So I’m late to the GoT party. I just started watching and as of yesterday, finished season 3. And whew… is there a lot going on. I’m going to admit it’s addicting but anyone who’s watched the show can deff vouch for that. But something else is quite amazing about the show. Sure it’s plot is complex and amazing and the world building seems flawless and equally amazing, but what strikes me the most about this show is its characters. So without further ado, the five lessons about characters we can learn from GoT.
1. Characters should be complex.
This seems a given but many a writer will tell you that this can be a difficult feat to accomplish. The writing world is always on our backs about ensuring our characters are unique yet compelling. A huge significance is placed on voice and our ability to captivate the reader. And this is something George R.R. Martin accomplishes well through complexity. Even the most basic of characters in GoT is complex. Example: Renly, the youngest of Robert Baratheon’s brothers. His place in the show is small yet even he has complex issues to deal with. How to deal with his brother Stannis, how to cover up his homosexuality, and how to play war as someone extremely green in the game. Another example could be Roz, the whore who travels to Kings Landing and serves/runs the whorehouse for Lord Baelish. She also has a less significant role in the show yet she is complex. She loves her job but has a heart to help others. She is struggling to move up in her own world yet she meets defeat at every angle. Each character within this series is unique and complex. They have multiple traits that sometimes clash with one another as well as other’s traits. And yet somehow Martin is able to pull off so many characters navigating around one another as though it’s nothing. As easy as breathing. Lesson: Make your characters complex, active not passive, round and not flat.
2. Characters must have flaws and deep ones if possible.
Like we see above, the secondary character’s complexity often lies in their flaws. However the main characters have both and sometimes they are separate of one another. Martin does a fascinating job of making us love his villains and hate his heroes. Sure, our main characters will always be our favorites, but you have to admit the bad ones are hard to hate. Let’s take some of the Lannisters for example. Kingslayer Jamie is, for the first season, a spiteful man, proud and arrogant and well, come on, he tries to kill Bram. So we pretty much hate him or at least don’t like him. Yet as the series continues, we learn more and more about him. He saves Brienne from being raped and getting eaten by a bear. He discloses the not-menacing-at-all way in which he came about his nickname. And the way he looks at his sister when he finally returns home (although kinda gross) makes us feel for him. Makes us hate him less. His humanity bleeds through as we get deeper into his character and his flaws surface. And when flaws surface, readers and viewers connect with characters. Their humanity allows us to see our humanity. Their flaws allow us to examine our own. The monsters inside them allow us to see the monsters inside ourselves. Character flaws, more than character strengths, shape our characters and determine their actions for them. Just think for a moment at some of the most vile characters in GoT. Are some of them also your favorites? Why do you think that is? Because they’re three dimensional. Because they are flawed. Because they are human. Lesson: A character with no flaws, is not a character: they’re a superhero/villain and unless those are in your story (Hello Marvel), you should cut them (with flaws!).
3. Timelines are important.
This kind of bounces off complexity but you need to know your characters history. As a writer, it’s super important to spend time in your character’s head and world. See things through their eyes. Know their history. When they were five, did they break their arm? Could that lead to a flaw that could lead to added complexity? Woohoo. Add it. This is always happening in GoT. All the character’s pasts seem to be extremely well mapped out. We know where the characters come from, we know a little about their family and upbringing, and that sharing with the reader/viewer builds trust and likeability. Lesson here: Know your character’s history.
4. Peel them like an onion.
This starts where lesson three stops. So you’ve done your homework. You know all about Jimmy’s childhood and why he is the way he is. His past has lead to his flaws and he has more than one. What do you do now? Tell the reader?
Yes and no.
You want to peel them like an onion. Start at the outer surface. Introduce us to your character slowly. Don’t bog us down with that timeline you’ve spent three days creating. Just give us little superficial stuff to get us well and good into the story. Then bam! Peel off a layer. Expose more and more of your character the further your story goes. At each step we should be understanding more about your character and piecing their worldview together better. GoT does this soooo well. Example: Tyrion, the imp. First season we only get the outer shell. He’s a Lannister. He’s rich. He uses his money on whores and alcohol from sun up to sun down. He seems to have very few cares in the world and even less power to do anything about them anyway. He’s the funny guy. The one that makes us laugh at his crude humor. But then as the seasons progress, we learn more and more. The onion is peeled. We see a past filled with torment and hate because he’s a dwarf. We see his father’s resentment and disdain for him just for being born (and killing his mother via childbirth). We learn of his first marriage and the scars it placed on his life. We see his softer more nurturing side. Out of all the Lannisters, he appears to have the biggest heart. We see him being faced with undesirable burden after burden. And what does this peeling do to you the reader/viewer? You grow to like him, maybe even love him as a character. You begin to root for him. You begin to take an interest in his well being in the show. And of course you would because: you feel like you’ve grown to know him. Over time, not all at once in a speech-like way (the author telling you). This lesson is so huge! And I hope you got it: Peel your characters like onions.
5. And the most important: Kill your darlings.
We hear it all the time. And it’s hard to do. We grow to love our characters. We want to see them triumph. We want them to be happy and safe. But that makes for a terribly boring book. And besides, how can you root for someone until you see them to their core? This lesson can only be achieved after you understand and have atleast implemented some of the above steps. Once you begin dissecting your characters, you can see what will hurt them the most. Their flaws become the places where you strike. Their weaknesses become your weapon. And you must use it. Because this, I repeat, this, is how you keep the reader engaged. This is how you make your reader care. This is how you get them to the end of your story or series. In order to do that, something must be happening and that something is character conflicts. GoT might be the beast of all series when it comes to conflict and killing your darlings. When I recently talked to a friend, she told me: be careful; no one is safe. And I loved that. Because it’s true and it’s essential to storytelling. None of your characters should be safe and the reader should feel that. This doesn’t have to be life or death stakes. It just has to be conflict over and over again. This is why we root so hard for characters in the story. We see them suffer and achieve, suffer and achieve. And we want them to win. We watch show after show so we can root them on. We cry when they die or get hurt. We feel their sorrow when something happens to them that’s unfavorable. All because of these 5 things, and mainly because of this one. So to peg off the above example, I’ll use Tyrion again. His conflicts: well they’re numerous. It started when he was born (conflict between his father, his siblings, and him). Then when he wedded the prostitue and his father made him watch her get raped. It progresses in the current story with him being framed as Bram’s attacker, being caught and almost killed by the Vale, and escaping and meeting loads of people on his way. Those people become the reason he is both alive yet also why his father puts him in the war as a soldier. Once the Kings hand, he seems to be heading up in terms of story development but there’s tension about his lover Shea, he’s almost killed by his sister in the battle he won for kings landing, he’s given no credit or value or praise from his family (mainly his father). On top of that he’s told he will marry Sansa whether or not he wants to, further putting tension on his relationship with Shea and himself. If we look at another character: Arya. While some of her conflicts appear life of death, none of them really are because we know people will keep her alive as collateral. However she still has tons of conflict. She’s constantly captured by various groups, she never makes it to her family on time, and she has to deal with losing everyone she loves (family and comrades combined). She never gets a break. As soon as we think she’s almost there, she’s pulled into anther conflict or narrowly escaping it. And this is happening with all the characters, an amazing feat of storytelling if you ask me. Lesson here: Load up on conflict. Inflict the damage you don’t want to inflict because it exposes your characters. It makes them fight. It makes your readers pay attention.
When you put all these steps together, you’re characters are going to be one tough lot. And that’ll make them shine. Story is equal parts plot and character (though this is debatable). Using GoT as an example, you can’t go wrong. And with one half of your story figured out, you’re in a great position to write an epic book.
Some side points:
All characters have flaws. All have strengths. All have something the reader should be able to relate to. Even your villains. In fact, the best villains are the ones hardest to hate.
It’s okay for some characters to have less roundedness to them. Not every character needs to be complex or three dimensional, especially if their role is super small in your novel. But a lesson from a GoT shows us the story becomes richer when everyone has something to lose.
And lastly, have fun. Character development is supposed to be exciting. If you’re overwhelmed, take a break and come back when you’re ready. Your readers and your characters will thank you.
So, what parts of character development do you or are you working on now? Did any of this strike a cord with you? Share if it did.
Happy reading and writing,