Top 10 Fantasy Writing Tips From ‘Game Of Thrones’ Author George R.R. Martin

Top 10 Fantasy Writing Tips From ‘Game Of Thrones’ Author George R.R. Martin

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either need an omnificent viewpoint structure where you’re telling it from the point of view of God, which is a pretty outdated literary technique, or you have a mosaic of people who are seeing one small part of the story and through that you get the entire picture.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.

See also: Get Your Game Of Thrones Fix With These Similar Works Of Fiction!

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.

See also: How To Avoid Game Of Thrones Spoilers | Get Your Game Of Thrones Fix With These Similar Works Of Fiction | How Can I Store My Gaming Miniatures?


  • Thanks George! Will come in handy for my NaNoWriMo… though my writer’s block is just as horrible as yours, and that’s without the distraction of HBO press tours and interviews.

  • Question; If he has said that he doesn’t like the externalization of Evil, then what the heck are the white walkers all about? If they aren’t evil then what are they?

      • Right. The humans see them as “evil”. But they aren’t, they are part of the cycle of life on that world.

        • Moral relativism is an absurd lie. For instance, “The humans see Joffrey as evil, but he isn’t. Joffery was simply a part of the cycle of life in that world.”

          No, Joffery was evil.

          The white walkers play, literally, the exact same role as orcs/goblins did for Tolkien and are the epitome of “the externalization of evil” described by Martin. Yeah, he’s a double-minded hypocrite, which probably is why he does such a great job portraying double-mindedness in his characters, Jamie Lannister being a paradigmatic example. People both love him and hate him.

          • Yep, I doubt any GI in World War 2 thought, hey Hitler is a swell guy. He likes dogs. Lol. Its us vs them. Always has been. Otherwise millions of books and movies with evil characters being fought and defeated would not have happened.

            I agree with Martin’s point though. But he’s trying to write stories about relationships not in the deeper realm of mythology and fairytale where alot of true fantasy lives.

          • Hitler’s people thought that, how do you think he talked them into going to war. I think that was the point he was trying to make. To the people of Germany Hitler was a hero, at the time I should say.

  • I just wanted to let you know how helpful this post was to me and that I recommended it on my blog for other beginning writers.

  • Nice, I just loved this. I have been writing for some time, and at 25 I find myself to be a bit young to have all these different perspectives. I can do the resentful hurt person, the happy strong willed person, and a few other characters. But I find myself in a position where I’m thinking “OK, what happens next?” You might call it writers block, but it happens every two thousand words or so for me. I can never seem to finish a story.

    The advice here is invaluable, and I consider myself lucky to already know much of it. Good and evil, true and false, black and white, all of these exist only in our mind. Our singular perspective allows us to conclusions, conclusions which are often just exclusions. Maybe you know what I mean, maybe you don’t, the point is that George R.R. Martin gives some great advice here. If you really want to be a writer, you can comment here and the mission is accomplished. But if you want to be a good writer of fiction, someone who can build a believable story out of their imagination and limited perspective, then listen to this authors words. Listen to mine too though. Writing is not a talent, it is a skill. A talent is just given, and I don’t know anyone who didn’t have to learn how to write at some point. A skill is learned, a skill is honed and polished. In the pursuit of perfection an author tries new things, and constantly learns from everything around them. I’ll tell you the best way I have found to polish my writing, I read what others have to say. All skills are learnable, and if you want to do it you can. It might be the hardest thing you have ever done, but you too can write a book, a better book than one that’s sold millions of copies. All you need is perseverance, and the drive to polish your skills even when you believe them to be perfect. There’s always room to grow, and there’s always someone who doesn’t want you to. It’s clear that George here is in the other camp. Good on you man!

    • I just want to thank you for taking the time to type out these words of encouragement on this article. That is truly truly encouraging what you just wrote down, and I don’t know if anyone else read it, but at least one person did and it was impactful to him. Just about as impactful as GRRMs interview here. So thank you, and I will hold onto these words as my creative mind runs rampant in my head. And maybe one day I will have created an amazing story that will reach people all over the world.

  • Awesome article, super helpful for all aspiring fantasy authors. I’ve been a fan of GRRM since I first started reading ASOIAF back in middle school. If anyone is looking for a place to start publishing their short stories, poems, or other fantasy forms, is a great place to start! It’s a social writing/publishing app I just started using recently. Best of luck, Scribblers!

  • He just changed the colours that’s all.
    Lord of the rings: White Council and Dark Lord
    Game of thrones: Night’s Watch “black brothers” ” crows” and White Walkers.
    Alice in Wonderland and Wizard of OZ use red for bad and white for good.
    Narnia uses red for good and white for bad.

  • To those suggesting the White Walkers are pure evil thus making George a hypocrite, I suggest you wait ’til the story is finished… GRRM has a few more surprises in store yet, I suspect.

  • This will definitely help while I am beginning to write my series. I am creating a fantasy series inspired by Game of Thrones! It is still in the beginning stages but I currently have most of my characters and plot lines for them thought out. Very good tips from this great author, hopefully someday I will join him!

  • No one yet knows who/what the Walkers are. Are they Gods? Do the people of the world really all deserve to live? We can’t call them evil for killing when real life religions follow Gods who slaughter thousands. Maybe they come around every few thousand years like a natural disaster to allow a new start, like the great flood. The walkers themselves aren’t equitable to good or evil, certainly not like the mindless orcs. Like someone already mentioned, they seem to epitomize ‘winter’, representing the cruel nature of, well, nature. Joffrey is pretty horrible, but since we never see his POV, what do we know of him? He’s hateful and cruel, but he also had a distant, whoremongering drunk for a ‘father’, a mother who loves him so dearly she spoils him rotten, and he’s the product of incest (not that I didn’t dance gleefully at his death, but still, even he isn’t entirely black and white. He’s realer than the Dark Lord figure.)

    Lord of the Rings, in all its fabulous glory, is very black/white as far as the enemies and good guys go. Of course, Tolkien had many grey characters too (my favorite example being Boromir), but there is no way to say that Sauron could have ever been good.

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