*Spoilers for Game of Thrones coming up (books and the show)*. When it comes to successfully writing tragedy, two of the most important elements in a story is character, and empathy. A successful tragedy will always evoke the viewer/reader’s emotion. But in order for the tragedy to induce emotion, empathy must be set up for the characters first.
If a reader has no attachment or empathy for the character upon whom the tragedy befalls, it won’t evoke emotion and the lack of emotion with butcher a tragedy. If a story has flat characters, the story will just be a plot. Looking back, the biggest flaw of Instrumental Kings was insufficient characterisation, no build up of empathy, flat characters and way, way too much plot.
The story starts right off with action, and dives deeper into action. If I were to look at it now, there are many scenes that are completely irrelevant and do nothing whatsoever to advance a character arc. Which is why Liam’s betrayal, the fight at the end – they’re all meaningless – and all because of the lack of one thing: empathy.
Martin pulls this off incredibly well in Game of Thrones. How do we know this? Because every second you’re worried one of the characters will die, and when they do, you cry your guts out. I watched some video essays, paired it with what I learned in Literature, and here’s the end result:
If you look at every major character in Game of Thrones, every single one of them is at a disadvantage when they start off or as the story progresses, be it physical or mental. Whether it’s because of where the world has put them or because of themselves.
Example: Bran is a cripple, that’s his disadvantage, Daenerys is a slave to her brother’s desires. She’s also a woman, which automatically puts her at a disadvantage because that’s how the world of Westeros and Essos works. Arya and Sansa – the same thing. Ned Stark’s disadvantage is his honour which will ultimately result in…well, you know what if you’ve read it. Theon loses something he is greatly proud over. Jamie is put into a straight disadvantage because of his hand cut off – it also is a mental disability because it was his sword hand, something he was immensely proud of.
Why do we attach to these characters so quickly? The answer is disadvantage. So that, right off the bat creates some amount of empathy for a character.
Clear Motivation, but Too Many Obstacles
Every character has a clear motivation in Game of Thrones (they change as the story moves, but there is always one motivation). Ned wants to see the kingdom be pure and not corrupt, Arya wants to be able to defend herself as a girl, Cersei wants power, Daenerys wants her throne back, etc.
But what makes these motivations so…meaningful? Of course, there is the back story behind them (such as Daenerys and her family having been overthrown) which adds dimension to a character, but even more so, what makes these motivations truly emotion evoking is the obstacles that stand before them.
Every other lord and lady is corrupt and Ned himself is too pure, which will eventually…well, you know what. That’s his obstacle. Too many things to fix. Arya’s obstacle (For the first book at least) is society and the eyebrows that will be raised. Cersei’s obstacle is her husband, Robert. Daenerys’s obstacle is poverty.
Putting Characters We Love Next to Those We Hate
George R. R. Martin is best at doing this. Sage Henry, from Just Write Media put it this way: morality is relative in stories. He argues that we never judge characters by what they are as themselves. We’ll always classify them good or bad by comparing them to others. For example, if one puts Jaime next to Ramsay Bolton, Jamie will be a good character, but if we put him next to Ned Stark, the same Jaime will become a bad character.
This technique is the reason Brienne and Jaime’s relationship is so complex and why it’s the main event to develop Brienne’s character. Because it makes Jaime look bad, and Brienne look good. This technique is also used with Theon and Ramsay, with Ned and Cersei, Arya and the Hound. Which, by the way, sometimes, this technique can have the opposite effect. For example in show, in Season 2 with Arya and Tywin Lannister, you actually start to sympathise with Tywin, and the same is the case with the Hound and Arya.
See what it does?
Making Worse Characters Treat them Badly
Ever remember what Theon did back in Book 2? Took Winterfell, killed Ser Rodrick, tried to kill Bran and Rickon, and became a big antagonist. But then, Book 3 rolls around, and by the end, we pity him dearly. Why? Because of Ramsay, and how he broke him and took from him the thing he valued most, that he thought put him above his sister Asha/Yara. Cersei does the same thing to Ned and forces him to give up his honour. This again ties with the disadvantage thing. If it’s a worse character that puts them at a disadvantage, the effect will be doubled.
Putting Them Into Impossible Situations or Against Each Other
Martin constantly puts his characters into situations that are either too harsh for them to face or are made out to be. This is used multiple times. Brienne versus the Hound. For Brienne, a woman, it would be an impossible task to defeat someone notorious for being a killer. Sansa versus Joffery or Ramsay. Sansa is so delicate, and for her, it feels impossible to navigate out of bad marriages.
But the biggest toying with emotion Martin does best is pitting characters we already love against each other. This somehow confuses you and you suddenly don’t want to choose who to root for. This is seen with Davos versus Tyrion. Catelyn versus Tyrion. Jaime versus Brienne.
And what’s more? Each situation has consequences.
Actions and Consequences
I think we all can agree, Martin’s claim to fame is being ruthless with characters. That’s what makes us love them. The constant fear that they’re going to die.
Season 7 of Game of Thrones lost this fear, and was a major flaw for it in my opinion. There was no consequence. When Daenerys flew to King’s Landing on the back of a dragon and a horde of savages, none of the important characters were even hurt despite being in the middle of the situation. And the lack of consequence makes it feel as though they weren’t in the situation at all in the first place.
Every impossible situation in Game of Thrones (till Season 7, at least), characters come out changed, dead and hurt in some way. Which brings me to my next point.
Toying With Other Emotions and Providing Dilemmas
Martin plays not only with empathy, but also with other emotions. Trauma especially, in the case of Theon and Hodor, as is revealed in Season 6. Furthermore, he also gives them dilemmas. One of the biggest in the series questions to political system of monarchy – and why does Daenerys deserve the throne of Westeros? Just because her father was once a king who went mad? The show further elaborates on this by ironically turning Daenerys into her own father and showing that power always corrupts in Season 7.
These are all universal questions and themes that Martin explores that we all know or have felt that humanise characters in our eyes and make us love them and root for them.
Never Doing What the Audience Wants
This the reason Game of Thrones differs from other stories. Martin never delivers what you want deep down. He demonstrates this by bringing characters so close to meeting…and then pulling them apart. From example, when Arya stands at the Bloody Gate, Sansa is in the Vale, right there, but just because of insufficient communication, Arya leaves thinking there is no one there to care for her. This tactic is used EVERYWHERE throughout the series.
Killing characters we love and taking from them their most valued tools are the prime examples of this technique.