Peter Campbell has an interesting piece at the Medium on why the Game of Thrones is so popular. As I’ll make clear, I disagree with his thesis resoundingly, but his essay is well enough argued as to serve as what we call in consulting a forcing device: it’s a clear and consistent enough argument so as to push an audience into thinking hard about why they take issue.
Campbell argues that Game of Thrones represents a major break in literature because the characters have agency. By that he means that they have the ability to change outcomes, and many of them work hard to exercise that influence. And he claims that GOT’s success mirrors the increased complexity in our social relations (note that one of his major foundations for comparison is Lord of the Rings, or LOTR):
Storytelling is traditionally reductionist, offering simplified narratives that follow a single protagonist or (worse) force the protagonist into a culturally conceived pattern, such as the Hero’s Journey archetype….Storytellers are starting to jailbreak protagonists from the Hero’s Journey and a small number of authors take it even further. These revolutionaries not only unfetter their main character, but every character…
Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, which the HBO series is based on, fully develops the individual agency of characters. He creates incredibly complex plots with characters that have flaws and make decisions that are half-chance. Readers have been shocked at how characters can be killed off with little notice, but they describe his writing as having “realness” and “humanity.” Anything can happen to any character at any time, but in a realistic way.
I have to stop here and howl in protest. Has Campbell read much literature, as in 19th and 20th century novels, rather than pop page-turners? While some like Dickens tell simple morality tales, you can look to authors as wide ranging as Jane Austen, Flaubert, Graham Greene and Somerset Maughm to find complex characters who evolve. For instance, in Maughm’s The Razor’s Edge, an annoying wealthy snob surprisingly intervenes to save some of the main characters from financial ruin as a result of the Crash. And another major character deliberately, through the most casual act, ruins the life of a romantic rival, even though she is ostensibly happily married.
And if you want to look to historical rather than literary examples of people who sought and achieved influence and are morally ambiguous, why don’t we start with Cicero and Talleyrand? Talleyrand, for instance, was hugely corrupt personally, and sought enormous bribes when he was the Foreign Minister under Napoleon. Yet he managed to not just survive, but play important roles in all of the French regimes from the reign of Louis XVI through the third king in the Restoration, Louis-Philippe, with each regarding him with considerable mistrust.
Talleyrand, who was also a cripple (he had a club foot), was charming, manipulative, pleasure-seeking, famously cool under stress (he’d play cards during coup d’etats while everyone else was fretting) and seen as totally lacking in scruples. Talleyrand was in fact loyal to no particular regime, but as a true patrician, was dedicated to the idea of France. He served the nation even if it meant betraying his current nominal master, such as starting secret talks with France’s enemies when Napoleon was in retreat. Talleyrand singlehandedly negotiated against the representatives of all of France’s opponents, including Metternicht, at the Congress of Vienna, and managed to preserve France’s pre-war borders, an astonishing accomplishment.
And realistic???? How many times in GOT are people resurrected from the dead? That’s one of Martin’s gimmicks I find most annoying. He’ll have a grand bloody scene where a character to whom you’ve become attached, or at least found interesting, is killed in a vivid manner (Martin gets some credit for ringing the changes on how many different ways people can be done in). But about a third of the time, they show up again, and much of the time (think Brienne or Asha) with insufficient explanation as to why they are alive. Boy, one thing I’ll say for Westeros: they may only have swords and maces and crossbows, but their medical technology beats ours hands down.
So what makes GOT different? In more traditional literature, the backdrop is a settled order. Characters have fewer degrees of freedom than in a society in disarray. In fantasy literature, you have some of the same issues of the struggle for influence and the evolution of characters in Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky, where one major plot line involves a first-time meeting in space between two cultures, where one seeks to betray and conquer the other’s side, but is only partially successful, forcing the victors and the vanquished to work together to survive.
So the difference in Game of Thrones isn’t the matter of agency, it’s the density that Martin manage to achieve while retaining credibility. He’s packed plot lines and scopes of activity that in a more traditional novel would have spanned sections of a book into a single chapter. And mind you, we still have a massively sprawling work even with that degree of compression. So in my reading, Game of Thrones is a textbook case where a difference in degree really does wind up being a difference in kind.