If you’ve managed to avoid spoilers for Game of Thrones S3 and the first three books of A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF), then you must teach me your ways. If you want to continue avoiding spoilers for the show/books, I suggest not reading this post. Seriously, though, teach me your ways before you go.
After the third season of Game of Thrones, many viewers were morose, shocked, or just downright pissed.
Oh, and this was before GreyRobb’s debut, one of the more graphic elements following the Red Wedding.
The Young Wolf suffered the same fate as some of our other favorite male characters:
What was it about the Red Wedding that made it such an emotional event? From a reader’s perspective, the fact that it was experienced through Cat’s eyes (up until her death) made it poignant and heartbreaking: there was this sense of chaos and utter helplessness. Robb was Stark justice made corporeal. When Cat dies, she dies thinking her only living son was betrayed and murdered. GRRM excels at “show, don’t tell” – Robb never gets a POV chapter in any of the books, so we only know his character in relation to others. The relationship we see most often is mother to son. That connection deepens throughout the series as Cat begins to see Robb not just as Ned Stark’s son, but also as Ned Stark’s legacy. Robb also represents Cat’s strongest living tie to her husband, a man we know she truly loved. When Robb and Cat die at the Red Wedding, Cat still believes Bran and Rickon were killed in Winterfell; she doesn’t know where Arya is (alas, she’s right outside the gates). The Red Wedding is a brilliant piece of writing, and it’s a game-changer in A Storm of Swords. Loss or gain, it affects every character in some way because it shifts the balance of power – politically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually.
Reading GRRM’s ASOIAF series has taught me a few things about writing, and the Red Wedding represents each of these elements.
- Death is essential. Keep in mind, of course, that this doesn’t always mean physical death (though the very small sampling above should indicate that physical death happens frequently in ASOIAF). You can also have professional death (“my career depends on this!”) and psychological death (“without X, I’m just not me!”). These sentiments are echoed in James Scott Bell’s advice, “you must put death on the line so fear can be felt throughout. Fear is a continuum—it can be simple worry or outright terror. You can put it everywhere. And you should.” If you didn’t know before, you definitely know it now: anyone can die.
- …however, death is not for shock value. GRRM is the master of meaningful deaths. The Red Wedding is brutal, but Robb and Cat’s deaths add new layers to some of the revenge/loyalty themes. It also creates massive shifts in the balance of power for other key players in Westerosi politics, like the Lannisters and the Boltons. Whether it’s physical, professional, or psychological, death should add depth to the work in some way, not just make the reader’s jaw drop.
- Build conflict. Take away what your characters love, need, or value most. GRRM does this in meaningful ways, often blending internal conflict and external pressure. Life is full of hard choices. What happens when your characters have to choose between two things they love most? One of the key events (if not the key event, political and military strategy be damned!) instigating the Red Wedding is Robb Stark’s honor. Will he keep his promise to marry a Frey daughter or will he marry Jeyne Westerling? Robb, erm, took Jeyne’s maidenhood. He either insults her and her family or he insults the Freys. Robb chooses Jeyne; the Freys betray the Starks (and bannermen) at the Red Wedding.
- Don’t fear cowardice. When conflict comes, there are those who stand up to challenges and meet them head-on. There are also those who opt for the easy way out – sometimes after plenty of deliberation and internal struggle, sometimes with minimal resistance. Cowardly can be complex, and it can also come from surprising characters. There’s a bit of debate as to whether one of the planners of the Red Wedding (ha), Tywin Lannister, took the “cowardly” out by scheming to slaughter the Starks & Co. Robb proved himself to be an adept military commander, and the Red Wedding was Tywin’s nuclear option to preventing a Lannister/Stark battle.
- Tropes can work in your favor. Our Young Wolf is also a Young Conqueror. He’s set up to avenge his father (Joffrey, you idiot). Like his father, Robb is betrayed and beheaded. Hey, it’s not a cliché if you change the narrative…
Next week: A sort-of companion piece that explores tropes in genre fiction through an ASOIAF fan favorite and an ASOIAF oft-unappreciated personal favorite.
What books taught you more about your own writing?