It's hard to believe that HBO's "Game of Thrones" has only been on the air for two seasons; it feels as though we've been living with the show for much longer.
Of course, the creator of the "Game of Thrones" book series, George R.R. Martin, has been conjuring the world of Westeros for more than two decades. The first book in the series came out 16 years ago, so the long-standing attachment many people have to that world isn't too odd. But there's no denying that the HBO show, which debuted in 2011, brought Martin's saga to a much wider audience.
Why is that saga so resonant, on screen or on the page? What is it about the novels and the TV show that make those Medieval-esque fantasy worlds so compelling to people who live in societies that appear to be very different? What techniques and strategies does Martin use to bring us very deeply into the worlds of his characters, who have inspired fierce loyalty and a million message board debates?
On September 1, Martin was asked dozens of questions like these at a 70-minute panel discussion at Chicon7, the World Science Fiction Convention, which was held in Chicago this year. At the panel consisting of myself, Martin and Peter Sagal (host of NPR's "Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me"), Martin discussed the themes of his "A Song of Ice and Fire" book saga, the challenges of making the TV show and the nitty-gritty of his approach to fiction writing.
I recorded the entire session as a Talking TV podcast, which you can find here and on iTunes, and there's a bullet-point list of highlights below for those who don't want to listen to the entire session. The discussion is not spoilery per se, but it assumes you've seen the first two seasons of the TV show. (By the way, thanks to fans who submitted questions prior to the panel; it wasn't possible to get to all of them, but the queries were very helpful during the preparation process.)
What's exciting to me about this session is that in this conversation, Martin talks at length about craft. He's been in the business of telling stories for many decades -- as a television writer and as a writer of fiction -- and he has a great deal to say about what works and what doesn't in different mediums. How is information conveyed to the audience (or the reader)? How do you keep sophisticated audiences on their toes? How do you create worlds in which most characters have to choose between the best of many bad options? How do you examine power from the perspective of outsiders, rejects and those who are constrained by conventional wisdom? Martin shared the insights of someone who has been contemplating these questions -- practically and philosophically -- for a very long time.
About midway through the podcast, there's a interesting discussion of his use of "close third person" narration and why that's effective in the creation of memorable characters. It's also interesting to note that he doesn't write the chapters in the order in which they appear in the books, and that he may write four or five Tyrion chapters before stopping and switching to another character. (Another fun fact that emerged -- and I'm sure hardcore "ASoIaF" fans already knew this -- Martin originally signed a contract for a book trilogy. I'm betting his publishers aren't sad he's now working on the sixth book in that "trilogy.")
Eventually, Martin zeroes in on his least favorite thing in any story: Predictability. But he admits that it's "very hard" to shake up the audience, which has grown more sophisticated with every passing decade. When he was writing for the revived "Twilight Zone" in the '80s, for example, network executives wanted the producers to end episodes with a twist of some kind, as the original Rod Serling series had often done. But the audience "could see all these twist endings coming a mile away," Martin said.
He also spoke about his fascination with power and with hierarchies that appear stable but are actually anything but. He mentioned reading a history of Jerusalem in which a mad ruler began killing dozens of courtiers and ordering the hands chopped off the women of the court.
"Why doesn't the captain of the guard say to the sergeant, 'This guy is [expletive] nuts?'" Martin said. "'We have swords! Why don't we kill him instead?'"
But loyalties -- clan loyalties, family loyalties, strategic alliances -- are powerful influences in the lives of Martin's characters, and their personal desires and their traditional duties or roles are often in conflict. And those kinds of unresolvable dilemmas are at the heart of what makes his stories resonate with those of us who didn't begin fighting with swords as children.
Paraphrasing Faulkner, Martin said "the only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself." And that's a scenario that is very familiar to anyone who's ever visited Westeros, either as a reader or a viewer of the HBO drama.
Here's a bullet list of some of the topics we covered during the panel, and I've thrown in time stamps that approximate where you can find these topics in the podcast:
- We began by talking about Mance Rayder's age, which has been the subject of fan speculation. Martin said he sees the character, who will be introduced to TV viewers in Season 3, as a contemporary of Quorin Halfhand and "not a young man." And as a fan of "Rome," in which Ciaran Hinds appeared as Julius Caesar, Martin said he's very happy about the casting of Hinds as the King Beyond the Wall. He also talked about the casting of Diana Rigg as the Queen of Thorns in Season 3.