What Can George R. R. Martin Teach Us About Writing?
Once again, Ginger is looking at another great writer for inspiration and lessons, boiling down what makes them so popular into little tidbits we can use and apply to our own writing. This time the author is George R. R. Martin, best known for his ongoing series of books and the hit HBO show based on them, Game of Thrones. Even though his world is made up of countless characters and each novel is hundreds of pages long, there are key elements that Martin sticks to in his books. His enormous and ever-growing fanbase is proof that his formula is popular among readers, which is why it’s worth digging into what it is he does so that we can determine if his techniques could work for us, as well. But be warned, for anyone that hasn’t yet read the books or watched the show, there are some minor spoilers ahead.
House of the Dragon recently hit HBO Max and fans of Game of Thrones are understandably losing their minds over it. It’s a prequel to the original show, set 172 years before the birth of main character Daenerys Targaryen, and features an all-star cast that includes Doctor Who alumni Matt Smith as the deliciously devilish Daemon Targaryen.
But while fans of Thrones are obviously excited to return to the world of Westeros, the show is also burdened by the disappointment many fans had with the eighth and final season of Game of Thrones, which they felt was rushed, unsatisfactory, and strayed too far from the original vision of creator George R. R. Martin – who inspired the entire enterprise with his series of books A Song of Ice and Fire.
The good news for these fans is that George R. R. Martin is much more closely linked to the writing and story of House of the Dragon than he was with the final season of Game of Thrones, and that much already seems apparent in the powerful storytelling that earned 9.9 million viewers for its first episode.
But what is it about George R. R. Martin’s writing that resonates so deeply with people? And what can writers like us learn from his storied career? Here are five things I think we can all take away from his writing and apply to our own.
There’s No Such Thing as a Good Character
One of the most notable things about George R. R. Martin’s stories is that they are populated by invariably wicked characters. There’s certainly nobody ‘good’ among the characters he writes about, although Shireen, Sam, Brienne, and Ned exhibit a rare nobility within a cast that regularly indulges in rape, incest, and murder.
Yet that actually helps readers connect with a lot of the characters in the stories in a surprising way. Perhaps its due to human psychology, but it’s undeniably far easier to see the noble parts of ourselves within characters who often behave in less-than-noble ways. Jaime Lannister, for example, might have fathered three children in his incestuous love affair with his twin sister Cersei – and thrown poor Bran out of a tower – yet readers discover that many of his most heinous acts were committed with noble intentions behind them.
For example, Jaime is derided as ‘Kingslayer’ for butchering the rightful ruler of the Seven Kingdoms, King Aerys. Yet he did so because Aerys was poised to scorch King’s Landing with wildfire, and had ordered Jaime to kill his own father. The act of ‘evil’ he committed saved countless lives, and therefore makes a situation that should be black or white smear into a very murky shade of grey.
In truth, none of us are truly good or bad. Our most celebrated heroes often committed atrocities (I’m reading Boris Johnson’s The Churchill Factor right now, which doesn’t shy away from the beloved British leader’s racism and disloyalty) and yet we love them anyway because they achieved magnificent things in spite of (or perhaps because of) their flaws.
Likewise, those who are ‘good’ for their entire lives often achieve nothing, because the notion of ‘good’ is often synonymous with ‘compliant.’
So, learn from George R. R. Martin and consider adopting an irredeemable character as one of your heroes – because it makes their acts of nobility and virtue so much more meaningful.
Tightly Focus Your Point of View
One of the aspects of George R. R. Martin’s writing I admire the most is his brilliant use of POV – or Point of View. He features dozens of characters in his stories, and yet nevertheless strictly adheres to third-person narrative (as in, written from an omnipresent narrator, who says “he did this” and “she said that”.)
This is literally like writing in “Hard Mode” – as trying to balance a ‘floating camera’ narration while flitting between multiple characters is often the recipe for an editor’s nightmare (and I would know – I’ve edited a few books with this problem.) It makes it far too easy for a writer to ‘blip’ between one character and another without giving the reader time to adjust; resulting in the cardinal sin of writing – confusion.
This is why many authors choose to write in first-person-perspective, and why successful writers like Lee Child use third-person-perspective but with an almost exclusive focus on the lead character. Being able to let a reader see through a specific character’s eyes is vital for keeping their attention, and George R. R. Martin manages this by being incredibly disciplined about laying the groundwork for whichever character is being followed in a particular chapter.
Learning that discipline yourself will improve your writing massively, and make it a much more enjoyable experience for your readers.
“I’m a strong believer in telling stories through a limited but very tight third person point of view. I have used other techniques during my career, like the first person or the omniscient view point, but I actually hate the omniscient viewpoint. None of us have an omniscient viewpoint; we are alone in the universe. We hear what we can hear… we are very limited. If a plane crashes behind you I would see it but you wouldn’t. That’s the way we perceive the world and I want to put my readers in the head of my characters.”George R. R. Martin
Chekhov’s Gun Taken to the Extreme
One of the other signatures of George R. R. Martin’s writing is the use of consequence. Every action in his stories triggers an equal and opposite reaction – often with devastating results for the characters who performed that action.
It’s the theory of ‘Chekhov’s Gun’ taken to the extreme. If you’re not familiar with that writing wisdom, it was the advice of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, who declared: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”
Likewise, nothing occurs in George R. R. Martin’s book that doesn’t have a consequence later in the story. Every word he writes is deliberate and meaningful. Sansa’s crush on Joffrey leads to her father’s execution. Jaime pushing Bran out of the tower triggers his transformation into an all-seeing Warg. Nothing anybody does in Game of Thrones isn’t eventually referenced again; often in unfortunate and unexpected ways.
This is a departure to how real life works, but it’s one of the main reasons we enjoy reading fiction. Seeing one character’s actions ‘pay off’ in later chapters (or even later books) is incredibly satisfying, and George R. R. Martin is incredibly disciplined in ensuring that’s exactly what happens – there are no ‘red herrings’ in his books.
So, as a writer, you might want to follow his example. After all, the fact that the writers brought in to complete Season Eight of Game of Thrones left so many dangling plot threads is one of the reasons why people complained about the show so bitterly, and why it was so obvious that George R. R. Martin hadn’t been adequately involved in the writing process.
Be Disciplined In Your Editing
The importance of consequence in George R. R. Martin’s writing demonstrates one more strength that people don’t often recognize in his works – brevity.
You’d think a man who writes phone directory-sized novels might not be familiar with the concept of brevity, but the fact that every single action his characters take results in a consequence means that not a single word in his immense novels is without purpose. He actually self-edits to a brutal degree; cutting all the fat from his stories to ensure that readers only need to digest paragraphs that provide nutritious characterization or advance the plot.
As he himself explains:
“I hated to lose any good stuff — scenes, dialogue exchanges, bits of action — so instead I would go through the script trimming and tightening line by line and word by word, cutting out the fat and leaving the muscle. I found the process so valuable that I’ve done the same with all my books since leaving LA. It’s the last stage of the process. Finish the book, then go through it, cutting, cutting, cutting. It produces a tighter, stronger text, I feel.”George R. R. Martin
Write What is Meaningful To You
The final piece of advice to glean from George R. R. Martin’s writing is to write what’s important to you.
Martin is often criticized for creating a fictional setting – a realm of dragons and magic – and yet filling it with uncomfortably real things like rape, incest, and murder. People ask: “If you’re making an imaginary world, why do you need to fill it with the worst things about humanity?”
Yet, that’s kind of the point of George R. R. Martin’s writing. He uses fictional settings to showcase the worst of real human behavior – taking the violence, misogyny, and ugliness of real medieval history and forcing us to confront it through the lives of fictional characters we’ve come to care about.
If Martin had heeded the criticism, he might have produced a series of books that was much more palatable to sensitive readers – without the dismemberment, forced marriage, or torture. But would it have become such a global sensation? And unless you write about something that’s painfully true and deeply meaningful, what’s the point of writing at all?
Ultimately, all writers have to compromise their vision to some degree to make their books marketable and successful – but there are lines in the sand that you should never feel obligated to cross. Have some integrity about what it is you want to say, and for all the readers you might lose as a result of it, you’ll end up connecting with a few who’ll remain fans of yours for life.
That’s what has made George R. R. Martin’s writing so successful, and why so many people are excited to see his words brought to life on our television screens each week.