It’d be an understatement to say that people get attached to the characters in Game of Thrones.
We love these characters, fear for them and feel for them, but how on earth did George R.R. Martin do this?
I think the answer is because he understands the most important emotion you need in any story: empathy.
Making your audience empathize with your characters is absolutely crucial, but it’s a step that is often forgotten. I mean, how many TV shows or movies have you seen where you’ve thought to yourself:
I DON'T CARE ABOUT ANY OF THESE CHARACTERS!
That’s because the writers forgot about empathy, and that is a lethal mistake for a story.
So let’s take a look at the techniques George R.R. Martin uses to get you to care about his characters.
#1: "Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things"
Almost every major character in Game of Thrones has a disability.
And I don’t just mean physical disabilities, but literally anything that puts that character at a seemingly permanent disadvantage in the world. Jon is a bastard. Tyrion is a dwarf. Daenerys, Sansa and Arya face many obstacles simply because they are women.
These characters don’t just have external problems like “I need money.” Their problems are a product of their own identities. Things that cannot be changed.
And because of that, we root for them. We want to see how they overcome the insurmountable.
Even Ned Stark, who doesn’t have a physical disability, is deliberately put into situations where he is at a disadvantage. He’s an honourable soldier who has to navigate the politics of King’s Landing. All of his strengths on the battlefield are character flaws in this arena (loyalty, honour, decency), and that’s why we root for him to succeed, and weep when he fails.
This brings us to…
#2: Losing "THE MOST IMPORTANT THING”
Westeros is filled with loads of reprehensible, horrible people, but every once in a while, George R.R. Martin manages to turn one of them into a character that we care passionately about.
Well, it ties into the first point. Half-way through the story, Martin will thrust a disability onto these characters that takes away whatever they held most dear before that moment.
Jamie prided himself on his abilities as a swordsmen. So of course he loses his fighting hand. In his own words, “I was that hand.” Old Jamie, who could bully his way out of any situation, is gone now, and he is forced to mature and grow into a better person.
Theon wants cheap sex and to be seen as a strong man. When he is castrated by Ramsey, he has to let go of his ego, his obsession with masculinity, and must act selflessly in service of others.
What I’m saying here is that Martin’s strategy is a fairly straightforward formula. Take a character we dislike, strip away everything they thought was important to them. And that’s it! Suddenly, we’re in love.
But what happens if you do the same thing to a character that we already like and empathize with?
Well, in a word, they die.
When Ned is arrested, he is forced to give up what he values most — his honour — and admit that he is a traitor. This is a form of character suicide. He dies the moment he says those words. When King Jeoffrey has him executed, it’s really just a formality.
Speaking of King Jeoffrey...
#3: Morality is Relative in Stories
Not to get too Psychology 101 here, but people are really bad at judging the value of ANYTHING unless we can compare it to something else. It’s true of cell phone plans and clothing, and it’s also true of characters in stories.
How do I know this?
Well, this is Darla from Finding Nemo.
Chances are, even just showing you a picture of her made you cringe. You hate her with the passion of a thousand suns, and why?
Because she killed a few fish?
But come on, she didn’t know any better! She’s just a kid after all.
No, we hate her not because she’s the worst person in the world, but because she is the worst character…in Finding Nemo.
Objectively speaking, Jamie Lannister is a far more terrible person than Darla is. But we can come to like Jamie because we’re not comparing him to Darla or any normal person. We’re comparing him to Prince Jeoffrey, Walder Frey, Ramsey Bolton. People who have no redeeming qualities.
Martin creates these characters to make the protagonists look good. Relative to them, Jamie Lannister looks like Prince Charming.
There are a thousand ways to get people to empathize with a fictional character, but a few good steps are to give them a disability or disadvantage, take away whatever they value most, or play them off of people who are objectively worse.
George R.R. Martin does this perfectly, which is why I don’t understand it when people say the series is successful because it’s “gritty” or “dark.” Martin doesn’t just throw death and destruction around for shock value. Each act of violence is utilized with extreme care. Violence is a tool to help develop the characters and manipulate the audience’s emotions.
George R.R. Martin is one of the most successful writers around right now, not because he is the master of killing characters, but because he is the master of empathy.