Karma is a Direwolf

I’ve just finished reading the first novel in G. R. R. Martin’s A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE, which is A GAME OF THRONES, and Brandon Sanderson’s MISTBORN trilogy, THE FINAL EMPIRE. There’s much that all writers can learn from great fantasy writers. Namely, characterization and world-building. Both Martin and Sanderson are excellent at both. I give the nod in characterization to Martin and in world-building (coming next blog) to Sanderson.

Frankly, you read Martin for his characters. 

There’s no way this series could be single point of view. The multiplicity of point of view characters allows for more multiple story lines. The genius of Martin is that he allows the characters’s choices to create the consequences that are the plot lines. He’s ruthless in his karmic logic. Lord Eddard Stark does the honorable thing, with a dishonorable person, and the queen moves against him--after the king dies. He (sort of) trusts the wrong person, Lord Petyr Baelish, and that misplaced trust allows Baelish to capture him. The new king, who’s a nasty, unstable teenager, is the wild card. Joffrey’s going to use his power, set his own agenda; to do so, he takes Ned Stark’s head. He surprises everybody.

He can surprise the characters, but he shouldn’t have surprised us, the readers. We should’ve followed Martin’s relentless, narrative logic. A character chooses his actions; he does not choose his consequences. Ned chose badly; thus, he ended badly.

Characters are known by what they do and say. 

Because Ned is a point of view character, we see his world through his eyes. Because the narration is third person, close to middle distance, we the readers accept what we hear, see, and feel of and through Ned. We like what he likes, loathe what he loathes. His feelings of revulsion for Varys, which are shared with others, are so strong that Varys’s powder, perfume, and whispery movement--his effeminacy--disgust me, too. His love for his wife, Catelyn Tully, developed over time, but is real. Ned is a honorable man who has taught (or at least tried hard to teach) his sons to be honorable men. 

Ned’s greatest strength, his honor, is also his greatest weakness. He expects other people to deal honestly, directly, honorably. Because they don’t do so, he is, at best, stymied in his goals, and, at worst, killed. 

Characters are also known by what other characters say and do in relation to each other.

Strangely enough, I didn’t find Ned nearly as interesting as Catelyn, even though I dislike her. I find her too much a Tully and not enough a Stark; furthermore, she’s almost as naive as Ned. For a woman who lives in a society organized for war, she really doesn’t get it. She lets her maternal feelings get the better of her. If Ned’s death is the worst mistake that Joffrey and his mother make, then taking the Imp prisoner certainly hastened that evil day along. Catelyn didn’t really think about the consequences; she felt the horror of her son being pushed out a window, almost killed, then attacked again by an assassin. She wants her revenge on the man she believes harmed her child. 

Of course, she’s not the only one thinking with the heart, not the head. Lord Rickard Karstark wants desperately to slake his grief for his two dead sons in Ser Jaime Lannister’s blood. He makes a desperate contrast with cold-blooded Lord Tywin Lannister, who wants his son back, but isn’t willing to do something completely stupid in a misguided attempt to get what he wants. That ability to think rationally in irrational circumstances--three to five moves ahead on the chessboard--and behave accordingly makes Tywin so much more frightening.

Catelyn’s best counterpoint is Cersei Lannister, the queen. Her love for her children runs as deep as Catelyn’s does, possibly deeper, but it’s colored by the sin in which they were conceived--incest. It is this secret she’s willing to kill over. Ned Stark confronted her with that secret, and she moved against him. Her father’s right about her--she isn’t as smart as she thinks she is. But she’s not so stupid as to kill Ned Stark. That’s left to her monstrous son, whom she loves beyond reason. Greatest strength again becomes greatest weakness. 

The past is no guarantee of present performance--or at least somebody should’ve told Ned and Catelyn Stark that about Petyr Baelish. Oh, that’s right, somebody did tell them--Baelish himself. He’s a rattlesnake, he’s warned you he’s a rattlesnake, and you are surprised when he bites you. In the book, Baelish has an overblown Shakespearean feel to him, rather like Iago or Edmund, and for all the same reasons. He’s been denied everything he wants, so he’s going to strike. He’ll burn it all down to rule over the ashes. Ah, Varys, you know Littlefinger well. 

Tyrion Lannister might well be the most interesting character in the series. In the book, he’s really an ugly little dwarf. But he’s smart. He’s got Tywin’s intelligence without his heartlessness. He gives good advice and does good things for people. He provides a design for a saddle so Bran may ride. He tells Jon Snow to wrap himself in his bastardy and wear it like armor. It’s what he’s done with his deformity. Everyone dislikes him because he pokes holes in their vanity. He’s got few illusions about himself. And only the victims of injustice are capable of true justice. It’s how he commands loyalty beyond Lannister gold.

Characters are also revealed by what the narrator says about them. 

The narrative voice in Martin’s book is less intrusive because of the multiple point of view characters themselves, but it does give overall direction to the story. It’s more noticeable with the younger characters Arya, Sansa, Bran, and Jon. Arya comes across as a defiant snotnose, Sansa as a romantic fool cruelly disabused, Bran as a whiner, and Jon as uncertain yet angry. Jon, the oldest, grows up the fastest, and has teachers who are as capable as his father. Sansa’s the one I feared most for. She learns too hard and too fast that life is not a song. At the same time, she provides a window to one of the odder characters--Sandor Clegane. His rough kindness to her makes him human.

We live and die with these characters because they are so finely crafted that they have the feel of real people. We, the readers, choose who we’re going to cheer for, who we’re going to be friends with, and who we’re going to hate. We, like the characters, will suffer the consequences of their and our choices. In that, there is warning for us all--

Karma is a direwolf, and she bites hard.

Copyright KG Whitehurst
webmaster: kgw@KGWhitehurst.com