Thursday, March 22, 2018

The Book that Breaks Every Rule, Part 1: Have One Hero

I have a lot to say about “A Game of Thrones” (so much so that I’ll go back to 5-times-a-week for a while). One series that I have is “Straying from the Party Line”, where I look at works that break writing “rules” and whether they get away with it. This is an extreme case, as this book crosses more third rails than anything else I’ve looked at. So let’s start with a six-part series based on that.

Rule #1: Have One Hero

One of the primarily rules in my book (In fact, I elevate it to the status of “Law”,) is that, even if you’re writing an ensemble story, you have to accept that readers will always choose one character to be their hero, and invest their hopes and dreams in that one character. And I still believe that, despite the striking counterexample of this book, which has eight roughly-equal points of view characters, many of whom have a claim to being “the” hero of the book.

Does it get away with it? Yes, it does. How? Well, I make it clear in my book that any rule can be broken, but you have to know you’re breaking it and accept that you’re going to frustrate your audience. My rules are just warnings about expectations your audience will have, some conscious, some unconscious. As a writer, you need to be aware that your audience will seek to identify the one hero of your story, and they’ll be frustrated with you if they can’t do that.

“A Game of Thrones” is the ultimate example of the oft-misunderstood phrase, “The exception proves the rule.” We are acutely aware of this rule as we read because he’s breaking it. Martin knows that we want one hero, and toys with that expectation for a long time before he finally denies it utterly.

Our identification is indeed split. Martin creates empathy for seven of his eight POV characters, (All except Sansa. Even when we’re in her head, we’re just looking down on her) and each of those is the hero of his or her own story, and potentially the hero of the whole series, but for most of this book, we do settle our hopes on one hero: Ned. He is the one trying to solve the book’s biggest mystery, and he is the glue that holds the other heroes together.

In addition to his own chapters, four of the other POV characters are his children, and one is his wife. That just leaves Tyrion and Daenerys, who complicate things. Tyrion is brother to Ned’s nemeses, and we have complicated emotions toward him. We know he’s not our hero, but we can’t help but like him, and we’re even tempted to trust him. When he goes to fight alongside his brother, we feel betrayed that this likable character is siding with evil. Even then, we root for him not to get killed, and at the end when he’s sent to King’s Landing to be the Hand of the King, we’re hoping he will mitigate Joffrey’s evil.

Daenerys is the most audacious break with audience expectations, in that her heroic storyline is almost totally separate from the others. She is the best argument that this is a book with more than one hero.  But it’s essential that, at key points, Ned acts the save the lives of both Tyrion and Daenerys. Unlike the next two books, in which Daenerys’s storyline will be totally divorced from the rest of the book, a key turning point in this book is when Ned throws away his job in an attempt to save the life of this would-be queen halfway around the world. Likewise, Ned sends word to his wife at one point to release Tyrion when she has him prisoner in a deadly situation.

So we readers, as I say in my book, are indeed desperately searching around for one hero to invest our hopes in, and we find one, despite the fact that we have so many options to choose from.

Then he gets his head chopped off.

But the whole power of this moment is that it’s so shocking, and it’s so shocking because we’re sure he’s our one hero. That is the whole trick of this book. Martin knows that he’s breaking the law. He’s intentionally creating cognitive dissonance. He’s being puckish. He’s being audacious. He’s blowing our minds.

Of course, after this happens, we’re lost. We’ve never had a book chop off the head of the hero and just keep going before. So once again, we desperately search around for a hero, and don’t know where to turn. (Ironically, I think that most readers will land on Robb, even though he’s not one of the eight POV characters, and won’t be in any subsequent books either.)

Martin is toying with our genre expectations. He seems to think that fantasy readers have too simplistic a sense of moral complexity, and he’s using that to trap us. He knows that we’ll look for the one right hero, and settle on Ned, rather than, say, Jon or Daenerys, then he’ll force us to rewrite our sense of right and wrong and look for heroes in places we may not have looked for them before. That’s his whole point.

If you break a law, you will frustrate your reader. If that’s your whole goal, then go right ahead!


Anonymous said...

Can you elaborate why you singled out Sansa? Weirdly enough, the strongest empathy I felt was for her. She gets what she wants (Joffrey), suffers deeply for it, loses her entire family, is alone in Kings Landing surrounded by enemies who want to harm her, etc. Every time there is the possibility of happiness for her, there is another gut punch. I just feel so bad for her.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

True confession time: I gave up on the first book about two-thirds of the way through because I was both bored of the relentless misery-mongering and tired of waiting for Martin to kill off Ned Stark. The setup of the novel demanded that he die. Look at the evidence:

--This is a fantasy novel series. Many doorstoppers followed, and they are likely to take place over many years of in-story time.
--Ned is introduced as the Lone Man of Honor in a debased world, the only man who stands for the Old Ways. We first meet him administering a lesson in honor and responsible leadership to his kids. He's beheading someone.
--Introduced at the same time as Ned, and given great importance, are Ned's many children.

This screams "Ned's gonna die by beheading and the series will be about the kids."
Yet he took his sweet-ass time to get there.

I wanted Martin to pull the goddamn trigger and get to the story he was clearly intending to tell. But this was the first in a series, so he refused to pull the trigger until the end. Drove me nuts.

If you're going to wallow in misery and create a fantasy novel rooted in the worldview of "people are bastards, honor is worthy but futile, and mamma's boys are bloodthirsty psychopaths" (for real, there were at least two), give it some twists and turns. I don't recall that anything that happened was particularly surprising. A Game of Thrones read to me like a decent stock fantasy novel with a heavy layer of brutality and stank on it. Nothing wrong with that, but that's a lot less impressive than its reputation. It's a good novel if you like that kind of thing. I admit that I don't.

(Still haven't seen the teevee show, despite my love of Peter Dinklage. The Station Agent is an underrated movie.)

Matt Bird said...

Response to Anonymous:

Fascinating! Could my perception that Martin had little empathy for her spring from the fact that the audiobook reader didn't have enough empathy for her? That's possible, but it's hard to see how he could have read it much differently. Sansa stands out from the other narratives because it's

(a) Frivolous, impressed by pomp and pageantry even when it's obviously masking visciousness
(b) Feminine. Martin used what seemed to me to be contemptuous adjectives to describe her interest in sewing, etc, (but maybe I was the one who was being anti-feminine, not him?)
(c) Disloyal to her family. She either lies about her sister's confrontation with Joffrey or refuses to see the truth before her own eyes. And of course, she instantly denounces her father once he's accused, and writes those letters for Cercei,
(d) Thoughtless. It's only after she writes those letters that it occurs to her to wonder where he sister is.
(e) She simply has terrible taste. Joffrey is one of the most evil characters in all of literature, but she blithely fails to see it until he's literally shaking her father's severed head in her face.

Some of these things are true of Daenerys as well, but she deepens and strengthens throughout the novel, whereas Sansa does not. It just seemed to me that Martin was so successful at getting us to love the other seven, despite major flaws, but he barely tried with Sansa.

You're saying you feel the most empathy because she suffers the most, and that is one type of empathy, but when I use that term, there's always an element of understanding and shared humanity: I understand why they would react that way and feel that maybe I would react the same, given the extreme circumstances. I could never forgive how Sansa was acting and never believed I could react the same way. (And I'm not sure I agree with you that she suffers the most. Yes, she loses her father, as do three of the other narrators, but she obviously didn't love him very much, if she denounces him so quickly. Yes, she's surrounded by enemies, but she still, even at the end, seems unwilling or unable to fathom just how evil they are.)

I'll get more into this next week, but her suffering at the end felt like Martin's punishment of her for her earlier folly. It just seemed to me he didn't like her very much.

Anonymous said...

Your comment that Sansa didn't love her father much because she chose to denounce him struck me as very strange. It was precisely because she loved him that she denounced him. Cersei quite horribly manipulates Sansa, convincing her that only by denouncing her father could she save him from execution, spare her brother from war and generally undo the damage that was done. To a twelve year old girl, this is an incredibly tempting offer and it seems a little unfair to put so much of the blame on her. She made a mistake (something the reader is almost infinitely better equipped to see coming than poor Sansa who has no insight into her father's investigations) but to suggest she wanted her denounced her father out of apathy towards him seems absurd. She thought she was helping him.

Matt Bird said...

Obviously you guys don't think I'm being very charitable to Sansa! Again, I still think of the characters as being the age of the characters on the show, where they're all two years older, (and the actors/actresses are a few years older than that) It's true that it's hard to blame her for anything if she's twelve. Still, I think my six year old daughter is a little more on the ball than Sansa.

And the line, "Only then did it occur to her to wonder about Arya," is pretty clearly a case of Martin diminishing her, no matter what age she is.

friendly Anonymous said...

Could it be that the length of Game of Thrones is what allows it to break so many “rules”?
It has more wiggle room to get back on track again, unlike a movie or an episodic series( which you could say consists of many small movies).

Matt Bird said...

That's a real possibility.

Jodi Lew-Smith said...

Chiming in late here, but I'd concur that you're being unfair with respect to Sansa. Definitely she stands out from the others for being so feminine in such a male world--and her naivete is annoying to us as readers--but I've always taken the view that he was purposely working to show the folly of her youth--with every intention of redeeming her later.

One thing Martin does so well is redemption. It's delicious, to my way of thinking, to read of a character doing stupid things because she's young and vain and susceptible to manipulation, and then see her forced to change.

This, I think, is his real purpose in making the books so ##%! long.

Unknown said...

Hi Matt: I think this entire series on A Song of Ice and Fire is brilliant and I will be sharing it with many friends and writers. But, I would register a serious quibble with your basic understanding of Ned Stark as a hero. One of the ways in which GRRM is such a master manipulator is in his use of point of view, and often as a reader of the books it is a surprise -- and shock -- to discover that all of one's assumptions about a character can be turned on their head, in light of new information he's given or new points of view on a particular plot line. For me, Ned Stark is a case in point. Once we put together the kind of person Rhaeger Targaryen was, vs. who we know Robert Baratheon to be, I think it becomes clear that Ned's absolutely catastrophic actions in King's Landing in A Game of Thrones aren't the result of naivete, far less of heroism, but of a very guilty conscience! Robert Rebellion's was built on a lie (Bran: "He [Rhaeger] loved her. And she [Lyanna] loved him"), a Westeros with the Baratheons and Lannisters in power is a dangerously unbalanced one, and a world without the Targaryens is much worse off in the big picture.

And so, the more time I've spent with the series, the more it seems to me that GRRM'S intent in the ASOFAI books is not to say: "The bad guys win, suckers!" but to make us question our basic concepts of good and evil in a world where the safety and survival of a realm is extremely delicately balanced. It's a world in which a small kindness can lead to disaster, or what seems to be cruelty can save the day. In short, is Ned Stark a hero if he can't protect his family and followers?

Day Leitao said...

Posting late as well, but I don't think Ned's arc is really surprising. There are tons and tons and tons of forewarning. It's true that readers will ignore them because we think he has plot armour.

He has a classic tragic arc. The issue is that we think we're reading a murder mystery, when we're actually reading a tragedy.

Ned's tragic flaw is that he's too strict in his ways, stubborn, rigid, and excessively commited to his own version of honour. He lacks " street smarts" to look around and comprehend the situation he's in. And people warn him— over and over and over and over. He ignores them and continues to be the almighty paragon of virtue. So his beheading makes a lot of sense once you realize what story you're reading. But sure GRRM totally plays with reader expectations. It's funny that the murdered and Ned's discoveries don't even make much impact in the end, and the reader doesn't care. Why don't we care? Haven't we followed a man trying to uncover a crime? I think once Ned dies and we understand that it's not a murder mystery plot, we no longer expect a traditional murder mystery resolution. (I know it's fantasy, but a lot of fantasy works use murder mystery plots. The most famous example is Harry Potter's 4th book).

Back to the tragic flaw, the interesting thing is that Jon has similar flaws. They also get him killed.

I felt the same thing about Sansa, and was annoyed that her "femininity" is conflated with superficiality and poor choices. Tomboy Arya (who I like, by the way) is awesome and honourable, while ladylike Sansa is a b***h. Reading the following books I realized that it wasn't really like that. Sansa is getting in a good position to be a player, exactly because she's unlike her naive father, cousin and sister. So her femininity is not silly, it's actually a strength.