5 Lessons on Creating Amazing Characters from A Song of Ice and Fire

(I think I kept all the spoilers out, but if you haven’t read the books yet please be advised, and read it already!)

The trailer for A Game of Thrones Season 4 has been released, and like most fans, I can’t wait for the season premier.  Since the countdown has me thinking about George R.R. Martin’s series, A Song of Ice and Fire, I thought I would share some thoughts on what I believe makes the series so addicting.

When I started reading A Game of Thrones about a year ago, I was immediately hooked on the series and read them all as quickly as I could.  As a writer, it made me wonder what it was about the books, and then the show, that was so wonderful. I know that the plot is exciting, and writing is lovely, and the world is amazing, but I think it all goes back to how dynamic his characters are.  Readers would not keep turning the pages unless they were interested in what happened to the characters.

Here are a few ways Martin made them so interesting:

1. No Two Characters Have the Same Goals and Motives

Every character in this book has a  different goal, or at least a different motive.  You won’t find the large groups of characters banded together for a cause all for the same reasons, because that would be boring and unrealistic.  When people share goals, they all have different reasons for wanting that specific outcome.  In ASOIAF, characters that share a similar goal, such as the desire to see a certain house on the throne, want it for different reasons.

For example, while many characters may want Stannis on the throne, the reasons why vary.  Some believe he is the rightful heir to the throne, others want power that he acan give them, and some want to aid him out of a sense of loyalty or duty.  Davos’s reason for supporting Stannis is very different from Melisandre’s, and yet they support the same king (in a sense).

Furthermore, these goals, or in this scenario, allegiances, develop because of each character’s individual past.

2. The Characters All Have Rich Back Stories

Each character’s back story is completely different.  These stories develop depth beyond what readers see in the actual context of the story.  There are lost loves, deaths, and triumphs before we ever meet the characters, and each of these things has impacted the way the characters think.

SIn ASOIAF, Even characters who have similar upbringings, like each of the Lannister children, for example.  Jaime, as Tywin’s heir, was raised to take his place, whereas Cersei, who was his twin, had a very different experience because she was a girl.  We learn that she feels she is just as competent as Jaime and should have been treated the same, but Cersei was destined to be a political pawn in her father’s quest for power.  Tyrion’s upbringing was completely different from either of his elder siblings.  He was the most intelligent, and perhaps most suited to Tywin’s aims, but as a dwarf he was treated cruelly and never taken seriously.

All these different experiences formed the children in very different ways.  Jaime is brave and skilled at combat, but afraid of power.  Cersei wants power and is resentful that she was never given the chance to earn it.  Tyrion learned to compensate for this looks and lack of physical ability with wit and protects himself through crude and often hurtful humor.  Their experiences then influence Martin’s treatment of their dialogue and thoughts.

3. Each Character’s Voice is Different

Martin makes things difficult for himself by writing from many characters’ perspectives throughout the series, and we’ve all probably read books in which the author attempts this poorly because all the characters sound the same.  Martin, however, does not fall into the trap of making characters sound the same and goes far beyond the basics of accents.

For example, Northerners and Southerners in Westeros use different words and look at the world through different perspectives.  Southerners who are raised in the new religion think of things in terms of the “Seven,” even naming and counting objects and places in groups of seven, while Northerners think of the world in terms of the “old gods” and focus more on the natural world.

Martin ensures characters are different internally.  Just as external dialogue varies between characters, when I read a chapter from Tyrion’s point of view, there is no confusion about who is narrating because Tyrion’s internal thoughts and observations, which are typically more humorous and witty, are completely different from Jon Snow’s, which are generally more serious.  What Bran notices, usually small details and nature, is different from what Brienne would notice, competitors and aids for survival.  Every character thinks differently and puts information into the context of his or her own experience and goals.  These different points-of-view don’t just tell us a different part of the story, they show us how different humans react to different sets of circumstances.

4. Every Character Has Something to Lose

There isn’t a single character in the series who isn’t risking something at every point in the story.  When Martin’s characters act, they all know that there are consequences, whether good or bad, just as real people do.  What makes this even more interesting for readers is that Martin never fails to deliver the consequence and follow it to the end, even if it means death.  Authors often put characters in difficult situations and get them out without little personal risk, or without any pain.  Every character in Martin’s world takes risks, and every one of them loses from time to time, some more than others.  There is not a single character in ASOIAF that is exempt from pain and loss. 

5. Every Character is Good and Evil

(It is difficult to avoid spoilers on this one, but I believe I have managed…)

A major pitfall for many authors is making characters too archetypal.  For example, some stories have a chivalrous knight who is always good and never falters in loyalty and obedience, but we know that this isn’t realistic.  Humans are not singularly natured, and our characters shouldn’t be either.  Writers have to show the good and the bad.  Heroes must fail or falter, and villains must be redeemable, otherwise characters are inaccessible and there is nothing that will tug at the hearts of your readers.  Martin is an expert at showing both sides of human nature.

No matter which character you choose, each character is both good and evil, at least in the eyes of another character.  Cersei is ruthless, but she is fiercely protective of her children.  Tyrion, though usually wise and even-tempered has his own inner demons that he addresses at the end of the third book.  Rob Stark is both fiercely loyal to his cause and impetuous in the face of passion.  Jaime believes in honor and loyalty, but pushes Bran off the tower to save his reputation.  What of the kingslaying?

Even Ned Stark, the paragon of honor in the series, is called an adulterer (I won’t go into theories… ok, ok… R+L=J!  Believe it folks!).  Besides, weren’t Ned and Robert traitors?  How much more interesting is the story because the characters are dynamic?  Joffrey may be the only truly evil character, but can you blame him?  His mother spoiled and smothered him to death!

Just think about what Martin has done:

You Care About All The Characters

Whether you love them or want them dead, you have strong feelings for all of them, and haven’t those feelings changed over time?

How many times have you flipped sides back and forth cheering for different characters?  Didn’t Ned’s story devastate you?  Don’t you want Tyrion to be successful at King’s Landing?  Don’t you want Rob to win the war?  Don’t you want Daenerys to dominate the world?  Not all those things are compatible, and even knowing that, we want it all.

Reading these books overwhelmed me with so many feelings for so many characters, and I felt like I was pulled back and forth between them, but that’s a good thing!  I want to read a book about characters that I love and hate.  I want them to make me feel something.  I want to throw the book in outrage because of what happened to one of my favorites, even when I don’t understand why they had to die yet (it’s ok, we just have to keep trusting that GRRM knows what he’s doing!).

Martin’s characters feel like the people we know, even if their experiences are different.  Isn’t this what we all want?  Doesn’t every author want a devoted fan base ravenous for the next installment because they love the people the author has created?  I think every writer can take a lesson from Martin.  It certainly won’t hurt!

I found some lovely resources for you:  If you are interested in hearing Martin talk about his characters or his process, watch these videos.  They were super informative!

This is an interview Martin did with Amazon answering fan questions.  At 6:25  he talks about his thoughts on writing so many different characters.

You may have already seen this one.  This interview with George Stroumboulopoulos went viral because Stroumboulopoulos asked how Martin writes women so well.  See his epic answer at 18:35!  I think the whole think is fabulous, and I would encourage watching the whole thing, but if you’re short on time, here are two more key moments:

2:20 – Making mistakes in writing a large series (To remind us that all authors are human)

3:20 – Two types of writers (The ever popular planner-panster argument)

What are your thoughts on Martin’s characters?  Who is your favorite and why?  What have you learned about writing by reading ASOIAF?  Leave your answers in the comments:

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Learn From Your Reading: The Shadow of the Wind

I’m starting a series called “Learn From Your Reading,” in which I will talk about what writers can learn from reading the works of other authors.  I firmly believe that all writers should be readers, and more importantly, should be able to critically assess the work of other writers to figure out what works well in those books or what doesn’t.  While I may do book reviews at a later time, this isn’t a review.  It’s a lesson in what you can learn from I’ve read.  Since I recently finished reading The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, I’m going to start with it.

There are so many things that Zafon does well that I could talk about, like characterization and  , but he thing I think that sets him apart the most, though, is his parallel plot structure.  Of course he isn’t the first writer to do it, but I think that the does it particularly well.

Parallelism

Dictionary.com defines parallelism as “the repetition of a syntactic construction in successive sentences for rhetorical effect.”  That’s the definition I learned in high school English, and then again in college when we studied rhetorical tropes.  On a syntactic level, parallelism is the repetition of key elements, such as sounds or phrases, ordered to create a rhythm in the flow of the words.  The repetition and rhythm then help audiences remember points and help create a sense of “rightness” with the words of the text because they flow in the pattern, but I don’t want to talk about the syntactic level. I want to focus on parallelism on a larger scale: that of the entire story.

This means that elements of the story as a whole repeat and create a rhythm and help readers become more engaged in the story and have that feeling of “rightness” in the end.  In terms of plot, it can create a sense of inevitability.  Zafon is a master of creating this sense of “rightness.”

I don’t want to spoil the book because I want you to read it, so I’m going to try to be less specific.  No matter what his characters go through, his plot is constructed in a way that his plot points are repeated with slight variations, and this makes readers feel that everything happens the way it is meant to happen.  This then plays into the book’s large themes of fate and consequence.

The Shadow of the Wind is fantastical and comfortable at the same time.  It’s as if as you read, you say, “Of course.  It has to happen that way.  The reason is the way  Zafon uses repetition.  It puts readers at ease by bringing up these points from before.  As you take in the book, you think, “Oh, I remember something about that.”  This makes the story flow on a subconscious level that help readers fall into the comfortable patterns of the book, and it makes it difficult to put it down.

I definitely recommend that writers read The Shadow of the Wind.  Not only is it a fun, interesting read, but it will teach you a lot about creative stories, characterization, and how to appropriately handle back story without boring readers.  The most unique thing, however, is the way writers can learn a lot about how to make your readers comfortable while keeping them engaged and surprised at the same time.

Have you read this book?  Do you have thoughts on parallelism?  Leave a comment.