Last night, A Game Of Thrones author George R.R. Martin took to the stage at the Sydney Opera House to discuss his popular fantasy series, the spin-off HBO TV show and his craft as a writer. Below are ten kernels of wisdom that could help budding authors write their own fantasy saga. (Surprisingly, ‘take your time’ isn’t one of them.)
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Don’t limit your imagination
I knew right from the beginning I wanted the story to be large and complex. Before A Song of Ice and Fire I had been working in television for ten years. Whenever I turned in a script it was a common scene where they would say “George, this is great but it’s too big and expensive; you need to cut it down. You currently have 126 characters — we have a budget for six.”
When I went back to prose, there were suddenly no limits: I could write something huge with all the characters I wanted, with battles, dragons and immense settings. Of course, I thought this will be unfilmable and that I’d never have to worry about Hollywood again. But that’s [Game of Thrones TV producers] David Benioff’s and Dan Weiss’ problem now.
Choose your point-of-view characters to broaden the narrative’s scope
My story is essentially about a world at war. It begins very small with everybody apart from Daenerys in the castle of Winterfell. It’s a very tight focus, and then as the characters split apart, each character encounters more people and additional POVs come into focus.
It’s like if you were trying to do World War 2 as a novel: do you just take one average GI? Well that would only cover the European theatre, not the Pacific. Do you make Hitler a point-of-view character to show the other side? What about the Japanese or Italy? Roosevelt, Mussolini, Eisenhower — all these characters have a unique viewpoint that presents something huge in Word War 2.
So you either need an omnificent viewpoint structure where you’re telling it from the point of view of God, which is a pretty outdated literary technique, or you have a mosaic of people who are seeing one small part of the story and through that you get the entire picture. That’s the path I chose to take.
It’s okay to “borrow” from history
Although my story is fantasy, it is strongly grounded in actual Medieval history. The War of the Roses was one of the major influences, which had the Yorks and the Lancasters instead of the Starks and the Lannisters. But I like to mix and match and move things around. As the famous saying goes; stealing from one source is plagiarism but stealing from lots of sources is research!
On believable POVs
Ultimately all of us are alone in the universe — the only person we ever really know deeply is ourselves. Obviously, I’ve never been a dwarf or a princess, so when I’m writing these characters I have to try and get inside their skin and see what the world would be like from their position. It’s not always easy.
Some of it can be resolved by talking to real people. I had a correspondence with a fan when I was writing the first and second book who was a paraplegic. He gave me a lot of valuable insight on how to write Bran and what it would be like to be in that situation.
But ultimately, I think the humanity all my characters share is more important than whether they’re men or women, or princesses or peasants, tall or small. While these things certainly make a difference, all human beings in all cultures throughout history have wanted success and love and a certain prosperity and to eat and not be killed. These are pretty basic things that motivate all people and I try to keep that in mind when writing any character.
Grief is a powerful tool — but don’t overdo it
Presenting grief is hard to do. Years ago I was on a TV show called Beauty and the Beast, which starred Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton. Linda left the show after the second season to pursue a movie career, so we decided to write the character out instead of recasting her, because that was more dramatic. We had the character killed off and this led to a huge fight with the network.
We wanted to spend a whole episode where the character is buried and everyone spends 60 minutes weeping and grieving and sharing their memories of her. But the network didn’t want us to show any of that. They said “the character’s dead, you need to move on and introduce the new beauty. Let’s never mention the name of her character again.” The entire writer’s room was horrified by this. It was supposed to be a love story for the ages; he wasn’t going to just forget about her and move on to another beauty.
We kind of won the battle but we lost the war. We presented the episode and it was very powerful. I think our hardcore viewership watched it, wept copious tears and then never watched the show again! Grief doesn’t necessary translate to entertainment value. That said, it does make for more powerful storytelling. Presenting not just death, but grief is important. At some point, we all experience the loss of our parents, or sibling or close friend and it’s a very powerful emotion.
Violence should have consequences — so spare nothing!
If you’re going to write about Medieval-style warfare, you need to show it — those swords aren’t just for show. You should present it honestly in all its ugliness and horror. Medieval battles were exceptionally bloody; people were striking each other with large, very sharp pieces of metal that hacked off limbs and left devastating, hideous injuries. At the Battle of Hastings there are contemporary reports of screens of blood. I like to show the believable aftereffects of war, such as the maimed man who lived afterwards.
Funnily enough, the show has been killing a number of minor characters who are still alive in the books, such as Daenerys’ two handmaidens. When I approached [the producers] about this, they explained to me that unlike my book characters, the actors expect to be paid money! Therefore, in order to introduce a new character at the start of each season, they’ve got to kill some of the old characters off.
Avoid fantasy cliches
I love fantasy and I’ve been reading it all my life, but I’m also very conscious of its flaws. One of the things that drives me crazy is the externalisation of evil, where evil comes from the “Dark Lord” who sits in his dark palace with his dark minions who all wear black and are very ugly. I’ve deliberately played with that, where you have the Night’s Watch who even though they are filled with thieves and poachers and rapers are heroic people — but they all wear black. And then there are the Lannisters who are tall and fair but aren’t the nicest people.
In simplistic fantasy, the wars are always fully justified — you have the forces of light fighting a dark horde who want to spread evil over the earth. But real history is more complex. There’s a great scene in William Shakespeare’s Henry V where he goes walking among his men in disguise on the eve of the battle of Agincourt and some of them are questioning whether the king’s cause is just or not and lamenting all the people who are going to die to support his claim. That’s a valid question. Then you have the Hundred Year War, which was basically a family quarrel that caused entire generations to be slaughtered. So I try to show that in my writing.
On creating “grey” characters
Grey characters have always interested me the most and I think the world is full of them. I read a lot of history, and I don’t see any purely heroic characters or purely evil characters. You could pick the most extreme examples — Hitler famously loved dogs. Stalin, Mao, Genghis Khan; the great mass murderers of history were all heroic in their mind’s eye. Conversely you can read stories about all the saints from Catholic history and Mother Theresa or Ghandi and you can find things about them that were flawed or questionable actions that they undertook.
We’re all grey and I think we all have the capacity in us to do heroic things and very selfish things. I think understanding that is how you create characters that really have some depth to them. Even when I’m writing someone like Theon Greyjoy, who many people hate, I have to try and see the world through his eyes and make sense of what he does.
Juggling lots of characters takes skill — and luck
I do sometimes wonder if it will be possible to tie up all the loose threads in my saga. I have nightmares when I think about wrapping everything up in the last two books. I think I can do it, but we’ll see when I get to the end. Sometimes these damn characters have a mind of their own and refuse to do what I want them to do. I guess we’ll know if it all comes together in another decade or so!
Remember: Winter is coming
Valar morghulis — all men must die. I think an awareness of our own mortality is something that concerns most art and literature. But I don’t think that necessarily translates to a pessimistic worldview. Just like in the real world, my characters are only here for a short time; the important thing is that love, passion, empathy, laughter; even laughing in the face of death, is still possible. There is darkness in the world but we don’t have to give way to despair. One of the best themes in The Lord of the Rings is that despair is the ultimate crime. Winter is coming, but you can light the torches and drink the wine and gather around the fire and continue to fight the good fight.