Writers have often debated what’s more important in a story, characters or the plot. You can argue either way. It’s like the chicken or the egg conundrum. Which one came first?
I’ll make the claim and say character always rules over plot. Some writers will disagree with me. But when I watch a show like Game of Thrones and see the phenomenon it’s become I simply use it as an example of why I’m right.
During its 5th season Game of Thrones topped over 20 million viewers per episode when you add up DVR and streaming numbers. It’s HBO’s most popular show ever. Yeah the show with Dragons, White Walkers, and cheeky British lords and ladies spouting off prophecies, rituals and rights of passage that never has and never will be real life.
HBO has always been the real network; real characters, real stories, unrated, unfiltered. Not The Sopranos, Sex In The City, The Wire, Oz or Curb Your Enthusiasm have boasted the numbers Game of Thrones has.
It doesn’t work unless you have characters that a 20 million-person audience cares about or wants to see more of. The characters are real people, with real issues despite the time, place and circumstances. We share their insecurities while they try to mask them amidst a grand feudal power struggle. Their decisions to act, not act, speak up or remain submissive is what drives the story not the other way around. And their actions redefine character assassination that leave audiences in shock and awe one Sunday night at a time.
Sure, there have been TV series with memorable characters before. What makes Game of Thrones so unique is the fantasy element.
Stories based in fantasy are the hardest to tell. Not only must you develop a bunch of otherworldly names for characters and places, you have to develop a whole world’s history, rules, traditions and mythology. It’s easy for a writer to rely on magic, mythical creatures and nonsense to generate a narrative that doesn’t necessarily make 100% sense.
But hey, it’s science fiction. It’s the fantasy genre. Just go with it and never mind that I didn’t do my job as a writer and really think that part through.
But George R.R. Martin, David Benioff and D.B. Wiess don’t rely on generic fantasy conventions, audience naivety, or Tolkien to weave their mythical tale of power struggle.
They rely on the characters they developed both in the books and on screen.
While fantasy stories have always had their niche audience Game of Thrones has proven that fantasy stories can attract a massive following of Comic Con crazies and non alike. It does help if it’s on HBO, backed by multi-million dollar budgets and rich source material that’s taken a lifetime to develop.
Author George R.R. Martin did the heavy work; creating a complex, natural, 3-dimensional world of the human condition where the fantastical elements are the backdrop, not the whole crux of the plot. If you took out all the fantastical elements of Game of Thrones the basic plotline would still be “multiple factions of families vie for ultimate power over a fictional world of feudalism.”
Of course without fantasy and magic dead is dead and Jon Snow resurrection theories would seem silly. But those theories also exist because fans haven’t seen enough of that character’s story, and care to know more about his mysterious background.
If your characters are lame, wooden, 2-dimensional yes men saying and doing things just to move the story along your brilliant plot goes ignored. There’s nothing worse for a writer to develop a tragic death scene for a character that should emit an emotional response from the audience and all they do is shrug because they never cared about that character.
If your characters are dynamic, 3-dimensional, complicated individuals an audience will emerge. And while they may be critical of a weak plot they’ll keep coming back to indulge in the antics of their favorite characters.
And often times if you have great characters they’ll tell you what the plot is.
We love them. We hate them. We love to hate them. We’re continually intrigued by their personal virtue, motive, wits, charm and upbringing that directly affect a series of events based on their actions and decisions. Audiences relate to the complexities of the human condition and latch on to fictional characters that make them think what they would do, how they’d do it and when they’d do it.
If you didn’t care for the members of the Stark family the whole story wouldn’t work.
If you didn’t find a level of redemption in Tyrion and Jaime Lannister you’d hate them as much as King Joffrey. And they probably wouldn’t have survived this long.
Prince Oberyn Martell’s bone crushing death wouldn’t have mattered.
(I was pissed when I read that part too and after throwing the book down, slow-clapped Mr. Martin. Well played.)
If you weren’t compelled by Daenerys Targaryen’s family history, life lessons or ability to learn and adapt her dragons would be just another generic fantasy convention instead of the possible resolution they steadily grow into.
With characters like these the Game can last as long as the writers want and as long as HBO wants to pay for it. An audience will always be enthralled with the world of Westeros while predicting the ending seems futile. Because just when you thought you had it figured out, your primary hero gets stabbed more times than Caesar.
I’m no George R.R. Martin, but If you think this story has a happy ending, like Jon Snow, you know nothing. That would be very out of character.