what storytelling is for.

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1 Response to Masters of Storytelling: George R.R. Martin

  1. mthomaswhite says:

    I never thought I would say these words, but I think this new book pushed GRRM beyond the bar set by Tolkien. Saying that actually caused me pain.

    Liked by 1 person

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