Tuesday, March 27, 2018

The Book that Breaks All the Rules, Part 4: Love Your Characters

As I said yesterday, Martin grew up as a very powerless kid, yet he’s writing about the rich and powerful. Does that affect his ability to feel empathy for them? Let me be clear: Martin is a master at getting us to love his characters, even characters working at cross purposes. Ned wants to put Stannis on the throne, Tyrion is willing to prop up Joffrey, and Daenerys wants the throne for herself, but we fall in love with all three characters, as well as at least four more.

In this post, I said that the only one of the eight POV characters that it was hard to love was Sansa, but I got good pushback in the comments, so let’s focus on different examples: Ned and Daenerys.  In these cases, Martin definitely gets us to love them, but does he do so by loving them himself? Is it possible to create empathy for a character without feeling empathy for the character? This gets back to an old-post: Be a Good God. A good God is not just all-knowing and all-powerful, but also all-loving. Is Martin all-loving?

The second half of this book is all about suffering. Specifically, the good suffer and evil triumphs (except the capture of Jamie, which feels inconsequential, and indeed will turn out to be in future books). What is Martin’s point here?

  • Is he just trying to be realistic? To show the way the world works? It doesn’t seem so to me, because if he was, good and evil wouldn’t be so clearly demarcated. Jamie, Cercei, and Tywin, at least in this book, seem like the sort of exaggerated mustache twirling villains one does not associate with realistic fiction.
  • Or is he trying to make a moral point? Is he saying the good deserve to suffer? Is he harshly punishing naïveté and idealism because he wants us to know that these things are wrong?

In this and subsequent books, the good don’t suffer because they’re the victims of fate, they suffer because of their naïve decisions, because of their belief in goodness. Ned trusts Cercei to leave, then he doesn’t want to upset Robert before he dies, then he trusts Littlefinger to help oust Cercei. Daenerys tries to stand up for the women being raped, only to have one of them turn her husband into a zombie and her baby into a dead demon. In later books, Robb will lose everything, first by trusting Theon and then by trusting Walder Frey.

When we watch Ned getting his head chopped off from Arya’s POV or when Joffrey later taunts Sansa with that severed head, it’s hard not to use the word sadism, but is it merely the victimizers’ sadism to their victims, or Martin’s sadism to his readers? Do the readers feel masochism, and is that masochism part of the appeal of the book? (Masochism was certainly pleasurable for Masoch.)

May I indulge in some armchair psychology and speculate that Martin’s disadvantaged childhood might have caused him to be dubious of the noblesse oblige of the well-to-do? He loved Stan Lee comics, but did he come to believe that Lee’s good-triumphs-over-evil narratives were naïve and didn’t match his own put-upon experience? Did he come to posit himself as the anti-Lee, rewarding evil and punishing goodness? In the opening chapter, Martin repeatedly uses “lordling” contemptuously. Growing up did he see the other kids as lordlings, and resent the “good” ones even more than the self-interested ones?

(Some of you will say I’m being ridiculous. Martin is able to create a lot of love for his characters, so surely he must love them, and punish them with a heavy heart. This is possible.)

Does the book get away with it? Yes and no. This gets back to readers’ frustration with Martin for never finishing the series. One reason some readers are desperate to finish the series is that some continue to believe that, in the end, good will triumph over evil, despite the fact that nothing we’ve read so far has prepared us for that. It’s possible to reject the obvious moral if we can believe all will turn out for the best in the end.

And this is perhaps why he hasn’t finished, why he’s left Jon Snow bleeding out on the floor all these years. He wants to let his readers have it both ways. He will let some believe that Jon is going to pop back up and win the day, but the rest will suspect that, even if Jon survives, all will be for naught.

Some readers remain idealists, even after all that’s happened, and believe that Martin will eventually reward them and his remaining good characters. Others accept their own masochism, and warily crave more, even though they know that things will only get worse. Perhaps Martin can’t bring himself to let either side down.


Eric C said...

I'm surprised and fascinated at where you're drawing some of the moral lines here, Matt.

Robb made a deal with Frey to support his disadvantaged rebellion. When they let Robb's army pass to take the field, they basically signed a death warrant for their house if the rebellion failed. Walder is not a man who risks that sort of thing lightly, and Martin drew attention to the fact that he stayed on the fence in the last war until it was basically decided.

In exchange for this huge risk, they offered Walder the chance to get in on the ground floor of their possible independent nation, making one of his daughters queen and elevating them all. For a man like Walder, who is used to everyone treating him like rubbish until they want or need something from him (even within his own family), this chance of a big win and going out on top was what it took to make him take a side.

Robb got them to commit treason and then just casually discarded his promise to them. Why? Well, he didn't want some nobody who took advantage of him him while he was sick and traumatized to have to find a husband while not being a virgin.

That's... a pretty huge betrayal, and an enormously disrespectful one that is perfectly aimed at the victim's personal issues, at that. Even his mother called him out on how terrible of a decision this was.

Robb didn't die because he trusted the treacherous Walder Frey, he died because Walder Frey realized that he threw away the lives of his family by trusting the treacherous Robb Stark, who took the first opportunity to spit in his face about it, and then expected him to throw him a party to celebrate.

Robb was very definitely the bad guy in that little story.

It's just that readers (and viewers) were already sympathetic to him because of his place in the larger story.

Matt Bird said...

Harsh, man, harsh! It's a testament to Martin that he was able to create the space to allow anyone to sympathize with Frey in that situation. You really don't see Frey as the bad guy in that situation? Really? Because what he did was really very mean! Really very not nice! I mean, that's the way I see it, anyway...

Eric C said...

Well, obviously his response was both monstrous and pretty badly thought out (it's not like the Lannisters do much to protect the Freys in exchange), but that doesn't change the fact that he had pretty legitimate grievances.

Walder Frey is by no means a good person, nor a likeable one, but does that give Robb a free pass to completely screw the Freys over when they were cooperating with him in good faith?

Robb's sort of like a man who recruited someone to be his driver for hit against a major crime family in exchange for enough money to get out of the neighborhood, and then once the deed was done, he acted like he could settle the debt with a fruit basket, while telling the driver he'd be leaving town on family business for a while and oh yeah, the mob's on their way over for revenge right now. Slow them down for me, would ya buddy?

I dunno. Maybe because I don't really care whether my protagonists are good people or not, I'm unusually accepting of seeing them do things that are in the wrong. I'm just saying, Robb was acting like a complete jackass right up until Walder blew up in his face, and if the Freys didn't lash out at him, there was a line forming for a turn.

Matt Bird said...

All true, but of course Frey never had to commit to Robb in the first place. In the first book, he could have just said, "A big army showed up at my doorstep, so I let them through to avoid getting sacked, but that doesn't mean I'm taking any sides in this war." Robb didn't really want to recruit Frey into the war, Frey just inserted himself, it seems to me.

Sean said...

Robb is only 16 when he makes his enormous mistake, barely older than Sansa; like their father, they share a naive propensity for taking chivalric romance conventions at face value.

I don't think Martin believes that ethical action is impossible. Rather, he believes the ways in which we can conceive of ethical action are limited by the kinds of stories our societies tell to justify themselves. Honor and knighthood can never be sufficient moral guides because their true purpose is to dignify a nobility created and maintained through violence.

The Starks genuinely want to do good, and I do think that counts for something with Martin. But the Stark's specific notion of goodness turns out to be one of the master's tools, and it can only go so far in dismantling the master's house.

(This doesn't mean that malice and cruelty will always triumph. Evil has its own deceptive and self-defeating narratives. As a commenter pointed out a view days ago, Tywin's instrumental attitude towards other people ends up destroying his house; Joffrey's conviction that power justifies itself gets him murdered; the Iron Islands are a grim, shitty place because Hobbesianism is self-fulfilling.)

Anonymous said...

I pushed back against some of your comments about Sansa but I don't disagree that she is the one POV character who is hard to love by the end of the first book. It's always hard to 'forget' what you know about a character from subsequent installments but I would agree that she doesn't do much to endear the reader to her by the time Thrones raps up.
What I did disagree with is that this was because Martin personally dislikes her. I suspect the problem is more to do with how her arc progresses. I think Sansa goes through something similar to the first-time reader. They go in with expectations of high fantasy tropes (noble knights, beautiful queens and just kings) but are rapidly and violently shown that these Romantic rules cannot be relied on. By the end of the book, naive and silly Sansa has learnt that lesson (by and large). The reader however realised this far earlier than her. They cotton onto these ideas when Bran discovers the Beautiful Queen and the Brave Knight rutting behind the King's back and promptly got pushes out of a window. Perhaps this is why so much of the readership has trouble with Sansa. She gets to the same place the reader does at a much slower pace and, to add further shame, is juxtaposed against her younger sister who is much more insightful about the darker aspects of life in Westeros. That is what makes her so hard to love, in my opinion.
Basically, I don't think Martin hates Sansa nor her world-view (although he clearly thinks it has little place in Westeros except as a PR tool as the Tyrells use it) but the audience does because her realisation is a little frustrated and lags behind the reader's own.

Eric C said...


It may have gotten cut from the show for time - it's been long enough I don't remember all the changes - but the books make a point out of how the one thing the Freys have going for them is that their fortress is the only viable crossing on that river for a long way, so it's basically impossible to take in a siege. They can keep resupplying from the other side indefinitely. If Frey threw in with the Lannisters, the Lannisters could crush Caitlin's family and then come lift the siege on the twins at their leisure, and Robb would have basically no good options. (Not to mention that letting an insurgent army pass while saving yourself when you have such a decisive defensive position is still going to be seen as treason by the ruling regime. There's no sitting on the fence there.)

I think that Sean is on to something there, and something that you kind of touched on in one of your earlier posts, Matt - I think that just like Martin is playing with reader expectations from the way we tell stories when it comes to identifying the hero, almost everyone in the series who makes huge mistakes and then pays for them does so because they're so wrapped up in the story they're telling themselves about the world that they don't see the blatant foreshadowing right in front of their faces that the story is going in a different direction.

Ned doesn't hear Cersei when she throws down the gauntlet because women are just not threats in his chivalric world. Robb gets wrapped up in the "King in the North" narrative his banner lords got so excited about that he makes an enemy out of Stannis by seceding even though the father he's supposedly avenging was ready to risk death to put the guy on the throne. Later, he's telling himself about how he's going to be so honorable as to not sleep around that he misses that he's betraying oaths that people have already died for instead. Tywin's wrapped up in his story of the hard young man that restored his failing house to greatness that he flat-out refuses to see that his children are unwilling and incapable of playing the roles he has set for them, or that they're actually pretty well suited to carry on the Lannister name in their own way, if he'd let them.

Martin only comes out and says it with Sansa, who the text calls out as thinking that the world works like her song stories, but actually pretty much everyone is the same as her in this sense once you get under their skin. Sansa actually gets off kind of light because people keep seeing her as too weak to worry about until she's had time to wise up. The other characters don't think she has any real agency, right up until she starts exercising it to take them out, just like Littlefinger. It's just that Martin is so committed to the inside-the-head view in his story telling that since everyone sees her as a helpless stupid little girl, it's easy for readers get the same impression. (Plus she really is basically at everyone's mercy until quite a while in.)

It's kind of meta, when I think about it - the characters all suffer because they're getting caught unawares by things that are right in front of their face, but that they refuse to see because it doesn't fit the narrative they expect. The audience is the same.

Jonathan Auxier said...

I love what "Eric C" said: all these characters are trapped in a belief that they are in a certain kind of story, and when they fail to see the larger reality, they suffer. I think the debate happening here is proof that Martin is a genius. It also highlights an essential (but often unconscious) reader exercise: retrace steps from a character outcome to determine when that character "earned" their fate through their own choices. In most books, the cause and effect are so obvious that the exercise doesn't feel like an exercise. Not so in real life (consider how we are still litigating the election), and not so in Martin's world. Where we make these connections reveals more about ourselves than Martin.

FWIW, I think Robb's "sin" is the same as his father's: a rigid, honor-bound adherence to a system that is itself corrupt. Consider the way the whole series starts: Nedd beheading the crow. In that moment, he is being given a gift--an early warning that the Walkers are on the march. But he misses the forest for the trees: he still thinks that moment is about enforcing deserter laws. Matt, you've said similar things in previous posts. But I think Robb's flaw is also manifest in a beheading. His insistence on executing Karstark is what leads to him losing half his army ... which is why he has to approach Frey in the first place. I strongly believe if he had handled the Karstark dilemma with greater pragmatism, he would not have needed Frey's help, and Martin would have let him and his wife live. (A bit longer)

Matt Bird said...

Well, the wife does live in the books, but I've just never seen a writer who punishes his characters so harshly.

brjun said...

I was a huge fan of a Song Of Ice and Fire as a teenager -- way before Book 4 came out, let alone the TV series. The world was my obsession for years. So, forgive the intrusion.

I don't think that the appeal is about "punishing the good". It wasn't for me, anyway. It is about being pragmatic: there is a luxury to doing something that's morally satisfying, but not expedient. The worse off you are, the more of a luxury it is. (As an obvious example, a high-paid engineer can choose to not work for Uber or Google or the military industrial complex. But, obviously, many people who are Uber drivers don't have that choice.)

When Game Of Thrones came out, the predominant trend in fantasy books was to reward the special protagonist. Harry Potter can break all the rules. He gets bad grades! He barely studies. When he messes up, Dumbledore apologizes to him, not the other way around. Is that the point of escapist fantasy? Sure. But it is also infuriating. If you are struggling to do whatever you need to do, to keep your head above water, reading about someone just having it handed to them, because they are special -- that bites. And I think that, to some degree, that's the resentment that those books tapped into.

Jon Snow is special. Ned Stark is special. Robb Stark is special. But they are not as special as they think they are. The key rule is: be competent, or die. It /is/ satisfying to see that rule apply equally, to those who are in power (haha no golden parachute for the Starks) and those who are not.

(As a bonus, this raises the stakes. Suddenly, it feels like we don't know how something is going to end. That was a breath of fresh air, at the time.)

Matt Bird said...

Good dissection of why some people find this pleasurable to read about and some people don't.

Jonathan Auxier said...

This quote from that big Rolling Stone interview really helped me understand Martin's approach:

"Ruling is hard. This was maybe my answer to Tolkien, whom, as much as I admire him, I do quibble with. Lord of the Rings had a very medieval philosophy: that if the king was a good man, the land would prosper. We look at real history and it's not that simple. Tolkien can say that Aragorn became king and reigned for a hundred years, and he was wise and good. But Tolkien doesn't ask the question: What was Aragorn's tax policy? Did he maintain a standing army? What did he do in times of flood and famine? And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren't gone – they're in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?

In real life, real-life kings had real-life problems to deal with. Just being a good guy was not the answer. You had to make hard, hard decisions. Sometimes what seemed to be a good decision turned around and bit you in the ass; it was the law of unintended consequences. I've tried to get at some of these in my books. My people who are trying to rule don't have an easy time of it. Just having good intentions doesn't make you a wise king."

I think we "enjoy" the cruelty in these books because it represents a correction of longstanding weakness in genre fantasy, which is largely escapist.

Matt Bird said...

Yeah, but I don't really buy the "He's just being realistic" argument. These books have a very exaggerated sense of good and evil. They're "boo-hiss" books. Martin is pressing buttons and trying to get us to feel outsized emotions about outsized characters. Then once he's got us pumped up, he hits us in the stomach by preferring his evil characters to his good characters. If you look at the actual story of the War of the Roses, it's not this sadistic. You don't have midwives killing the king and his heir because she'd been raped so many times. That's all Martin.

Jonathan Auxier said...

There's certainly a debate to be had over whether his correction is an overcorrection. But I think that it still might explain why readers enjoy the depravity. I might compare it to the shift toward gritty anti-heroes in mainstream comics in the early 90s. That stuff was terrible, but in the moment it felt like a much-needed rebuke of what had come before. Of course, once the gritty anti-hero becomes orthodoxy, the pendulum needs to swing in the opposite direction ...

Eric C said...

While I disagree with Matt that the suffering comes down mostly on moral lines, I do agree that Martin's writing isn't merely realistic and doesn't entirely get to hide behind that as a defense.

He does do a lot of "well, in the real world, X..." but like almost everyone, he then favors drama in the implementation. That's not a bad thing, even - drama resonates with most people a lot more than realism does. But, derailing the usual unrealistic dramatic paths and then trying to inject as much drama as possible into the derailment does kind of result in a series of brutal wrecks that a lot of people will find painful to watch.

(Some of us, of course, love watching the train wrecks happen in slow motion, where we can carefully look at every detail of how things went horribly wrong. Call it an interest in forensics of tragedy.)

Obviously the reader will most clearly remember the most traumatic or cathartic ones, though, which makes the bad people they never cared about being burned alive or tortured just unable to even the emotional score. People feel their beloved characters suffering while doing things they are beloved for way more than the casual cruelty heaped on a bunch of forgettable jerks, and I think Martin actually humanizes the villains that we spend much time with too much for there to be all that much joy when they get theirs.

Jonathan Auxier said...

Eric makes good points. I might argue that when people say the world is "realistic," they're not actually talking about the sex and violence. They're talking about the gordian knot of moral culpability. (Actually it's *not* a gordian knot because it refuses to be cut!) Martin seems to work very hard at making the moral questions muddy.

Ted Cross said...

What I love about these books is how closely they reflect the real life I see all around me. You mention cartoonishly evil people, yet that is precisely what I see in so many of today's politicians. Perhaps in their private lives they don't believe all the horrific things they say and do in their professional lives, but I don't much care about that--what they do is what matters, and these people are being flat out evil. I doubt even Martin would dare try to write a piece of fiction as absurd as today's US administration. I used to think that the number of truly bad people or truly stupid people in the world was a fairly small percentage, but this past couple of years has proven me very wrong--it's definitely a much higher percentage. And Martin's world has plenty of decent, hard-working people, it's just that they are on the fringes of the story because their POV isn't interesting within the plot.