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!