The Red Wedding still hurts! Why?

I finally watched the Game of Throne episode, “The Rains of Castamere,” and even though I knew what was coming it was still painful to see it happen again. I’ve read A Storm of Swords three times, so I was prepared for what was to come. I’d seen this horror before in my mind’s eye. But watching it play out on the screen was a surprisingly emotional experience. I think this is interesting, because I was never particularly emotionally attached to the characters who suffered the most during the Red Wedding. So why should it be such an emotional experience to read or watch it unfold? I think it has to do with George R.R. Martin’s genius.

SPOILERS FOLLOW!

First let’s get the particulars out of the way. The Red Wedding is perhaps the most pivotal moment in all of Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire saga. Major characters die, the balance of power in the ongoing struggle for Westeros shifts tremendously. The King in the North Robb Stark and his mother Catelyn Stark are murdered, as are many Stark and Tully bannermen and soldiers. It’s a disaster.

When I first red that chapter ten years ago, I was shattered. But why? I was never particularly attached to Catelyn Stark, who had been a primary “point of view” character in the first three books. She hated one of my favorite characters (Jon Snow). She undermined her son’s authority by freeing Jaime Lannister. She sparked a war by kidnapping Tyrion Lannister. Cat and I weren’t close.

And Robb? Readers of the books know that Robb is a much more distant character than he was in the show. Martin never writes from his point of view. When he goes off to war, falls in love, and gets married, there are no point of view characters with him. Martin always maintains a narrative distance between Robb and his readers. We are much more emotionally attached to characters like Jon Snow, Sansa, Arya, and even Bran Stark, despite that silly, three-eyed crow business. And everyone loves Tyrion, But I never loved Robb and I never loved Catelyn. So why did it hurt so much when they died?

Here are the reasons:

  1. The Red Wedding is a major violation of the cultural norms that Martin created in his world.  Martin’s world building is fantastic. His readers are well-versed in the laws of hospitality and honor in Westeros. Before Walder Frey and his co-conspirators murdered the Starks, he offered them guest rights. This is the formal act of offering bread and salt to your guests. If they accept it, then you are both bound by the old gods and the new to do no harm to each other. Frey violates that sacred right when he kills Catelyn and Robb and so many others (Umbers, Mormonts, Mallisters, etc.)
  2. The fall of Stark also boosts the Lannisters. Martin has done a wonderful job of crafting a villainous family in the form of the Lannisters. Even though readers love Tyrion from the outset and grow to like Jaime Lannister after he loses his hand and learns humility, we still hate House Lannister. Cersei is a witch. Tywin is jerk. And Joffrey. Ugh! Joffrey. Worst. King. Ever.  Robb and Catelyn’s deaths seem to let the Lannisters off the hook for cuckolding King Robert, murdering Ned Stark and everything else. The Starks won’t be able to take their revenge, which we’ve been craving for thousands of pages. Now, someone else might come along and teach them a lesson (If you’ve read all the books, don’t spoil it for the TV-only folks. We know something is coming). Still, we wanted to see Joffrey and his kin answer to Robb for their crimes. Now it isn’t going to happen.
  3. We don’t love Robb, but we do love House Stark. We care about House Stark and what it stands for. We love Arya. We grow to like Sansa as she gets over being a brat. We love Bran. We love the wolves! These characters are complex. They have flaws, but they are also fundamentally interesting and sympathetic. And we want to see things turn out well for them. We want them to get home to Winterfell safe and sound. The best hope for that was Robb Stark. He was winning the war, until he screwed up and broke off his betrothal to House Frey (cursed be that name). When Robb dies, our hope for a happy ending for the Starks dies, too. The north is shattered. Bran is the next in line and he’s paralyzed. In the medieval world of Westeros, a pre-teen boy who can’t walk won’t be able to lead. Rickon is a toddler. Jon Snow is a bastard. Our hope to see some measure of peace for this family is gone.  Martin has chosen his key characters and we readers have invested emotionally in them. We love Robb Stark’s kin, but we don’t love him. But we hoped Robb would redeem and protect his house and restore order in this world. Alas, it will fall to someone else to fulfill that. Dany Targaryen and her dragons are still on the loose, so… we’ll see.

Robb was one of the best hopes for restoring order to Westeros and saving many of the characters I love.  But Martin knew that Robb wasn’t the person that needed to do these things. He’s not one of the heroes of this series. He was always a secondary character. His success would have felt like a betrayal to the structure of the story. Instead, Martin used Robb’s character as best he could. He sacrificed Robb in spectacular fashion, and that sacrifice advanced the plot of these books tremendously. Everything changed. The order that Robb was supposed to restore was thrown even deeper into chaos. Readers like me were hooked forever. I will never give up on these books until I see someone set things right in Westeros. Let’s hope Martin’s endgame gets us there.

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Human relationships in epic fantasy: Give me some quiet moments

As I was recently approaching the 95,000-word mark in the fantasy novel I was writing, I thought to myself, “I really wish I could just have a scene in a kitchen where my protagonist can talk to his girlfriend about something mundane. How was your day? How was work?”

In a genre where someone is always saving the world, fighting monsters, casting wondrous spells, or fulfilling a prophecy, who has time for the quiet moments?

Author Brian Staveley published a refreshing guest blog from his wife Johanna about how heroes of epic fantasy tend to be crappy boyfriends. And she’s right. Her take on the hero of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series:

I can still be fairly certain that it would suck to go on a first date with Rand al’Thor – always talking about himself, never picking up on hints, alternating between needy and surly. He doesn’t know how to make Egwene feel pretty, even though it’s clear that she really cares about her hair and all he’d have to say would be something like, “Hey, Egwene, I really like your your new ‘do.” Nope. Nada. Instead he “stares at that braid as if it were a viper.” By the end of Eye of the World, he doesn’t even recognize her face. Okay, fine, he’s just been through some epic stuff with one of the Forsaken, but still… Epic hero? Check. Terrible boyfriend? Check.

Hey, I loved The Eye of the World when I was 14, and I still enjoyed it when I read it a second and a third time, but let’s be honest. Rand al’Thor is a bad boyfriend. He’s a pretty complex character, but he doesn’t spend a lot of time on dates. He doesn’t spend a lot of time relating to people. He’s brooding. He’s leading armies. He’s fighting evil. There’s not a lot of time for his humanity to shine through, except with his own tortured internal dialogue.

Too many fantasy authors (and genre authors in general) focus too much on driving their plots forward. Given that the fate of the kingdom, world, galaxy or universe typically turns on the outcome of the plot, it’s easy to see why we do this. Who has time to talk about relationships when the evil devil king is leading an army of undead against the city?

But quiet moments are often the moments that allow us to fall in love with a character. They help us find a reason to root for the hero to get the girl (or boy) in the end. Not every scene has to have global consequences. Not every seen has to drive plot. And when you are devoting a scene to pure character development, don’t be afraid to throw in a little domestic drama. Your hero forgot to pick up a pail of milk at the market. His wife is so angry. They have a fight. He remembers why he first fell in love with her. He goes out to a field in the middle of the night and milks the neighbor’s cow for her.  Sure, in the next chapter he’s going to get into a sword fight with the mad prince, but for a quiet moment, we see what he’s fighting for and we care.

I recently read most of a fantasy novel, the first in a series, that had had some decent critical acclaim. (The book and author shall remain nameless out of respect.) I had to put this book down after about 350 pages. I simply didn’t care about any of the characters anymore. The hero had multiple relationships that were critically important to him and that motivated him to do the things he had to do. He had a best friend. He had a forbidden love that he longed for constantly. He had a mentor whom he loved and hated. But none of these relationships seemed authentic to me because the scenes that would have given them authenticity were missing. I never saw him fall in love with the girl. I never saw him strike up a friendship with the friend. I never saw him connect with the mentor in such a way that he would develop a complicated love/hate relationship with him. Instead, I was told that these relationships were there and I just had to take the author’s word for it. That’s not good enough. That’s bad writing.

If you’re going to make up a world for a fantasy or science fiction novel, don’t forget during your world-building to set aside some time to think about how human relationships work in that world.

When and how do husbands and wives connect with each other? It can’t be when the goddess of love commands them to.

How does a teacher or mentor win the respect and admiration of his pupil. It can’t be because he has snazzy armor.

How did your hero fall in love with the object of his love. It can’t be because she tugs on her braid in such a cute manner. Or maybe it can. But show me why it’s cute. And show me what he does and says when he sees her tug that braid. And then let those two kids go for a walk and talk about something other than Voldemort.

Digging deeper into your favorite author’s imagination

Has an author ever presented you with a character who captures your imagination only to bring that character’s arc to a conclusion that feels premature? You’re left feeling like there is more to the character’s story. Well, if you go digging you might just find that the author has more to say about that character.

Reading an author’s various works can be like putting together the pieces of a puzzle. You might read a novel or a series of novels, and think you have the whole story as conceived by the author. You could very well be wrong. Many writers develop characters, themes, and settings over time with a variety of published and unpublished work before writing a larger novel.

Alastair Reynolds, the Welsh author of scifi space opera, is best known for his “Revelation Space” books, a trilogy of future history novels about humanity’s desperate (and I mean desperate) struggle against a mysterious force in the galaxy that is bent on exterminating advanced intelligent life. The trilogy includes Revelation Space, Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap. Nevil Clavain is a pivotal character in the two later novels in the series, an ancient war hero who has lived through centuries of history thanks to a combination of the time-distortion effects of near-light speed space travel, several stints in suspended animation and bioengineering. Clavain is complex. He’s come from a faction of humanity that Reynolds initially presents as menacing and villainous, but Clavain himself is heroic. His character has a lot of back story that is teased out over the course of the novels but a close reading of the book should tell you that this author has spent a lot of time with Clavain. You know that history is there, waiting to be explored, because Reynolds has imbued Clavain with a deep sense of melancholy born out of longevity. Clavain has lived too long and lost too much over the centuries and it weighs heavily on his shoulders.

Fortunately, Reynolds has explored Clavain’s universe beyond the major trilogy of Revelation Space. There are two standalone books which Clavain doesn’t figure in as far as I know. But Reynolds has also published a good number of  short stories and novellas, and many of them are truly companion pieces to the trilogy. Casual fans will miss them unless they go looking for them.

Sometimes an author will use the short story form as the seed for a novel, incorporating the story as a chapter in the larger book. A Home at the End of the World by Michael Cunningham is a good example of this. The New Yorker published his short story “White Angel” in 1988. This tragic coming of age story about the bond between two brothers has a fully formed narrative that in itself is a powerful exploration of fraternal love and profound loss. Cunningham later used this entire story as an early chapter in the larger book, the events in the short story serving as the formative series of events in the life of one of the main characters which drives his actions throughout the novel.

Reynolds, in contrast, has written a variety of short stories and novellas set in the universe he created in his “Revelation Space” novels. These stories explore other aspects of characters and concepts featured in the trilogy and they were written before, during and after the writing of the trilogy. Many of them were collected in Galactic North, which was published in 2006. In this collection you’ll find two stories about Nevil Clavain that take place centuries before the events of the trilogy: “Great Wall of Mars” and “Glacial.” Clavain is already an old man, a war hero who is tired of battle. In “Great Wall of Mars” he sets out on a diplomatic mission to ease tensions between his people and the Conjoiners, the cybernetically-enhanced faction of humanity who have used neural implants to join themselves together in a collective consciousness. Anyone who has read the “Revelation Space” trilogy knows that Clavain ultimately switches sides and joins the Conjoiners. This is the story of how that happens. This is also the story of how he learns to trust the leader of the Conjoiners, Galiana, who doesn’t really appear as herself in the trilogy. But her absence weights heavily on Clavain in the trilogy. He remembers her as perhaps the great love her his life. In this story and in “Glacial,” Reynolds explores the early years of Clavain’s transition into Conjoiner society and the development of his relationship with Galiana.

Galactic North also explores some other aspects of the early history of the “Revelation Space” universe and it illuminates the end of the final book in the series, Absolution Gap. I admit that the end of that third book confused me quite a bit. Reading the story eponymous story in Reynolds’ collection, “Galactic North,” helps to clarify some of that confusion, but I’m still parsing through it. Still, reading that story helped me make some sense of the parts of the book which had left me confused. Ultimately I enjoyed reading Reynolds short story collection for the two pieces about Clavain. They gave me the opportunity to spend a little more time with the character and to understand him more fully.

So the next time you read a book or books you really enjoy and are left wishing for more to read about the characters and ideas in those books, look around. See what other things the author has written. Maybe he has some short stories published in a magazine or on his website or in some collection that explore other aspects of the characters and places that you loved so much in the original work. You might find it rewarding.