How the Fantasy Epic Game of Thrones Mimics Real Life

Author’s Note: I must apologize. I have not been able to keep up on my blog for some months due to illness, moving, and other personal issues. I am hoping to post more often now that things have settled down a bit. Anyway, feel free to read the post and leave a comment here or on my Facebook page.


As many of you know by now, my favorite genre of fiction is science fiction and fantasy (SFF). For that matter, it’s my favorite film genre as well. During my childhood, I needed an escape from my own world of adult-driven drama and SFF writers such as Ray Bradbury, Anne McCaffrey and JRR Tolkien provided me with a myriad of imagined worlds to explore. My father, an avid spy and historical novel reader never understood my fascination with stories based on unreality. What he could not see was that all genres are based on reality. Human condition reality. Whether the story is focused on the experiences of pioneers on the American prairies, on the exploits of a spy in Europe following World War II, or exploration of an alien world a million light years from earth, they all focus on the ways in which human (or those not so human) beings react to the events and relationships that shape their lives. Surprisingly. sometimes the most convincing and intense exploration of the human psyche comes through a completely made up world with some element of magic or newly discovered physical laws that push the story’s characters to their limits and beyond.

The continents of Westeros and Essos in the Game of Thrones series is one of those magical worlds. The author of the novel series, George RR Martin, has created a world of harsh realities that keeps the reader guessing from one page to the next, and the HBO series follows suit. Martin has done one thing in his novels that authors have been taught never ever works and should never be done when writing literature. He kills off the characters when you least expect it.

He creates a host of characters of marvelous depth that you either love or hate, sometimes both at once. He has a true gift of making you care about these imaginary people. Ambivalence toward a character is not an option. And he sets up complicated character arcs that lead the reader (or viewer) down the proverbial primrose path of plotted events until the reader believes s/he knows what the ending of the story will be. He builds tension and creates expectations of the behavior of each character, of which there are hundreds, and makes you cheer them on or pine for their downfall. Then, when you least expect it —

He kills them off!

Good or bad, loved or hated, just when you expect the character to achieve his or her goal, all their machinations designed to take them to their heart’s desire simply stop. It’s as distracting and frustrating to Martin’s audience as is a multi car accident at a freeway intersection.

Amazingly, rather than turning the reader off the story, he takes his audience down a different path. It’s like watching a talented Vegas dealer shuffling a deck of cards to start a new game in the middle of the last one while throwing away the cards that have already been dealt.

Characters shift positions of power. Story lines change in reaction to this shocking event. Suddenly, the shell-shocked reader is taking stock of the resulting circumstances in the aftermath of this horrific event, looking at how the characters deal with the change and move on in their lives. Not only has Martin not lost the audience, he make us look for other characters to take the place of the one we lost. As in chess — and real life — fiction plots abhor a vacuum. Someone or something has to take the place of the missing piece.

Martin has proved to be a masterful chess player. He ups the stakes of his tale by keeping his characters moving toward their goals, placing unexpected, even horrific, obstacles in their paths, and often destroying the lives of the most beloved characters. Suddenly, the reader realizes that all bets are off. Every character runs the risk of dying at any time and villains tend to win more than do the good guys. By doing this, he creates in us a feeling of always being on the edge of a dangerous precipice, staring down at the deadly rocks at the base of that cliff. Talk about cliffhangers!

Isn’t this is exactly what happens to all of us in real life? We develop dreams, make plans and work toward the goals that we think will make us happy. Stop and think about this a minute.

How many times have any of us reached our goals without running into road blocks? How often has the course of our life been circumvented by the death of a loved one? Do any of us find that beautiful fairy tale love story in our own lives. Very seldom, I think. For the most part, we fall in love only to have the person we love betray us. Sometimes we end up being the villain in our personal stories by giving in to temptations that we know will drive a wedge between us and those we supposedly love. Don’t even our most basic dreams change and sometimes die as we recover from traumatic events?

Our lives are constantly in flux. Our personal stories are always being acted upon by other people and events. The villains in our world often win and just as often the best of us lose.

George RR Martin has been criticized by many readers who were appalled at the vivid descriptions of sex and violence in his stories, and many viewers have been shocked and turned off by the amount of nudity and the graphic depiction of battles, torture and murders in the show, as well as the theme of incestuous relationships that run through the story with amazing regularity. Yet, human history is populated by thousands of people who started life with lofty goals and caring ambitions, who often became corrupted by power or turned murderous after mistreatment at the hands of others.

There is little in the way of human wickedness that Martin does not touch on. Patricide, homosexual and lesbian relationships, gratuitous post battle rape, fathers repeatedly raping their own daughters, child and spousal abuse, sibling rivalry where one child burns the face of his brother, brother and sister love affairs and even marriage between siblings to “keep the bloodline pure”, slavery and sex trafficking, religious persecution and the burning of innocents, multi-generational feuds between powerful families, revenge to right past wrongs, hideous torture, castration and mutilation performed on the innocent and guilty alike, child sacrifice and more unconscionable acts are all held up to the light in graphic, often shocking clarity. These acts and more have been performed by human beings throughout recorded history, and they continue to be even now.

At the same time these events are going on in his books, Martin finds a way to show readers that most of his villains also have a good side. He seems to follow the premise that all men have good and evil in them. All of us are worthy of being loved and hated. In other words, “Be careful who you trust. The devil was once an angel.” (Unknown author)

And there lies the reality that runs through his fantasy novel. In many ways, I think the popularity of his novels and the TV show is a result of these graphic, pull-no-punches portrayals. The question I have not yet resolved in my own mind is: Do we watch the unfolding horrors of his tales in the same manner many people are drawn to watch an accident scene or an horrific fire? Or do we watch because the evil in his stories strikes a dark chord deep within our own imperfect souls?

Feel free to comment and share your views.