Killing characters

George R. R. Martin is famous for brutally killing characters, as witnessed by the recent uproar over “The Red Wedding” in the television version of “The Game of Thrones”, in which he killed off several characters. He couldn’t be happier with the general reaction. I’ve not read any of his work as yet. I’m not sure I want to. If I wanted a world where people are regularly butchered, the “good guys” finish last (unless by ‘finishing first’ you mean “first to the grave’), and the “bad guys” seem to get anything they want, I’d just read the news.

But if I were to read Martin, it’d be for his characterization. He does, after all, get you to grieve for the deaths of characters–and not all the characters that are grieved were good guys. So he must have something of a knack for helping readers genuinely like his characters. While this can often be accomplished by repeated exposure to them (hence the popularity of soap operas), this is best accomplished by giving characters depth. Sure, they may be evil SOBs, but if they have some positive points, however minor, and some interesting aspects we can find ourselves caring about even the nastiest of characters. And, if they’re nasty in ways we find interesting or wish we could pull off ourselves, that can also make them endearing.

Where I can’t really pass judgment without reading it first is Martin’s supposed penchant for killing characters. It’s not my cup of tea, obviously, but that doesn’t mean its necessarily a bad thing. Certainly the constant threat of death can heighten the tension, and if the author can successfully communicate that no one is safe, no character is sacred, then we can find ourselves worried for characters we normally wouldn’t even like. The fact that anyone can die will make us fear for them more than they fear for themselves.

But, and I have no idea if Martin does this, the threat of death can be overdone. There are often many other ways to raise the stakes for your characters. There are, for some people, far worse things than death. And if done too often, “Oh, they’re in peril for their lives again” can become boring. Sometimes just wondering if a character is going to be able to pay off his debts in time to avoid unpleasant consequences is more than enough tension to keep us interested. The continual threat of death loses potency after awhile. Saving the universe as we know it also can get old. Sometimes the most interesting conflict is also the most mundane.

I wish Martin all the best. He’s obviously quite popular, and I have no qualms with other people becoming popular. I’m also learning that’s not necessarily a reason to discount them, either. I missed out on Harry Potter for quite a few years simply because of a prejudice that anything popular can’t be good. I’m repenting of that notion. Though I’ve seen some pretty horrid dreck become popular in my time, not everything popular is undeserving.

I do need to learn to be meaner to my characters, but I don’t know if Martin is the one I want to learn that from. But perhaps he, as well as others, can teach me what makes a good character in the first place.

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