George R.R. Martin on the importance of death in storytelling

Game of Thrones” was famous for a lot of things: popularizing long-form storytelling, pushing the limits of TV budgets, and killing off characters like it was going out of style. From Ned Stark to Stannis Baratheon to Daenerys Targaryen, there was no character who was safe. The shock audiences felt while watching these characters get bumped off is a sign of how few shows are actually willing to go there, but “A Song of Ice and Fire” author George R.R. Martin has always made this a part of his storytelling.

As Martin explained to The Independent, his distaste for low-stakes storytelling started back in his childhood, when he was unsatisfied with the superhero comics he was reading. “The stories never went anywhere,” the author said. “Superman would be there, and his girlfriend Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen his best friend, Perry White the editor of the Daily Planet, and something would happen. At the end of the story, everything would be exactly the way it was at the beginning of the story, for issue after issue, year after year.”

But then Stan Lee started to publish stories at Marvel, and everything changed. “Stan Lee’s writing was so much better than what you’d been getting,” Martin recalled. “Things happened. Spider-Man was progressing. It was so refreshing.”

That’s all Stan Lee, and you can see it all over my work! Unexpectedly killing characters, characters who are not what they seem, characters who are partly good and partly bad. Grey characters. You don’t know which way they’re going to jump when the moment of crisis comes. Stan Lee’s fingerprints are all over that.

George R.R. Martin: “If you’re going to write about death, you should feel it”

Of course, the most famous instance where Martin brutally kills off characters is in the Red Wedding, where both Robb and Catelyn Stark are unexpectedly cleared from the board after we’d been following them for three books (or three seasons, if you’re talking about the TV show.) “I finished the entire book, except for the Red Wedding,” Martin recalled about writing “A Storm of Swords. “”That was such a painful chapter for me to write, losing some characters that I had come to know and love. Nine years I’d been with these characters, and now I was going to kill them horribly! That was difficult.”

It’s a horrible chapter, and it upsets people. It makes people angry, it makes people sad. People throw the book against the wall or into the fireplace. When it was on TV, it had the same effect on tens of thousands, if not millions, of people. To my mind, that’s good. We’re talking about death here!

I find this all very refreshing to hear, and honestly wish more writers would take cues from Martin and kill their characters; even letting them stay dead would be an improvement. “We all in our real lives have experienced death,” Martin continued. “Your parents die. Your best friend dies. Sometimes, in a really tragic situation, your children die or your wife or husband dies. It’s terrible. It affects you. It makes you angry, it makes you sad. In our entertainment, television, film, books, over the centuries as it’s evolved, death is often treated very cavalierly. Somebody is dead, we’ve got a mystery, and the detective has to figure out who did it. We never consider who the corpse is, or what his life was like… what it’s going to be like without him. If I’m going to write a death scene, particularly for major characters, I want to make the reader feel it. That’s what the Red Wedding, I think, successfully accomplished. People felt that death.”

That said, Martin does think his reputation as a fictional mass murderer has been exaggerated. “Star Wars kills more characters than I do!” he said. “In the very first Star Wars movie they blow up the entire planet of Alderaan, which has, like, 20 billion people on it, and they’re all dead. But you know what? Nobody cares. Everybody on Alderaan is dead. Oh, OK. But we don’t know the people on Alderaan. We don’t feel their deaths. It’s just a statistic. If you’re going to write about death, you should feel it.”

Martin will have another chance to put that philosophy into practice when the “Game of Thrones” prequel show “House of the Dragon” premieres on HBO and HBO Max on August 21.


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