HBO Series created by: David Benioff, D.B. Weiss
Based on the series of novels by George RR Martin
Great characters: Jamie Lannister, Tyrion Lannister, Jon Snow, Arya Stark
Reasons why they’re great: Reversals of fortune leading to growth.
Mr. Martin, you write great characters. These are wonderful examples of creating people who identify themselves in a certain way – Jamie is the golden boy warrior, Tyrion is an unwanted ugly dwarf, Jon is a bastard, Arya is a beloved and spoiled younger child.
These characters are so invested in their identities that it is hard for us to see them in a different way at the start. And yet… if we take Tyrion as an example, while the people in the world around him are repulsed by him, we, the audience clearly see his innate intelligent, charm and compassion. So the joy and tension for our journey with Tyrion is a hope that others will come to see his most excellent self. And even more importantly, that Tyrion, himself, will believe in it.
It is a reminder that while it may seem like we are painting our characters in terms of black and white, the truth is, it is all shades of grey. This may make our writing process harder, but it makes our characters stronger and their journey far more interesting and engaging.
After setting up the characters so dynamically, the writers (of the show and the books) then break them down either by elevating or lowering their station and forcing them to reassess who they are. And reassess and reassess.
As writers, we need to be willing to put our characters through trauma and conflict. It is under these conditions that essential character qualities are revealed. However, that doesn’t mean we have to make their situation better. Any reversal of fortune can be used for complication and, ultimately, growth. Taking a bastard like Jon with no status and watching him keep stepping up to the plate with more responsibility and thus more respect may turn out to be exactly what’s needed for him to become a mensch. Whereas Jamie has it all. On the surface he should be the hero yet he is the villain of the piece. It is in the loss that he transforms finally into hero and not just a knight.
And Arya. How challenging it is to create a compelling child. She is perhaps the most kick ass female to ever hit the screens. She is imbued with smarts, cunning, optimism and boundless curiousity that creates such an incredible empathy for her. Torn between duty to find her family and desire to transform herself into the girl she could fully be, the writers load up the injustices and make her plucky self trip up just enough times to remind us that she is still a child and the dangers very real.
Remember, it all starts with the dynamic first impression. Root our characters in a stubborn self-definition. Then unbalance them. Keep them on their toes. And yes, twists and turns are part of that, but I mean in a thematic, character level growth way. This will add the all important tension and forward momentum to your story.
It will also keep us invested in the outcome of a character, especially when, like in Game of Thrones, there are so many personal stories to set against this epic tapestry.
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