Holley Hyler is an IT consultant and published freelance writer living in New York.
I recently embarked upon a reread of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series and started to think about what exactly makes it so fun to read and reread.
What makes for a book that a reader would keep on their shelf and return to multiple times? What makes for a character so compelling that people would want to adorn their wall with posters and drawings of that character? What would motivate a reader to give a novel five stars on Amazon and say they reread it every year or so?
This article will be an exploration of the above questions through my own analysis of R.R. Martin's work. Please note that it may not be applicable to all genres, but these are my takeaways from my study of fiction and a series that I enjoy.
When it comes to the makeup of a story, characters are arguably as important as plot. If we don't care about the characters, then we also don't care what happens to them or what they do. A well-executed plot can be tarnished by the lack of a likable (or at least interesting) character. Unless we are aiming for a dystopian feel, then we probably do not want to create robotic, unbelievable characters.
Since I am drawing from A Game of Thrones, which falls into the fantasy genre, you may be wondering what is relatable about most of the characters. After all, we have kings and queens, dragons, knights, and only a few people not as central to the story that we might call "ordinary."
When I say a character is relatable, I am not talking in terms of heritage, abilities, or occupation so much as their humanity. What deep-seated feelings drive them to do what they do in the story? What has hurt them, and what makes them happy? What do they want?
Regarding humanity, take Jon Snow, for example. Without going into any spoilers, what most people know about him is that he not a trueborn (within wedlock) son of Ned Stark. Despite that, his father brought him to live at Winterfell with his trueborn brothers and sisters. He feels like he doesn't belong, something which Lady Stark reinforces for him with her disdain. Feeling unwanted can occur in a variety of circumstances and is something most people understand.
Many fans root for Jon Snow and fall for him quickly. Another reason this might be is that despite Jon's lot, he does what he can to make the best of it and learns from his mistakes. We tend to gravitate toward people in our lives who want to better themselves, and so it is in our reading.
But we also might like to read about characters who are more static, who get themselves into trouble and never seem to learn from it. Viserys Targaryen from A Game of Thrones is a good example of this type. He feels that he is the rightful king; he is demanding; he threatens his own sister and uses her a bargaining chip in his quest for the Iron Throne.
While we may not care to read a novel all about Viserys (except perhaps those who really love Fire and Blood), he is a good vehicle for showing Dany's character development. We see her go from being submissive toward him to taking away his horse and ordering him to walk after he treats her with disrespect. What we might relate to in Viserys is his naivete, how easily he believes that the people of Westeros want him for their king when most of them could care less who is king as long as they have food and shelter. Haven't we all been naïve, especially when our ego was doing most of the thinking?
Both the "good" and "bad" characters have relatable qualities in most cases. This is at the core of what makes us feel something about them. Naturally, we will feel more strongly about some characters than others, and this also depends on our own character.
Authentic, Meaningful Dialogue
I have three criteria for my own measure of what makes dialogue authentic:
- Whether it sounds in my head like a conversation that could happen in real life, based on the setting and time period
- Whether it stays true to what I know of the character(s) so far
- Whether it seems to occur naturally
Dialogue is great for giving the reader a sense that they are there in the story, but it also serves other purposes. There would be no point to dialogue if it did not tell us something about the character or the story. Here is one example:
Jon was in no mood for anyone's counsel. "What do you know about being a bastard?"
"All dwarfs are bastards in their father's eyes."
"You are your mother's trueborn son of Lannister."
"Am I?" the dwarf replied, sardonic. "Do tell my lord father. My mother died birthing me, and he's never been sure."
"I don't even know who my mother was," Jon said.
"Some woman, no doubt. Most of them are." He favored Jon with a rueful grin. "Remember this, boy. All dwarfs may be bastards, yet not all bastards need be dwarfs." (Martin 57)
The above is a good example of dialogue aiding characterization. We learn something, both about Tyrion and about Jon, in that neither of them have known their mothers. We also get a better feel for the relationship between Tyrion and his father. Given Tyrion's characterization thus far, it feels to me like something he would say. He has a tendency to be disarming and isn't shy about who he is.
"Let me tell you a secret, Ned. More than once, I have dreamed of giving up the crown. Take ship for the Free Cities with my horse and my hammer, spend my time warring and whoring, that's what I was made for. The sellsword king, how the singers would love me. You know what stops me? The thought of Joffrey on the throne, with Cersei standing behind him whispering in his ear. My son. How could I have made a son like that, Ned?"
"He's only a boy," Ned said awkwardly. He had small liking for Prince Joffrey, but he could hear the pain in Robert's voice. (Martin 310)
This conversation confirms what we already know about King Robert, given the information about him leading up to this point in the story. It is also a good example of subtext. Before this moment, Ned has been following the trail left by Jon Arryn, the previous Hand of the King, who was gathering evidence that would prove Joffrey was not Robert's son. However, it would be unlike Ned to reveal that to Robert at this point in the story, especially since he can sense his friend's pain.
An Important Question
The best stories ask questions that can be carried into the non-fictional world. Here are some that I can think of from the top of my head from the A Song of Ice and Fire series as a whole:
- Are people better at ruling when they have no desire for power?
- Is there something "beyond the Wall" that maybe we should be spending more time and energy on than bickering about Democrat vs. Republican?
- How might we embrace our commonalities to tackle issues that affect all?
- Are we destined to become like our parents, even when we have always thought of ourselves as not like them at all?
This is probably only the tip of the iceberg as far as this series is concerned.
Some authors present questions but leave them more open-ended. It is up to the reader to interpret the story (or do a quick Google search to see an in-depth analysis, but it is far more fun to try on your own first).
If you are like me, then you are hungry for meaning in the things you consume for entertainment. Mindless entertainment has its place too, but we tend to remember and come back to the books that mean something to us. It can make the difference between what we put in the Goodwill box and what we keep when it is time to de-clutter and rearrange the home office or library.
An Otherworldly and/or Vivid Setting
A good story might give a vague sense of where and when the action takes place. A great story weaves in these details naturally and gives the reader a strong sense of what the weather is like, how a building is laid out or designed, which city the protagonist lives in, etc.
My personal preference is for the setting to be very much unlike my own. I want to travel to another country without having to buy a plane ticket, or I want to know what it is like in a world where magic and dragons exist. Locations are important in ASOIAF; a great deal of the writing is world-building. But effort is also put into describing the smaller rooms and details of a character's life. For example:
Of all the rooms in Winterfell's Great Keep, Catelyn's bedchambers were the hottest. She seldom had to light a fire. The castle had been built over natural hot springs, and the scalding waters rushed through its walls and chambers like blood through a man's body, driving the chill from the stone halls, filling the glass gardens with a moist warmth, keeping the earth from freezing. Open pools smoked day and night in a dozen small courtyards. That was a little thing, in summer; in winter, it was the difference between life and death. (Martin 58)
In Martin's writing, characters' personalities are likened to their homes sometimes as well. The Starks are said to be cold and impersonal, given that they come from the North. It is also known that they don't tend to do very well in the South. The setting is not just where things happen or where people come from; it contributes meaning to the story and adds to the complexity of the characters.
When we think of story structure, we tend to think of the classic progression of introduction, rising action or conflict, climax, falling action, and resolution. I used to consider these as being singular and going in a more linear progression.
There can be many conflicts in a story, many subplots, which is true of ASOIAF. In Martin's work, the narration style is third person limited omniscient, but the character in focus is changed each chapter. We get to be inside all the characters' heads, just at different points in time. There is a lot going on in terms of plot, and it is masterfully woven together.
It is important to note that there is not just one structure or plot progression that a great story must follow. Being able to pull together a massive number of subplots is not a mark of greater skill in an author, nor does it make one story better than another.
A story needs structure, no matter what kind it is.
Martin, George R.R. A Game of Thrones. Bantam Books, 2011.