I have a confession to make. I haven’t read any of the books. I have the first one sitting on my bookshelf, and have flicked through it enough to know how the characters’ names are spelt, but that’s about it. My entire understanding of the phenomenon that is Game of Thrones comes from the HBO series, and comments from learned friends and family who have toiled through the books. But I went to see George R R Martin speak anyway (well, I mostly wanted hear Peter Dinklage talk, but that’s another story).
The author came out on stage to thunderous rock-star applause. I didn’t see anyone dressed up, but judging by the level of detail in some of the questions, it’s safe to say there were some hardcore fans there. Reclined on the couch with his gut hanging over his knees, his suspenders reflecting like daggers under the stage lights, and his distinctive cap and beard, he was a confident, thoughtful, and humorous speaker.
I remember one of the first things I ever heard about the books, before the show came out, was my cousin saying “I like those books. Normally you know the main characters will always live, but in these ones you don’t.” This is what Martin’s known for: killing his darlings. Killing off the characters we learn to love and care for. And this topic took up a lot of the conversation tonight.
Martin recalled being extremely moved by reading Lord of the Rings when he was at a formative age, around 11 or 12. He said the death of Boromir, and then of Gandalf, affected him greatly “and if it was me, Gandalf would have stayed dead, it’s more powerful that way”. The deaths of these important characters were game-changers, for both the other characters and the readers, and certainly influenced the way the pre-pubescent Martin thought about adventure novels. At one point in LOTR he was led to believe Frodo was dead, when he was stung by Shelob, and Sam took the ring and moved on. This was also huge for Martin, having identified with Frodo as the protagonist for so long, but it struck him as realistic and powerful that the story could continue.
Despite the fantasy setting, the realism of war is what he’s after. Martin said one of the things he’s learnt about war is that anyone can die. Everyone thinks they’re the hero of the story, right up until the moment they are killed, and it’s this idea that he’s respecting and emulating. Something that drives him mad is books or films set in a war where a group of friends battle through and emerge barely scathed. Not realistic. His books are art imitating life, and he’ll settle for nothing less.
Does what he’s doing work in novel format? Do readers need to trust that our beloved characters are going to make it, to hold our interest? I know I hated him after I watched the RW episode, and swore I wasn’t going to watch any more. And I hadn’t even tackled the massive books to get that far.
But I respect what he’s doing here.
The other interesting points in conversation were his metaphor about writers being architects or gardeners – either planning things meticulously before writing the first word, or sowing a few seeds and seeing what comes up. He says he knows where all his major characters will end up, but that lots of things appear in the writing, for example the character of Bronn (who fought for Tyrion in the Eyrie) was just going to be used to get Tyrion through the forest, but kept making himself useful and ended up being a major game-player.
Martin was also accused of being a masochist: of taking the things away from characters that they cherished and relied on the most. Little Arya was finally in spitting distance from the rest of her family just before they were massacred. Jaime Lannister’s whole character was formed around his skill with a sword, and then his right hand was chopped off. But Martin said he’s just playing out what needs to happen to the character for their arc to develop. Narratives are about things happening to people, not people having a happy old time. Drama is when characters have to deal with what happens to them.
Of the writing process, he said he needs to shut himself away from the world and tell everyone to leave him alone. And some days he’ll write ten pages, and some days he’ll struggle on one. But in those times, he’s in Westeros. He’s not thinking about the fan forums abusing the slowness of his writing (“I was always a slow writer, I just didn’t used to have people waiting for me”), he’s not thinking about who’s going to be cast as this character for the series, he’s in the character’s mind, wrestling with the words that they would say.
And I think we should leave him to it.