Song of Nice and Ire: The Subversion Becomes the Trope

Today, I’m going to spare a post to talk about Game of Thrones, because why not? The rest of the Internet certainly can’t stop talking about it right now.

Photo by  horslips5.
Photo by horslips5.

For that meager handful of you who haven’t read the books, watched the show, or somehow missed the inundation of memes and reactions that followed the most recent episode of the HBO program — I can only offer my green-eyed envy. Briefly, the “Red Wedding” has arrived on television — a scene in which several beloved characters die horribly, in a fashion that should be familiar to all GRRM fans, and yet is somehow a big surprise.

If you don’t yet know all about the Red Wedding, some spoilers follow, and names of dead characters are named.

Before we start, I will say I have read four of the Game of Thrones books, and the entirety of the Wild Cards series before that. I am pretty much done with it, and Martin in general. I have no real quarrel with him as a writer. He just doesn’t write the kind of thing I enjoy. Just so we’re clear that I’m not trying to smear Martin. He’s fine. We’re fine. You may continue to enjoy his work, or not, as before.

So anyway, Martin killin’ characters. That’s a thing. A very well-known thing. Probably the thing for which Martin is most well-known, at this point, and yet people continue to be shocked by the brutal deaths of their favorite characters. The range of reactions varies, from horror to anger to glee to self-important proclamations about how everyone else should have seen it coming. I’ve even seen some people angrily lecture about how feeling shocked was, in fact, the reader’s fault for having the temerity and naiveté to engage with Song of Ice and Fire in good faith. That’ll teach you, you big dummies!

Cartoons and memes and Twitter posts abound regarding Martin’s bloodthirst. Martin himself is on record as saying that he writes to keep his readers in suspense, and he’s killed off specific characters specifically to be unpredictable:

I knew it almost from the beginning. Not the first day, but very soon. I’ve said in many interviews that I like my fiction to be unpredictable. I like there to be considerable suspense. I killed Ned in the first book and it shocked a lot of people. I killed Ned because everybody thinks he’s the hero and that, sure, he’s going to get into trouble, but then he’ll somehow get out of it. The next predictable thing is to think his eldest son is going to rise up and avenge his father. And everybody is going to expect that. So immediately [killing Robb] became the next thing I had to do.

So Martin kills off beloved characters in order to subvert reader expectations. But after the first two times, what does the reader actually expect? What if you’ve read Wild Cards and find Martin’s debasement and slaughter of protagonists not only not surprising, but pretty much Martin’s stock in trade? Are reader expectations still being subverted then? I’m not trying to make the case that the massacre of fan favorites is all SoIaF has going for it. That’s hardly the case. But it is the thing people tend to talk about most often.

And that, to me, is the trap of “shocking” writing and unpredictability for its own sake. The same thing has happened to Joss Whedon, whose fans start ticking off the lifespan of a character the moment they get in a relationship, because they’ve seen them end badly so many times. Joss Whedon killing off characters in love is no longer a surprise to anyone who’s spent any time with his work. The subversion becomes the trope.

I think writers can also run into trouble when they try to double back and super-double-secret subvert reader expectations by letting characters live, or taking a break from the grim darkness to let certain characters off the hook. When you specifically raise the stakes through brutality, easing off can be seen as the calm before the storm, or it can just be interpreted as a sign you’ve gone soft.

Books on craft tell us that when we tell a story, we enter into a promise with the reader. We introduce a protagonist, set up a conflict, and make a pact that by the end of the book, there will be resolution — favorable, unfavorable, satisfying or infuriating, but met with integrity and consistency. We can be reasonably sure that SoIaF won’t end with flying saucers bombing King’s Landing. The series ending with every character the readers ever cared about dead, though, that’s another story.

It does raise the question of what the promise of a book is, when the storytelling rails are removed and the writer leaves the reader catapulting along an uncertain track. To some readers, this is exquisite agony; to others, a good time to jump off and board another train. I’ve parted ways with Game of Thrones, but it will be interesting to see if his series fulfills whatever promise it’s made to readers, and whether the next “shocking” death will still carry any real shock.

Thanks to Michael Hansen for correcting this post and pointing out that it was not actually the season finale!

  • Eric Martell

    That is an interesting question, and it’s one that’s faced by anyone who creates extensively. So, you have a new viewpoint on storytelling, be it in books, movies, TV, whatever. And it strikes a chord with the public, so it becomes popular. How long can you keep doing that “new” thing before it becomes old and stale? Can you find a way to evolve, so that you continue to grow and develop as your ideas of what storytelling are change, or do you get trapped in whatever you’ve created, and it starts to get old, except for a certain fan base who just loves the storytelling style?

    I think (not that you’ve read them) the last two books of ASOIAF have been kind of spinning their wheels. They’re not bad, per se, but he admits to getting stuck on some things, and I have no idea where they’re going. It kind of reminds me of books 5 and 6 of The Dark Tower series, frankly.

    But it’s something that we’ve all seen happen repeatedly. I’ve never seen the last season or so of BSG, because I just stopped caring. It was awesome, then it just wasn’t – and I think they were trying to evolve, but lost me. I’m a huge fan of The Belgariad/Mallorean books (and yes, I know they’re the same story), and I’ve read a lot of other things they’ve written, but whatever their latest series was just bored me to tears. There’s only so many times the nice, unassuming, decent guy can become godlike, consort with gods, and have universal power before I just don’t care anymore.

    • I think David Bowie was once quoted as saying of fans, “if you do the same thing over and over again, they’ll hate you. If you do something new and different, they’ll hate you” or something similar. There’s certainly no pleasing everybody.

      I do wonder if it’s just endemic to fantasy mega-series as a whole, that you end up with “filler” books and wheel-spinning as you attempt to draw out the stakes long enough, and make them big enough, for the payoff to be worth it.

      • Eric Martell

        I’d have to think about that, but I suspect it’s common, especially for longer series. I haven’t read a lot of series that were one big long stretch like that. Trying to think of some examples.

        • I don’t think Malazan has any “filler” books, but then I don’t know what’s going on in them half the time. I’m not sure if Harry Potter had any “bridge” volumes, though a couple of the movies certainly seemed a tad on the disposable side.

  • Joni

    On one hand I actually respect authors who kill off central or beloved characters when it makes sense to do so. I don’t generally enjoy stories that are saccharine sweet, where everybody lives and everything works out for the best.

    But GRRM has gone rather too far the other direction for me. I think, as you said, it stops being a surprise after a while and starts to be the expected thing. For me it became really difficult to maintain any sense of connection with the characters, probably right around the Red Wedding, because I knew (or at least had good reason so believe) that it was very unlikely that the any of the remaining characters I liked would actually make it through to the end of the story.

    I know some people still really love the books and that’s fine. But I lost all emotional investment and attachment and now I just don’t care.

    • Yeah, I think there’s a big gap between a risk-free, no-stakes narrative, and just alienating the reader. Obviously, that depends on the reader as much as anything. For me, investing time and emotions into a favorite character, only to see them killed off, does tend to distance me from the story, and the more it happens, the more distanced I get.

      • Joni

        And in SoI&F in particular, it’s not just the relatable characters or the likeable characters. It’s the relateable characters, the likeable character and the interesting characters. It seems like GRRM is only letting the assholes and the uninteresting characters live.

        There are other aspects of his writing that I’m not overly fond of but could get past if I had some faith that somebody I liked or at least found interesting was going to live.

  • Joni

    I will be honest, though. I did experience a sort of schadenfreude when I saw how people are reacting to the Red Wedding. But it was schadenfreude with a helping of sympathy, because I was shocked when I read it, too.

    • Yeah, I had already forgotten about the series, really, so I was surprised, and yet not, simultaneously, at the outcry. 🙂

  • Amanda McCrina

    Yikes. That quote really bugs me. Not “Robb needs to die because it’s the natural outcome of everything that’s been building to this point in the story,” but “Robb needs to die because nobody will expect that!” The problem isn’t only that shocking deaths become the reader’s expectation; a book that relies solely on shock value loses its rereadability, at least for me. The trick only works the first time.

    • Yeah, I thought the same thing, only everybody seemed really shocked when it happened AGAIN after Ned’s execution! Although I think there is something to him saying that killing Ned brings up a revenge scenario that people probably thought granted Robb plot immunity.

      • Amanda McCrina

        True–and again, I’ve only read part of the first book, so really I have no right to criticize. But if the shock factor is the only thing setting Martin apart (and I’ve never heard anybody say much differently), then there doesn’t seem to be much incentive to return to the books again and again, like I’d do with, say, Harry Potter. If that makes sense. There’s nothing particularly nuanced or challenging or fascinating about the world he’s created–it’s not a place I want to lose myself in. The only thing it’s got going for it is the shock factor, and that’s lost after the first read.

        • Some people certainly disagree about the depth of GRRM’s worldbuilding, but yeah, in general, I am with you. I don’t think his books are bad at all, they just don’t move me the way they do other people.

          • Amanda McCrina

            And I think your post is particularly fair on that point: Martin knows what he’s doing; it’s just not your cup of tea. (I don’t mean to hate on his world-building, either; that was probably a bit harsh of me.)

    • Oh, you know, I just realized you said “rereadability,” not “readability” — so ignore the first part of my reply, I guess. 🙂

    • I think that you’re reading far too much into that quote. or you’re reading it the wrong way (as is Daniel) The world of ASOIAF is one in which the readers see the heroes, or the heroes that are supposed to save the day as shocking is an intriguing world and that’s the basis for an intirguing narrative. Anyone who has read the books can see the vast amount of detail in the characters/world and foreshadowing of events in the story that happens. It’s obvious that gigantic chunks of the books aren’t written to purely *shock* it’s just that readers and critics have a tendency to focus in on these things.

      Yes, the Red Wedding was shocking and that’s all well and good but it was actually genuinely shocking because a lot of people are genuinely invested in the narrative and the world up to that point. I’d personally predicted that Robb had to go down because I’d started to think like GRRM at that point and in some senses, for me the Joffrey/Tyrion sequence was more “surprising” because I hadn’t considered it. The world needed to be cleared of false saviours with flawed personalities before it could be saved. I think GRRM is correct that’s “shocking” for the sensibilities of the modern fantasy reader but it’s also shocking because even when we know it’s coming it hurts our sense of narrative expectation (clearly it does so enough to make readers throw in the towel) and also because it’s motherfucking chaos and beautifully written. – I don’t think GRRM is the best writer on a scene by scene basis but he put his literary soul into that sequence and what build up to it, so it’s great on that level.

      But hey, I’m a little tired of the “I love it, I hate it” tit for tat around this series now. It works for some, it doesn’t for others … like most books, just better marketed.

      • Amanda McCrina

        “it was actually genuinely shocking because a lot of people are genuinely invested in the narrative and the world up to that point….”

        I’m sure this is true; and I do think Martin creates compelling characters and a vivid world (though I’m still not convinced it’s much different from most other medieval fantasy worlds out there, apart from the amped-up grittiness). But Martin himself seems to disavow that, at least in this one quote–he suggests he killed Ned and Robb simply because he wanted to defy reader expectations. Which seems gimmicky to me.