Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin put in an appearance at the 50th annual Balticon a few days ago:
Though Martin didn’t speak in detail about the books, he said the Vietnam War was part of what shaped his writing and the complexity of his characters.
“We have the capacity for great heroism. We have the capacity for great selfishness and cowardice, many horrible acts. And sometimes at the same time. The same people can do something heroic on Tuesday and something horrible on Wednesday,” he said. “Heroes commit atrocities. People who commit atrocities can be capable later of heroism. It’s the human condition, and I wanted to reflect all that in my work.”
I haven’t read any of Martin’s novels, but my cousin got me hooked on the TV series a couple of years ago when he loaned me the first two seasons on DVD. I’ve never been much of a fantasy buff, but one night I decided I might as well watch the first episode to see what everybody was raving about online. That first episode turned into another, and then another…and hours later, I was still perched in front of the TV. There were aspects of the early seasons I found off-putting; I’m hardly a prude, but the nudity was gratuitous to the point of absurdity. Still, it’s an undeniably riveting show, probably the best plotted series I’ve ever watched.
Quite a few current TV shows either have a historical setting or intersect somehow with the past’s people and places: Turn, Vikings, Reign, Call the Midwife, Sleepy Hollow, Houdini and Doyle. But if you ask me, the makers of GoT display a more fully realized historical sensibility than the people behind any other TV series—or creators of many historical films and fiction, for that matter. It might sound odd to use the term “historical sensibility” when describing a fantasy series set in a world that never existed, but I see two object lessons for historians and writers of historical fiction in GoT.
The first is the three-dimensionality of the characters, reflected in the Martin quote above. As the series has developed, it’s become harder and harder to categorize GoT‘s characters as “good” or “bad.” Except for a few outright scoundrels, most of the characters wear grey hats, rather than black or white ones. Their motivations and their actions are as complex as those of any flesh-and-blood human being. Even the most sympathetic characters are three-dimensional enough to retain some sense of complexity and fallibility. And the show’s creators have managed to stir up some degree of sympathy for despicable characters who seemed all but beyond redemption in early seasons.
This knack for human complexity is indispensable for writers of history books, whether fiction or non-fiction. History, after all, is ultimately the stuff of human existence. It requires a degree of empathy with your subjects; you can’t male sense of people unless you can understand what drove them and crawl inside their skulls to see things as they saw them. But historical writing also requires an ability to acknowledge a person’s faults and failures. The historian must get inside his subjects’ heads, but simultaneously retain enough objectivity to be frank about their shortcomings. This balance of empathy and aloofness is one of the most difficult of all historical skills to develop, especially in an age of social media and sound bites, when we’re all too prone to label historical figures as either heroes or villains and reduce them to simple caricatures.
The second reason I think GoT exhibits a sort of historical sensibility has to do with the notion of the past as a foreign country. Consider that the makers of GoT face pretty much the same situation as producers of any historical drama. They have to establish a world with which viewers are unfamiliar, one with its own cultures, customs, geography, politics, players, and backstories. It’s not our world, and its inhabitants have little in common with us. But effective drama also requires characters in whom an audience can become invested. Fantasy thus requires storytellers to perform a balancing act. On one hand, they have to create realms where so much is unfamiliar, and populate those realms with people who are so very different from us; on the other hand, they have to make us relate to that place and people.
Good historical fiction, I think, requires the same balancing act. When I read historical fiction or watch historical movies and TV shows, I want the stories to reflect that “foreignness.” I don’t want people who differ from moderns only with regard to their clothes and hairstyles. At the same time, however, great fiction taps into those deep, elemental aspects of the human condition that we can all relate to, regardless of the place or time in which we live. That tension between particularity to a specific time and place on the one hand and the universality of the human condition on the other is hard to maintain, but I’m always in awe of how well the makers of GoT sustain it. And it’s something many writers of historical non-fiction could stand to emulate as well.