One of the most common tropes used in a fantasy series is to begin with a young, naïve hero who is scooped out of his sheltered, mundane experience (usually by a mysterious bearded wizard) into some kind of grand adventure. In The Rivan Codex (a great read for anyone interested in the mechanics of very typical fantasy world-building) David Eddings describes this as the “Perceval” type character:
“Perceval is dumb—at least right at first. I went with Perceval, because he’s more fun. A dumb hero is the perfect hero, because he hasn’t the faintest idea of what’s going on, and in explaining things to him, the writer explains them to the reader.”
Eddings, David, and Leigh Eddings. The Rivan Codex. Del Rey, 1999.
In this manner, the writer connects the world-building to both plot and character development. It’s a useful way to handle exposition. It’s effective in that it provides a clear emotional anchor for the reader to latch onto. But it does tend to build a very one-sided view of the world. And since we’re starting with a character who is often young and ignorant, the view tends to be very black and white. Good vs. Evil and all that.
But Martin doesn’t do that in A Game of Thrones. Instead, we get a more complex, nuanced picture of the world. It comes with a large info-dump, yes, but it makes the conflicts broader and multi-layered. There are multiple perspectives, multiple factions each with their own interest. And while I had trouble connecting with the characters through the initial exposition, there is something to be said for this structure.
This Sunday, millions of Americans will tune in to watch the Superbowl, even though most of them will not see their favorite team playing. But it doesn’t really matter, they are there for the spectacle of it all. And more importantly, they are there to see who wins. A Game of Thrones is appropriately named, much like a game, people want to see who wins and how. It doesn’t necessarily matter who’s playing.
But it’s even more than that–in a story with a simple “Good vs. Evil” structure the narrative easily guides the reader to sympathize with the “good side”. But in A Game of Thrones is more like a tournament–there are multiple, and equally sympathetic perspectives—there are many “teams” so-to-speak, for the reader to attach themselves to. When you pair that with the enormous amount of information presented about the world, the places, and the people in it, something really interesting happens.
All the building blocks are in place for the reader to insert a narrative of their own making into the world. They don’t need to relate to the POV characters if they can create a relatable character of their own (an avatar, if you will) who has a stake in the same struggles. Maybe you can see yourself as a bannerman from the North who supports independence from the seven kingdoms under Robb Stark even if Robb isn’t that interesting of a character to you, or maybe you see yourself as a sellsword who throws in with the Lannisters because they pay in gold even if the Lannisters themselves seem unsympathetic, or a maybe you see yourself as wildling north of the Wall, and the hell with all of this Southern squabbling the Whitewalkers are coming! Or any of the other countless possibilities the magnitude and detail of the world allows.
It’s no surprise the series has spawned roleplaying games and millions of pages worth of fanfiction. The names, the details, the endless lists of places with ancient histories—there is just so much room to play in.
The world is bigger than any single character. Other series have large worlds and “teams” of a sort for people to tie themselves to—popular YA novels often use this method. The Hunger Games has its districts, Harry Potter has its houses. But the reader’s alignment with the teams is closely tied to their sympathy with the main protagonist (few people align with The Capital, or House Slytherin). Additionally, as these stories follow the archetypical hero’s journey, they end when that hero’s journey is over.
But in Martin’s world there is single hero-protagonist, everyone, even the Lord of Winterfell and Hand of the King is a small cog in a much larger machine with many moving parts. That’s why the story can keep going even after Ned is beheaded. And while his death carries consequences, it doesn’t affect what’s happening North of the Wall or what Daenerys is doing in Essos. The world is much, much bigger than any single character’s story.
A lot of people have remarked on the intense and startling violence this structure allows, because it means anyone can die, and that does increase the tension. But I think there is an even more interesting implication—when you read through all the names in the first book (and beyond) they often seem to have little actual significance (and many are actually insignificant). But on occasion, one of those offhand names rises into prominence within the narrative. An insignificant extra can become a major player.
Anyone can die, sure, but anyone could win to—and when you combine that with the building blocks in place for the reader to insert themselves (or their avatar-self) into the fictional world, you end up with perhaps the most captivating idea of all—that even you, the reader, could win the Iron Throne.
But what happens when the world is so big, that it starts to outstrip the plot? More in Lessons from GoT Part 3: This is the Way the World Ends.
Brownie points to anyone who recognizes the quote under the second image.