7 Storytelling Lessons from Game of Thrones / ASoIaF
I’m a big fan of George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (commonly known by the name of its TV adaptation, Game of Thrones). It boasts a cast of richly complex characters, its setting is one of the most fascinating I’ve encountered, and it’s easily one of the most compelling stories I’ve read.
I’m currently on my second read-through of the books, and I thought I’d share some of the many storytelling lessons I’ve learned from the series. Let’s get to it!
1. History is a great place to draw inspiration.
George RR Martin has made no secret of how much he’s pulled from history: While the Game of Thrones is being battled by Lannisters and Starks, the War of the Roses was fought by Lancasters and Yorks. Battles from our history and mythology play out in Westoros and Essos—but often with a dash of alchemy, dragons, or dark powers. Even weaponry and technology, like Valyrian steel, is based on mysteries from history, like Damascus steel.
It would be an exhausting process to list all the historical inspirations of the Song of Ice and Fire, but whatever specific instances we make note of, the lesson is clear: History makes for great source material, even in fantasy settings. After all, history was the result of complex conflicts between complex people—and that makes for a pretty compelling narrative.
2. Morally gray characters are stunningly compelling.
Martin has given his perspective on the battle of good and evil in storytelling:
The battle between Good and Evil is a theme of much of fantasy. But I think the battle between Good and Evil is fought largely within the individual human heart. […] In real life, the hardest aspect of the battle between good and evil is determining which is which.
It’s this philosophy that leads to his morally gray characters. I’ll admit, I’m a big fan of Jaime Lannister—and I never would have guessed that I’d end up liking the guy when I first met him. After all, he was banging his sister and trying to murder a child.
I’ve written extensively about why morally gray characters are so compelling, but the real lesson can be simplified to this: A character who isn’t just a representation of good or evil is necessarily far more complex … and far more human.
3. Foreshadow and create foundations early.
I was stunned when I realized that early chapters of the A Game of Thrones foreshadow events in the fifth book. I’m sure that, once the final two books are out, we’ll see that far more has been foreshadowed than we realized. It makes for a far more enjoyable re-read experience when this sort of foreshadowing is present … and it makes theorizing about future books far more interesting.
It’s not just foreshadowing that’s valuable early, however. Martin doesn’t hesitate or delay the opportunity to share the details of religion, politics, weaponry, mythology, and much more—and that means, when he makes use of those details in later books, it feels natural to the world rather than feeling contrived.
It also bugged me when a series—like Harry Potter, for example—only shared a significant concept, character, or ability once we got to the book where that facet of the world was relevant. It made the importance of these facets more obvious and made the world feel artificial. So, when thinking through a large story, try to figure out what will matter later on and plants the seeds of it at the first sensible opportunity.
4. Disposable characters can be great … if you use them wisely.
Martin does a great job of using disposable characters, except when he doesn’t. His prologues have become notorious for their use of throwaway characters, and even major plots revolve around characters who wind up in the corpse pile. That can be a great way to showcase the world and keep readers guessing.
*SPOILERS* Martin also made the mistake of introducing disposable major characters in the fourth and fifth books. It meant that, in books that already felt a bit bloated and sidetracked, we were fed hundreds of pages that didn’t end up mattering.*ENDSPOILERS*
So use throwaway characters, but don’t introduce them too late, don’t spend too much time on them, and make sure they feed the main plot.
5. Readers are ready for strong female characters.
In our culture, the strong female leads are few and far between, and even when they’re present, their strength often serves to make them a shinier, smarter reward for a male hero. Sadly, when people call for more representation of strong women, there’s sometimes a backlash … and it’s totally reasonable to wonder whether our culture is ready for strong female leads, especially in genres that have traditionally targeted male readers.
Luckily, Game of Thrones has answered that question for us. The fan favorites tend to be Dany, Tyrion, and Arya—which means that two-thirds of the favorites are women. Dany is a powerful leader with more firepower (get it? get it?) than anyone else on the show. Arya is arguably the most badass character in the story. Brienne is loved by many, and even Cersei has a big fanbase.
The point is, you don’t need to worry about the potential reader response to writing strong, complex female characters. Readers aren’t just ready for those characters … they love them.
6. Gradually unfurl your setting’s complexity.
In the first book (A Game of Thrones), we really only worried about three or four of the major houses: The Starks, the Lannisters, and (to a lesser extent) the Baratheons—plus the Targaryens, if you still want to count them as a major house. We knew a little bit about the Old Gods and the Sept. And honestly, that was plenty for the first book.
Then we get to the end, and we have dragons and a rebirth of magic. In the second book, we have the War of the Five Kings, which dramatically increases the complexity of the central plot. We increase the stage presence of the Greyjoys, Tullys, and Tyrells. We get a load of new characters, a new religion that comes with its own magical powers, the faceless men, and we start exploring the cities of Essos.
The point is, if you dropped everything about the world on people in the first book, you would scare them away. However, by gradually adding new characters, houses, factions, religions, magic systems, and so forth, you can keep people invested in and understanding your world’s complexity. A complex world is a boon; you just have to approach it stripper style, showing off a little bit at a time.
7. Death needs to matter.
In some stories, death is a trick to get people off stage … for a little while. While these temporary deaths may give the story some short-term returns, it also decreases the overall tension and sabotages the potency of any future deaths. This video letter to Marvel does a fantastic job of explaining why fake-killing in ineffective. To quote its conclusion:
Please stop fake-killing the fake people. It’s cheap, it’s empty, and it comes with diminishing returns.
Meanwhile, Martin shows us the opposite end of the spectrum. He states:
Just as you grieve if a friend is killed, you should grieve if a fictional character is killed. You should care.
Does he accomplish this? I would absolute say so. And this is even though *SPOILERS* death is not strictly permanent in this world. It’s just hard to overcome and comes with an expensive set of consequences. If we’d brought people back to life over and over again, could we really have gotten excited for the reveal of Lady Stoneheart? Would the major cliffhanger at the end of book five mean anything?*ENDSPOILERS*
So don’t bring people back just because they were well-liked. Don’t bring people back at all unless you’ve got a damn good excuse, and even then … make sure that their return to the world of the living comes with terrible costs.
Those were just a few of the lessons A Song of Ice and Fire / Game of Thrones taught me about writing and storytelling. What about you? What have you learned from these stories? Share your thoughts in the comments, below.