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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The lazy fantasy world-building of a 1,000-year-old empire

Guilty as charged! I’ve set my novel in a 1,000-year-old empire.

Author Rachel Aaron blogged this week about the absurdity of millennia-old fantasy fiction empires. An eternal empire is lazy fantasy world-building that authors use to create a sense of historic scale, she wrote. The problem isn’t necessarily the length of time that these empires exist, but the lack of change within them.

To me, enormously long blocks of time in books where things stayed basically the same are the epitome of lazy world building. Want to make something sound impressive? Add a big number to it!

Aaron points out that these empires are full of people who are more than props or names on a character list. They’re inventing things. They’re striving to improve their lives. They rebel. They fight wars. Civilization evolves. Empires fall.

Even the Roman Empire split in half within half a millennium, and the Roman western half collapsed nearly 800 years before the eastern Byzantine half finally crumbled. Empires are not static. They wax and wane. They break apart. They rise again as something new. Aaron writes:

The point is that generations of thinking mortals do not pass time idly.

In other words, don’t be lazy with your fantasy world-building and throw a big impressive number out there for your readers to ponder. A 10,000-year-old empire might sound impressive, but you better prepare to give the reader a sense of time passing and also be ready to explain how that empire held together for so long. An empire that old probably fought its earliest wars with bronze swords and  its last wars with muskets. Are you prepared to explain that much history? You don’t need all the details, but you need to sketch together enough history to make your reader believe in it.

The book I’m writing takes place in a 900-year-old empire that has been ruled by the same dynasty throughout all that history. That first detail is a problem that I’ll probably have to address.  I started with that large number because I needed a broad sweep of history. I wanted to establish some distance between the action of my book and a series of historic events that took place centuries before. These historic events not only shape many of the rules of my world, but also influence some of the characters and ultimately drive the plot.  The sweep of time also shapes the evolution of the magic system in my book. Magic was nearly erased from the world during a series of pogroms against people who practiced it. Only centuries later did magic re-emerge under tight legal controls. And the magic that emerges is a pale shadow of the powers wielded by people centuries before because so much knowledge was destroyed and lost to time.

I’m only 80% through my manuscript (it stands at 100,000 words today), but I’ve started revising it based on some advice I received from an editor and an agent. I admit that the stability of this empire that I’ve invented has troubled me, although at the time my book takes place the empire is in decline. I’ve been thinking about how the civilization of the empire has evolved over those centuries. Aaron’s post confirms that my instincts are right.

It’s a good thing I”m in revision mode. I’m open to making big changes right now. In addition to plot and character changes, I need tweak the history of my world. I’ve done a tremendous amount of fantasy world-building over these seven months, but I’m still a novice. I have a lot to learn. So thanks to Rahcel Aaron for the good tip.