Some people – both fans and critics – still seem to want to stick fantasy in a special cultural corner. But lets face it, when one of the most popular works in the genre is getting regicide jokes onto Sesame Street, that genre isn’t the wimpy kid in the corner any more.
And as if to prove that Game of Thrones can be combined with just about anything, here are two very different parodies I stumbled across within minutes of each other. Enjoy!
To my own shock and horror, I realised this weekend that most of us love a traitor. And it got me thinking – why is that?
Don’t Hate the Player
This whole line of thought started with a board game, or more accurately three board games. On Saturday I was at Stabcon, my local twice-yearly gaming convention. I spent most of the day playing games of back-stabbing and treachery, and relishing every moment.
First some friends and I played Spartacus, the game of the TV show, in which you play Roman families trying to outmanoeuvre each other for profit while casually throwing gladiators and slaves to their deaths.
Then it was One Night Werewolf, the speedy version of the classic game of bluffing, gruesome murder and rushed lynchings, in which players are either werewolves or villagers, and your only aim is to live through the night.
Finally I sat down to play Battlestar Galactica, based on the modern version of the sci-fi show. It’s a cooperative game, in which the remnants of humanity look for a promised land – sounds much nicer, right? Except that one or two of you are secretly cylons, murderous robots trying not to get caught while you plot your comrades’ downfall. We survived, to the immense relief of most of the players, but it’s a tense game in which one false move can see you locked forever in the brig or mankind doomed to starvation.
Pick Me! I’ll Be The Baddy!
Two things about these games made me ponder the appeal of treachery.
First is the obvious the games are all driven by trickery and double dealing, and they’re all fun to play. Even as my friend Matt destroyed my Roman household’s reputation, I took great relish in declaring my intention to take bloody revenge (in the game, of course – there were no beatings in the hotel car park).
But the choices of characters people made were also revealing. In Werewolf, nobody chooses to be the werewolves, but everyone knows they’re the most fun. If you’re playing Battlestar, Gaius Baltar is always one of the first characters picked, because fans of the show love the conniving and egotistical scientist who accidentally doomed mankind. Similarly in Spartacus, anyone who’s watched the show wants to be Batiatus, even though he’s one of the hardest characters to play. After all, he’s the fun one.
For The Love Of Conflict
But I don’t think this is just about our love of villains. I think it’s about the value of conflict.
These games are fun not because every single action is a fight for dominance, but because even acts of cooperation could have schemes and conflicts hidden beneath them. It means that every moment is exciting, because every moment is filled with suspicion.
Similarly, these favourite characters are constantly in conflict with the others in their stories. That makes them more fun to watch and to be. In real life, we strive to be helpful people. But in stories and games, when it’s all about aesthetics, picking fights is way more fun. It’s why I swore vengeance on Matt – if I couldn’t win, I could at least have fun going down fighting.
So there you have it – my theory of why treachery makes for great stories. From the classic example of Long John Silver selling out both sides in Treasure Island, to Littlefinger’s duplicitous shenanigans in Game of Thrones, treachery means we see conflict even where there is none, and that makes everything exciting.
What do you think? And who are your favourite traitors, historical or fictional? Share your thoughts in the comments.
That phrase has been directed at me a few times. I’m not sure what people intend when they accuse me of it, but I know it’s not often a compliment. “Weird” is one those murky distinctions – you can’t really say what it is, but you know it when you see it.
For instance …
When I was in college I took a life-drawing class. One of our models was this spindly, dark-haired fellow who, before he disrobed, I recognized instantly as the guy who walked around campus wearing a top hat and a cape.
He was weird. But that’s not a bad thing.
If I know anything about weirdoes it’s that we’re necessary. As uncomfortable as we make the world with our collection of antique medical instruments, or our library of biographies on serial killers, or our closet full of Marvel costumes, the world needs our off-beat way of thinking.
It needs people who don’t see the world in the same colors as everyone else.
My stories have been called weird. No matter what the topic, something is always … off. I have one about a Broadway actor turned zombie who’s auditioning for a post-apocalyptic theater company before his body completely decomposes. And another about a woman who learns she was a psychotic murderer in a past life. Then there’s a love story between a morgue attendant and a vampire that explores the purpose of love and death.
There are plenty of standard, cookie-cutter, five-minute stories I could write. But I’d be so bored. And if the world was filled with the same dry toast ideas, we’d all be terribly bored.
The world needs weirdoes –Salvador Dalis, Terry Gilliams, and Stephen Kings– simply because of how different we see things. We aren’t afraid of darkness, we like to twist the normal until it’s unrecognizable, we see the potential for magic and wonder in a humdrum world.
In everyday life, dragons, zombies and magic assassins aren’t real – but they are in Game of Thrones thanks to George R.R. Martin’s weird imagination. Who would’ve thought to combine mummies, outer space and the Orient Express? One of the weirdoes who writes for “Doctor Who.” And those horror movies you love so much? Written by people who ask frightening questions – like what would happen if we could express our darker natures by torturing people in a creepy, clandestine hostel?
When weird people search their minds for ideas, they open up doors to unexplored places. Places people blessed with “normal” minds – ones that don’t automatically turn down twisted alleyways – can explore safely. Weirdoes create worlds that are wondrous, unnerving and innovative, all at the same time, and bring spontaneity, variety and fun to life.
I’ll close with another story, about a young woman I know who also goes a bit off script. One day, she was walking down the street and came upon a stranger who was inside a store, washing the windows. She stood outside and watched the stranger for a while, then put up her hand and followed the stranger’s hand like a mirror image. And then she left, without even saying “hello.”
Only a weirdo would do that. And I like the way she thinks.
* * *
Thanks to fellow writer JH Mae for today’s guest post. JH is a reader, writer and maker of pizza from Northern New York. You can check out her blog and links to her stories here. I particularly like her post on how to stay sane while working at home. Since reading it I have been giving myself verbal abuse and setting unreasonable deadlines for my Batman toy – it helps remind me of what I don’t miss.
No sooner had I posted last Saturday’s geek music selection than I remembered some great songs I’d forgotten. To remedy that situation, and to include some tracks other people have recommended, here’s a second batch of geek music.
I’m sure there’s plenty more great stuff that I’m missing, so if you’ve got any suggestions please pop them in the comments below.
In the Garage by Weezer – the ultimate homage to having your own geek space:
A great character name is evocative. It tells you something about the person you’re encountering in the book. It implies things about their character before another word has even hit the page.
I’m reading Gail Carriger’s charming Etiquette & Espionage, and it made me think of this. It’s littered with names like Sophronia, Petunia and Dimity, names that evoke it’s upper crust Victorian social setting as well as specific characters. There’s a Mrs Barnaclegoose in the first scene, a name both amusing and evocative.
But my favourite is Bumbersnoot, the name of Sophronia’s mechanimal pet. It’s a name that evokes a gentle, friendly character, that helps me picture the mechanimal’s behaviour even when it’s not described, and that’s just fun to say.
Go on, say it out loud. Don’t worry about the looks you get, it’ll be worth it.
Wasn’t that good?
The king of this sort of naming is Charles Dickens. I haven’t read a lot of his work, but it’s littered with evocative and curious names. Just think of his most famous character, Ebenezer Scrooge. It’s a hard, angular name for a hard, angular man. It sounds nasty. It’s so brilliant that his surname has become a by-word for meanness and spite.
George R R Martin’s good at this too. It’s difficult when you’ve got a cast is huge as his, and a world that’s darker and more grounded than Carriger’s Finishing School. But just think of Ned Stark.
Ned’s a good, reliable name. It’s a no nonsense name. It’s a name that’s straightforward, that gets stuff done without allowing complications to unfold. That name evoke’s all that’s noble about the character, and all that becomes his downfall.
And Stark, a name that literally describes the lands he comes from and the way that shapes his character. A cold, hard landscape that breeds hard men and women.
So, the usual question – what are your favourite? What great names from fiction have I missed? Who does this best?
George R R Martin isn’t afraid of using multiple viewpoints. If anything, it’s becoming a little bit of a problem in the later Game of Thrones books, as every single character in Westeros screams to have their voice heard. So it’s interesting, both as a reader and a writer, to get some insight into why he does it.
Broadening narrative scope
Martin recently gave some advice for budding fantasy writers. As part of it he talked about choosing PoV characters to broaden the narrative’s scope. He’s telling an epic tale of war, and he can’t show different aspects of what happens without showing a range of experiences – people in the various theatres of war, living through different events on different sides. It’s a much more modern approach than using an omniscient God-like viewpoint, and I agree with Martin that it’s a better one.
The problem with this sort of thing is that a story with so many different viewpoints, such a scattered focus, can lose some of its emotional impact. Momentum and intense atmosphere are sacrificed for the sake of showing it all. Harry Turtledove’s alternate histories suffer from this. They achieve a huge scale through multiple viewpoints, and you get to see every facet of the war, but they often lack a sense of atmosphere and emotional engagement.
Keeping a balance
The more I think about this, the more I realise just how brilliant George R R Martin is as an author. Despite that broad spread of viewpoints he manages to fill every chapter with emotion and tension, to make me care about nearly all his characters. It’s a tricky thing to do.
Of course, if he turned that skill to a more focused and compact story, something like his previous Fevre Dream, then he could build something truly intense. But I’m loving what he’s doing right now, so I shan’t complain.
In fact, knowing why Martin writes the way he does is reassuring for me. Understanding that that approach is a particular tool for a particular job lets me relax into a different approach to viewpoint in my writing, while appreciating both the glory and the limits of what Martin is doing.
Keep it up George, you continue to be awesome. And thanks for the advice.
I’m getting a little tired of the fantasy hero whose first value is loyalty or honour. Or the supposed antihero whose dark, compromised behaviour turns out to be for some greater good. It feels like the values that once let fantasy authors make their characters different from modern people have become another over-used part of pop culture.
Noticing the difference – Conan
This issue really sprang out at me while reading Conan: Queen of the Black Coast, a comic collection written by Brian Wood, with art by Becky Cloonan, James Harren and Dave Stewart on colours. Wood’s an interesting writer, treading a difficult path between the expectations of a mainstream comics audience and a desire to try different things with character and story. His riff on Robert E. Howard’s classic barbarian character is no exception.
The character’s values are a key part of this. There is a search for adventure in there, and a certain attachment to protecting the people on his side. But this doesn’t translate into an unswerving sense of loyalty. Conan will compromise and join the side of the people who just slaughtered all his friends. He turns pirate on the whim of circumstance. He bends others to his will for no goal beyond his own quest for adventure and self-preservation.
These are not the values of a familiar fantasy hero, and realising that was like a breath of fresh air. I suddenly noticed how familiar, comforting and sometimes even stale the values were I was seeing in other fantasy novels.
The obvious comparison – Game of Thrones
When it comes to character motivations, Game of Thrones is one of the better examples out there. But comparing it with this single Conan story made me realise how familiar many of the motivations are. Ned Stark is obstinate and loyal. Arya is fiercely independent and, as time goes by, increasingly bent on revenge. Stannis is guided by a clear sense of right and wrong. Joffrey’s self-serving. Tywin’s ambitious. Snow has that classic heroic sense of honour, so that even when he does something terrible it’s for a great good.
There are a broad range of interesting motives at play here. They draw you into the characters in different ways. It’s very well done, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.
But is any of it really new?
George R R Martin is a fantasy writer at the absolute top of his game. He’s using those familiar values in new and skilful ways. Just think how many times you’ve read them elsewhere and it’s just been more of the same.
I’m not saying I want every character to act like Wood’s take on Conan. As someone trying to draw in readers, using the familiar and comfortable is actually important for me. But it would be nice, both in what I write and in what I read, to push the boat out a bit further at times. To see motives and values that aren’t just different from our own but are different from what we’re used to reading. For the fantastic and unfamiliar elements of stories to go a bit deeper.
What do you think? Am I being overly harsh on what’s out there? Am I missing great examples of unusual values and motives? And if you’ve read it, what do you think of Wood and Co.’s take on Conan?
I love a good adaptation. Whether it’s HBO’s Game of Thrones or the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice, seeing something I love on the screen, seeing how script writers, actors and directors turn those familiar elements into something new, it’s pretty exciting.
Tonight I’m off to see Catching Fire, the second Hunger Games film. I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve written before about how powerful and skilfully written I think the books are, and I think that the first film did a good job of a potentially difficult transition from page to screen. But I’m going to see it with my friend John, whose criteria for judging adaptations are slightly different from mine. For John, as for many fans going to see stories they love, what matters is how faithfully it sticks to the original. For me that has a place but, more than with presenting the past on screen, what I’m really after is a film or TV show that can stand on its own two legs, inspired by the source rather than bound by it.
These two different attitudes to adaptation are where film and TV producers can get in trouble with their potential viewers. I think that the way Elizabeth is portrayed in the 1990s BBC Pride and Prejudice is fantastic, drawing out sympathy and contrasting with other characters. But I know that others feel she’s not as faithful to the book as she could be. And in the second season of Game of Thrones, I thought that putting Arya and Tywin Lannister together strengthened the narrative, but some people look at that and mutter about how it didn’t happen in the books.
You can never entirely please both sides.
The show that probably comes closest is The Walking Dead. They’ve taken a clever approach, one that probably only works because the original writer is involved and this gains the trust of fans. They’ve kept the characters and the scenario, as well as some of the story arcs, but thrown the detail of the narrative out of the window. In this way they’ve set their stall out from the beginning. They’re actually being more faithful to the unpredictably terrifying world of the comics by being less faithful to their storylines, and that works for fans both new and old.
Of course it’s an approach that wouldn’t work for a story like Game of Thrones, where that epic story is crucial, or a small, more contained work like Pride and Prejudice. But it’s an interesting experiment, and one that seems to be paying off.
So what are your favourite adaptations? What works for you and what doesn’t? How do you judge their success? Leave a comment, let me know.
Sometimes with stories, as with any art form, you have to judge things on their own terms, then decide if those terms interest you. Critiquing a dystopian thriller for its use of epic fantasy tropes is usually going to be meaningless. This doesn’t mean that, as an epic fantasy reader, you ought to read it. Just remember what it’s aiming for.
This is something we sometimes lose track of, especially when discussing big cultural phenomenon. Pacific Rim is a recent example. Judge it by the dialogue and you’ll see a pile of cornball hokum. But bloggers such as Hello, tailor have pointed out its powerful use of visual story-telling. Judge it on those terms and you have something impressive. Just don’t try to watch it with the part of your brain that loves Hamlet.
There’s something of the same experience with Game of Thrones. Some people love it, others hate it. If you know it’s got knights and dragons and so expect a tale of heroism then you’re in for a shock. If you’re after succinct prose and snappy story telling then you won’t get past half a book. But George R R Martin is brilliant at what he does, which is something dark and expansive, something where good intentions are never quite enough.
Then there’s the Spartacus TV show. If you’re happy with sex and violence as story-telling elements then it’s a visual treat, but if you want subtle, nuanced acting then it’s not the swords and sandals epic for you. As for the dialogue, it’s pretty weird. Not bad weird – I enjoy its Deadwood-style mix of the archaic and the crude – but what you might call an acquired taste.
As readers and viewers the lesson is obvious – choose the stories whose strengths are things you enjoy. But what does this mean for writers?
Mostly a bunch of very familiar stuff. Not all writing advice is for you – focus on guidance from romance writers and your techno thriller may not please its audience. Not all audiences are for you – Spartacus would not have gone down so well on HBO. And if you’re struggling with your writing, if something about it isn’t pleasing you, look for the criteria by which it is working – maybe there’s an audience out there for it, if you can recognise what you’ve got.
What do the rest of you think? Can you think of books, films or shows that you think have been judged by the wrong criteria? Or where the aesthetic just didn’t work for you? Let me know – that’s what the comments box is about.
‘One reviewer didn’t even talk about the plot, just about how the book made him feel.’ – Neil Gaiman
It’s a funny thing about novels – a huge part of the experience is how they make you feel, but we’ll often discuss our thoughts on them rather than our feelings.
The Neil Gaiman quote above comes from a Q&A session. What’s interesting to me is that, even to Gaiman, that review stood out. We’re used to reviewers talking about structure, about descriptive skill, about plot. But how often do they mention the many different emotions the book evoked? Yet that’s what many people will read the book for.
It’s often the same when we talk about our favourite characters. If I’m discussing Game of Thrones with my brother (it comes up at least once per conversation) we’ll talk about the things characters did – Tyrion said something funny, a Stark did something noble but stupid again. We’ll talk about theories on where the characters are heading (what GoT fan hasn’t discussed Jon Snow’s lineage?). But have I ever said out loud that Petyr Baelish fills me with queasy unease and guilty admiration? That my 95% rage at Joffrey is tempered by 5% pity at his messy upbringing? That my pride in seeing Arya grow up is mingled with real worry at what sort of person she’ll become?
These are feelings the author has set out to inspire, and yet when we analyse a book we’ll often ignore them. Perhaps that’s just a matter of habit, born of education and reading others’ reviews. Perhaps it’s because our feelings are subjective, and so it’s harder to argue our case. Perhaps it’s because they’re not entirely consistent, and admitting our own inconsistencies is a difficult thing to do. After all, who wants to admit they feel a little sorry for Joffrey, when he spends his whole time being so awful?
Next time you’re discussing a book, take the time to feel as well as to think. To poke around in ugly emotions. Maybe step back into thoughts again and work out why. I started when I read that Gaiman quote all of twenty minutes ago, and I’m already interested in the results.
Now I’m off to watch some Game of Thrones. I’m feeling the need to go hate Petyr Bealish. It’s just so satisfying.