What Game of Thrones Teaches Us About Character DevelopmentWhat happens when you put a character at a power disadvantage?
“Even the best characters are flawed, and even the worst have something redeeming.”
Who would have thought that a once meek young woman would publicly challenge her half-brother and insist on punishing the kin of those who betrayed her family? Or that the death of a farmer and his daughter would burden a killer’s conscience, so much so that he would bother to bury their bodies? Or that a royal outcast would go so far as to advise his family’s enemies in an invasion?
And yet, these character developments make sense in context.
Sansa Stark – well acquainted with Cersei Lannister’s ambition and a survivor of an abusive marriage – wants power and revenge. Sandor “The Hound” Clegane – a deserter who’s witnessed miraculous events and experienced the kindness of strangers – wants answers and redemption. Tyrion Lannister – a shrewd politician marginalized by many at King’s Landing – wants to put Daenerys Targaryen, “the last hope for Westeros”, on the throne, restoring his own power in the process.
Much has been said of the success of HBO’s hit series Game of Thrones, a sweeping fantasy epic that drew some 16 million viewers this week with its seventh season premiere. It’s a spectacle that balances smart plot and language with lowbrow sex and violence. It’s a masterclass in world-building, boasting a rich fictional history that reflects difficult truths of modern times. And it triggers each of the eight emotions, from joy and sadness to anger and fear to trust and disgust to anticipation and surprise. The series is full of scenes – which, in Robert McKee’s words, are essentially stories in miniature unified around desire, action, conflict, and change – that spur one “transition of values” after another:
But perhaps the series’ primary appeal is its cast of strong characters.
Take note, screenwriters! Game of Thrones is full of characters we love. They are dynamic and sympathetic, keeping audiences engaged. The characters are the reason that we tune in at the same time week in and week out, no small feat in peak TV’s age of on-demand binge-watching; we are invested in them and what happens to them.
How does Game of Thrones inspire such strong sympathy for its characters, many of whom are not traditional “good guys” or even remotely likable? One answer lies in a narrative motif. Time and again, Game of Thrones puts a character at a power disadvantage that forces them into a position of vulnerability. We spend time with this character as they fight their way from vulnerability to power, coming to understand – and sometimes even appreciate – their perspective.
For example, Cersei wants to protect her children and ensure the Lannister’s legacy. [Spoiler Alert!] After being stripped of her power and publicly humiliated, she blows up the Sept of Baelor, killing her rivals – and indirectly, her last living child. With her children gone, all Cersei has left to her is The Iron Throne. Having witnessed these developments, we understand why Cersei does what she does. We understand why, by the end of season six and into season seven, this character has become so hardened. Without her children, Cersei is bereft of purpose greater than the pursuit of power for power’s sake.
Intrigued? Then we encourage you to study our analysis of antiheroes, which discusses sympathetic characters at length!
More generally, Game of Thrones is a series that eschews traditional conceptions of “good” and “bad”. Instead, it embraces a moral complexity that isn’t afraid to show how “even the best characters are flawed, and even the worst have something redeeming.”
Perhaps, in its way, HBO’s epic helps us understand the best and worst of ourselves, both individually and collectively. We’re invited to examine our own motives as well as the motives of others. “It seems to me that it’s the work of poets and artists to know what the world-image of today is,” Joseph Campbell writes, “and to render it as the old seers did theirs.”
Regardless, it’s an exciting time to be in the content creation business! From tentpole productions like Game of Thrones to more subtle, niche offerings like The Leftovers, studios are taking more creative risks – at least, outside of Hollywood’s superhero machine.
Michael Koehler, with
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