I am guessing that most people out there have watched the recent episode (series 4, episode 8) of Game of Thrones by now? If not, you may want to look away and come back when you have as there may be spoilers ahead… I am delaying posting this blog a few days to help prevent this but I am worried there may still be those out there who haven’t seen it even then.
You see, I want to talk about clichés here. In particular, I want to talk about how they might be of benefit to a writer. They are often seen in a bad light – ‘don’t write that, it’s too clichéd’ is a common refrain. However, attempts to make things more original often fail to get anywhere. So, being clichéd is bad because it is too derivative of previous works whereas being original can also be bad because the readers do not connect with the material, finding it too strange or unfamiliar. There is also, of course, the very relevant truth that there are no new stories, only old ones retold. When you do find something you think is original, quite often it turns out to be derived from another source you maybe only barely remember* or coincidentally happens to follow the lines of a much older story.
So what is a writer in search of originality to do? How can you maintain the very fine balance between cliché and the familiar? The answer seems to be to twist the cliché in order to subvert the audiences’ expectations.
Now Game of Thrones as a series and as a set of novels is actually not all that original in terms of the fantasy concepts it throws up. It includes a lot of old standbys – dragons, quests, knights, barbarians, battles, pantheons of gods, young children going off on quests (actually it has several of these…), the list goes on. However, fantasy was for many years a very staid and static genre where everyone was trying hard to be Tolkien (so many elves living in forests, so many dwarves living in mines) so in many ways even small changes from these clichés is a bonus and GRR Martin’s does manage to do this very well, mostly by making the characters very realistic and three dimensional. He also manages to avoid Elves and his only dwarf is a human who just happens to have been born short rather than a member of an ancient, gold obsessed race. But he does more than this, he often twists expectations so that what you think is going to happen doesn’t. There are a few examples of this I could mention, one of which is this week’s big shock end (which I admit was not a shock to anyone who read the books).
Let’s take Robb Stark to begin with. In the second series his story looked like it was well mapped out in cliché land. He was the eldest son of a man executed for treason, raising an army to defeat those who had killed his father and fighting against a mad king to boot. In your old fashioned fantasy epic the conflict therefore becomes Stark vs Lannister and in that tale the only ending cliché would accept is Robb winning and becoming king. Subconsciously we all know this. Robb has to win, it is imprinted in everyone’s understanding of story. The hero prince sets out on a quest to avenge his father’s death… come on, we have seen this story a million times.
And yet that is not how things work out… instead Robb makes a political error, a very human one, and as a result is murdered during the infamous Red Wedding, leaving no one in a position to lead his rebellion which crumbles.
Another example is the trial by combat in this week’s episode. To be honest, I was a little sceptical of Tyrion managing to get away with the same trick twice.** Remember, he used trial by combat to get out of a previous murder rap and honestly no writer would allow a character to get away with something that audacious again. So I was sort of expecting there to be an ending that did not include Tyrion’s champion walking away unscathed. However, that combat threw another revenge based cliché at us – the brother of a murdered woman seeking vengeance on the man who killed her. Again the story imprinted in our bones screams at us ‘of course he is going to win!’ and I don’t know about you but I was certainly seeing good old Mandy Pantinkin in his most famous role as Inigo Montoya in that scene and we all know how that works out rather well. And for a moment it looks as if he will win. He actually does win, in fact. His enemy is down and helpless. Then there is a sudden change in fortune… Again, he makes a critical error, an error based on his human nature. Had he merely killed his enemy he would have won. Instead he had to gloat and therefore lost spectacularly.
Both examples given show how characters are being set up by the author (and in some cases the script writers of the series in some of the material that is newly added) to apparently be following a clichéd path. They even get some way down that path, enough for our minds as readers or viewers to spot the pattern (however consciously or subconsciously) and expect a particular outcome. Then something happens, often a very human mistake, which completely throws that pattern out of the window and the nature of the plot changes – we are horrified by this because the person set up as the hero cannot lose and yet they do. This, I feel, is the main reason these scenes cause such outcry. It is not just because of the gore, it is because of the cognitive dissonance of our well trodden clichés being suddenly wrenched from under us. This is also why it is seen as innovative, despite being riddled with tropes. The places where the expected outcomes are subverted are ones that stick in the mind and suddenly the writer is a genius for doing it. Even an occasional scene like this can be enough to plaster over the many occasions where the writer does follow the standard tales. These scenes also increase the tension because, dammit, even characters you previously believed safe because of some perceived ‘hero’ status can die. Its been happening in SF TV for a while now. A famous example is Mal’s innovative method of resolving the infamous Mexican standoff (clue: Mal definitely shot first, no Han Solo/Greebo confusion here) and recent series like Battlestar Galactica have been constantly violating our expectations with respect to the relative safety of those afforded supposed hero status.
All of this makes me somewhat concerned over the safety of other characters in Game of Thrones. After all, several of them are clearly on clichéd fantasy hero paths. For example, Arya and Bran Stark are each following slightly different classic versions of the typical child hero in a fantasy novel. They each quest to understand themselves and their abilities in order so that they may return some day to wreak revenge on those who murdered their families. A cliché that was old when George Lucas used it. The cliché says that they should succeed. This means that something nasty and fatal awaits them in their future.
Unless, of course, it is by now considered cliché to subvert the cliché which means that, now, it is perfectly fine to let things follow their normal course and let the children achieve their destiny. Sometimes fashions in writing can change so quickly and soon we may well be expecting the opposite to what the story should be… Thinking of such things can easily send someone insane.
For now, the best advice seems to be to be aware of tropes and clichés and try to figure out ways to use the expectations of readers to your advantage.
*This happened to me at least once that I am aware of. When I was writing the background and concepts behind one of the race of aliens in Waypoint I knew I was stealing from Celtic, Native American and Norse myth and was good with that. However, when I wrote about their attitude to technology I unconsciously inserted several ideas from an obscure Doctor Who short story (the People of the Trees), mainly the idea of them worshipping technology as religious icons capable of ‘magic’. I only became aware of this when I re-read that story several years later and the penny dropped. I did change it enough that no one can see where I filed away the serial numbers (and besides it is a common enough concept with primitive cultures in SF that I could just have easily stolen it from Return of the Jedi) but it was fascinating to see how my mind was working there.
** Plus my wife who has read the books as far as the current series knew it wouldn’t work either, despite her rants about all the changes they have made in this series so far, and although she tried hard not to reveal anything I can read her responses well enough to spot certain facial expressions