Characters that is, and no one can prove otherwise.
Nanowrimo has had me pretty busy this last week, and will continue to keep me busy this month, but that’s no excuse to ignore my blog. So let’s get back to doing what I do best, deconstructing stories by other authors that have actually been published and then criticizing them. Back in August I talked about A Clash of Kings and now that I’ve finished a Storm of Swords and a Feast for Crows, it’s time to tackle George RR Martin’s greatest strength; his willingness to kill his main characters.
Very few writers will actually commit to killing off main characters. In fact most adventure, fantasy, and action books, movies, and games have “that guy”. You know the one, the one character that sticks out like a sore thumb, that is practically wearing a sign say “I will die tragically to reestablish the stakes of the story.” Yet those characters are always so conspicuous specifically because they’re there to die. They don’t get much characterization beyond either A) an asshole we’re glad to see die or B) an innocent sweetheart whose death is meant to strike us to our core. Since they often have little to no characterization, their deaths often fail to have the intended effect. That’s why when Ned Stark died in A Game of Thrones it shocked so many readers, and later, viewers. We’ve grown accustomed to the invulnerable shield that most protagonists wear, that when a main character actually dies, we’re left stunned. Ned Stark dying was akin to Harry Potter or Mikael Blomkvist dying.
What was truly remarkable about A Game of Thrones was that it was still so damn good even after Ned died. The main reason main characters don’t die is because the story itself would suffer from their absence. Would anyone read Harry Potter if he’d died in book 6 and it was just Ron and Hermoine? Would anyone even bother to see the latest Bond film if 007 died in the first five minutes? Like I’ve said before, people don’t care about the story so much as they care about the characters in those stories. When you kill the characters your audience loves, you risk losing them. But more than that, you risk losing the passion for your own story. Just as it’s often the characters that inspire us to read great stories, so too is it the characters that inspire writers to write those stories. Read author autobiographies about their writing and you’ll often find its a character that inspires them to write. Sometimes it starts with a situation, like Stephen King getting hit by a car or my reading about the Warsaw Uprising (man, my life is so dull), but then we think of how a character would react to these situations. Then comes the excitement of getting to know your characters, their personalities, their dreams, and their fears. You get to see them grow and change as you constantly ask yourself what character X would do in situation Y, and how they would change because of it. This probably all sounds crazy, but I’m pretty sure most writers could relate to this. Especially George RR Martin. Let’s talk about The Red Wedding (Huge Spoilers Incoming).
Catelyn Stark is the wife of Ned Stark and essentially takes his place as a main character. She actually has far fewer chapters than most of the other characters, and yet she plays a pivotal role in the story. Not because of her actions, she is a passive observer for the most part, and that’s exactly what we need. Sansa and Arya continue to suffer in their captivity, Bran and Rickon begin to exhibit strange powers over their Dire Wolves, Jon Snow is battling the undead in the cold north, and we have various other characters like Jaime “King Slayer” Lannister or his brother Tyrion, killing and plotting on the sidelines. We, the readers, are surrounded by characters either being rushed away in the currents of events beyond their control, killing and suffering, or characters controlling the lives of others like a puppeteer with a marionette. Catelyn provides us with a much needed rest; she’s in relative safety, she has no plots to undertake or battles to fight, so it gives the reader a breather. More than that though, she provides a wealth of emotional context, she gives us a perspective that is very rarely seen: that of a mother. Most of the major characters in the book are Catelyn’s children; Rob Stark, King in the North, Sansa, Arya, Bran and Rickon, all of them are her children. Part of the reason that Sansa and Arya’s respective abuse is so damn hard to read is because it was either preceded or followed by a Catelyn chapter, where she shows just how heartbroken she is over the loss of her daughters. Not only were these young girls suffering in ways that no child should have to endure, but we also tormented by the knowledge that their mother was out there still praying for their return. Bran and Rickon, mostly Rickon, are too young to have any major impact on the story aside from providing an emotional anchor for Catelyn (Rickon is only five or so) or provide any kind of overarching perspective.
I mean in a story this complex, with plots within plots, and dozens of different royal families all vying for control of a kingdom, we need someone who can make sense of it all and lay it out for the reader in simple English. Sometimes this came in the form of Tyrion giving the reader a perspective of the war from the Lannister side, and occasionally a talk with his father Tywin regarding the strategic aspects of the war, but often it was Catelyn that gave us the best understanding of the situation. Mostly because she doesn’t give a damn about any of it. Everyone else has a vested interest in the fate of the Iron Throne and the one who sits upon it, so we have to take whatever they tell us with a grain of salt. Catelyn doesn’t. She could care less if her oldest son Robb ends up King or a peasant harvesting wheat, so long as he’s happy and safe. The same holds true for all her children and she gives us the straight facts and lets us see elements of the story that no other character can. Her son Robb is one of the major players in the war for the Iron Throne, and yet strangely enough he is not a main character. We never get a chapter from his perspective despite the fact that he makes some pretty significant changes to the story. He’s like Alexander the Great, a General capable beyond his years. Yet were it not for Catelyn, we might forget that Robb even exists and not even care that he dies.
Which finally brings us the main event; The Red Wedding. After leading one of the most successful military campaigns this side of ancient Greece, Robb returns home victorious…and married. This is kind of a problem because Robb promised to marry the daughter of a local lord in order to gain his allegiance. So Robb goes up there with his uncle to make amends, the uncle marrying the girl in Robb’s stead. This is supposed to be a simple wedding for the most part, and immediately after Robb plans to head North to retake his homelands from a rebellious vassal. Except he never gets the chance.
In one the most violent and heartbreaking scenes I’ve ever read, Robb Stark is violently murdered…while Catelyn, his loving mother, watches it happen and powerless to stop it. Part of the reason this scene is so horrific is simply because of how senseless it is. Robb doesn’t die in battle like I expected, he doesn’t get a noble death fighting for his beliefs, he doesn’t even die because of his rebellion. He dies because the old bastard whose daughter Robb was supposed to marry is insulted that Robb decided to marry a girl he loved, rather than the girl he promised himself to. Yeah, he was basically murdered because he fell in love. That’s not the worst part though, the worst part is Catelyn. Being unarmed and a woman, the ambushers don’t harm her, and she gives us a blow by blow description of the massacre. We’re watching right along with her, just as a griefstricken as we watch Robb’s closest friends and advisors die horribly in his defense. We watch as Catelyn desperately begs for the life of her child.
And we almost claw our own eyes out when Robb has a sword thrust through his chest. Obviously no book is going to get me to do that, my face is far too handsome, but I came damn close. Catelyn loses her mind to grief in this scene, and she literally begins clawing at her own face. And then she dies too.
Hands down one of the most horrific and painful reads I’ve ever had to go through in a book of fiction. I swear it felt like a sword going through my own chest. A masterpiece of writing.
And yet it reveals that George RR Martin’s greatest strength…is also is greatest weakness. So Robb and Catelyn are dead, and we move into A Feast for Crows…the only bad book in the series so far. It’s still good, much better than your average book, but falls way below the bar that A Clash of Kings set and A Storm of Swords raised even higher. I could point out the unfocused narrative, the somewhat incoherent Dorne storyline, and ignoring all of the previously established characters to instead focus on unrelateable characters (to be fair, no one could make Cersei Lannister likeable, let alone relateable). I could, but I’m not going to, because these are all side-effects to the main problem; a lack of passion.
I’ve read through A Feast for Crows twice, and the one thing that stood out was its lack of energy. All the previous books took on a life of their own, they felt alive. The world was vibrant, the characters were real and the situations gut-wrenchingly authentic. It’s clear to me reading after reading the first three books of A Song of Ice and Fire, that the author has a tremendous passion for his stories and his characters. Unfortunately I think he killed one too many when he killed Catelyn Stark.
Without Catelyn there’s no longer an overarching perspective to orient the reader, we no longer have her emotional attachments to add weight to Arya and Sansa’s stories, making their circumstances feel much more contrived and repetitive. To a lesser extent, Robb was a major catalyst in the previous books, his war with the Lannisters was a driving force in the story and now without him and his army, the story just sits there waiting. The whole book ends up feeling like a big time sink, there to burn the clock like a soccer player in the final 10 minutes. More to the point though, without these characters, George RR Martin lost the passion for his story. Before Catelyn and Robb died, a new book was being released every few years, but after a Storm of Swords it took five years to release A Feast for Crows. Now I’m not going to sit here and complain about how long it takes him to write, I’m a huge procrastinator in my own writing, but I do find the sudden slowdown as evidence of his lost passion. Maybe he’s just been writing this story for too long, but more likely, the absence of two core characters, two characters who weren’t constantly suffering and were in control of their lives, just killed the momentum of the story. Suddenly there’s no Robb pushing the war forward, forcing things to happen. There’s no Catelyn giving us her mother’s perspective about a war that does nothing but threaten her babies. All he’s left with is: Daenerys, half a world away still and unable to affect the story without some serious time jumping; Rickon and Bran, a five year old and a paraplegic that can’t do much for the story either; Jon Snow, who is in the North fighting zombies and whose own plotline hinges on the Daenerys plotline reaching Westeros; and finally Tyrion, who is now an outcast and lost any political power he once wielded. Looking at A Song of Ice and Fire like a Jenga tower, Catelyn and Robb were two seemingly inconsequential tiles in the center of it, but suddenly removing them caused the whole thing to collapse in a jumble. For you Mass Effect 3 fans, Catelyn and Robb are like the Mass Relays, they held together the universe and allowed all the disparate parts of the story to interact. Remember when they blew up in the original ending, and we were all pissed because it meant the universe we loved was essentially dead? It’s kind of like that, less severe because Catelyn and Robb can be replaced more easily, but it still had a detrimental impact on the story as a whole.
I hope that George found something else to feel passionate about in his series, because none of the above is terminal to the story. Catelyn and Robb can be replaced by other characters, as long as the passion for his writing is there, the story will survive. I’m going to be reading A Dance with Dragons soon, and I hope I’ll be able to say that it’s a return to form for him. I really do, because I’d hate for the last good book in the series to be the one that nearly ripped my goddamn heart out.
I agree about the huge impact the death of that first important character had (trying to avoid spoilers) and, having just finished “Feast”, I agree about that too. Good book, but not thriling like the others (until a scene near the end that I’d been hoping for for a long, long time).
SPOILERS FROM HERE:
Like you say, it’s a lack of likeable or interesting characters. In the past, Martin’s tended to replace dead characters with new ones. Ned Stark was replaced (or succeeded by) the stories of his children and wife; Joffrey’s story was replaced with Tywin’s and Cersei’s (and Tyrion’s desperate attempt to not die); Renly’s death was sort of compensated for by the Brienne/Jaime stuff. With “Feast” it felt like there wasn’t much to replace the loss of the Starks and Tywin, and other characters (Tyron, Daenerys) were absent altogether.
But I think the fact it took Martin 5 years to get this book out might be misleading: according to the Ice and Fire wiki page, he originally planned to start writing book 4 after a five-year gap, to let the dragons and children get bigger. Then he realised it would be ridiculous for nothing to happen for five years, so he started writing *in* the gap. Then that book became even bigger than “A Storm of Swords”, and he wasn’t really sure how to deal with this because he didn’t want to have to put it in two parts. Then he realised that the stories of all the characters in book 4 could be split geographically, so book 4 became the bit of book 4 that centred around King’s Landing and Dorne, while book 5 became the stuff from book 4 around Daenerys and the Wall. While ebbing passion may have been a factor (after 3 books it would be hard-pressed not to be), structural problems played their part too.
Oh yeah, that final scene of Feast almost made the whole thing worth it. You’re right though, I might be reading too much into the amount of time passed. I’ve been writing stuff on and off for years and never actually published anything, so I’m not one to talk :P.
I had to stop because I only just finished Jeoffrey’s wedding a couple minutes ago but I agree about The Red Wedding. I finished that chapter and just said WTF?!?!? There was a bit of foreshadowing though and Robb brought it on himself through stupidity…
When it comes to slaughtering characters read Larry McMurtry. Lonesome Dove was one of the greatest stories I ever read but what a body count. It wasn’t just the number of deaths but how utterly senseless some were. Then there were the Berrybender stories. After spending a good amount of time introducing a character and getting attached to them the beginning of a new chapter literally starts with ” xxxx was the first to die” as it goes on to describe the cholera outbreak. DIED, as in past tense, as in in case you missed it while turning the page but a bunch of people are dropping and any of your favorite characters may now be gone! For all the dea though he always keeps us involved in the tail. The suddenness of the deaths just shows you why you need to value life while it lasts. Give him a read, I highly recommend it.
Lonesome Dove is on my reading list, unfortunately it’s a rather long list!