More Thoughts on Character Conflict in Storytelling

I finished my Game of Thrones rewatch on Monday and caught up with the newest episode on Tuesday—and without spoiling anything (well, nearly anything) about the series, I’m struck by how well my recent “discovery” that conflict between characters is an essential part of storytelling holds up.

Here’s the part that might be a teeny-weeny spoiler: this last season of Game of Thrones comes down to:

  1. Fighting the Big Bad.
  2. Deciding who wins the Iron Throne (assuming it is not destroyed in the big fight).

Okay. At this point, I doubt many fans are hugely invested in the boss fight. I mean, sure, people want to see explosions and whatever, I understand that part, but… there are basically two outcomes here.

HUMANS DEFEAT EVIL

or

EVIL DEFEATS HUMANS.

Of the two, I am pretty sure I know which one is going to happen.

So why keep watching—or, for that matter, why watch any of the series, since we knew from the very first scene that EVIL HAD RETURNED TO THE LAND and SOMEONE WOULD NEED TO DEFEAT IT AT SOME POINT, probably WITH EXPLOSIONS?

Because, eight seasons in, we want to know how the character conflicts will be resolved.

It’s super easy to thwap fireballs at a bad guy until he goes down.

It’s much harder to tell someone, particularly someone you love, that SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER.

Here’s where it gets really interesting. There were plenty of reviewers and bloggers and Redditors arguing that the penultimate season of Game of Thrones felt “contrived” or “boring.”

Not because much of that season was about people preparing to fight a giant evil supermonster, which is literally the most contrived thing ever.

But because the interpersonal conflict didn’t make sense.

Again, teeny-weeny spoiler: the show did the thing where one character finds a letter written by another character, misunderstands the contents of the letter completely, and launches the type of conflict that could have been solved in two seconds if the two people involved had just talked to each other.

The conflict, between two characters who had previously been allies and whom we correctly predicted would be allies again once the misunderstanding got cleared up, felt forced. Unearned. Boring.

This, by the way, was coming from a show that had previously been so nuanced that it made multiple child murderers sympathetic.* No human was fully good or fully evil (with perhaps one exception), and no family was fully on the right side of the argument. People did the best they could with the information and resources they had.

And then the storyline outpaced the books that were its original source material and the characters started acting more like one-note action heroes (and coincidentally uninformed romantic comedy heroes) than people.

Which meant the conflicts became less interesting, since—just like the fight against the Big Bad—we already knew how they were going to end.

So that’s what I’ve been thinking about, as we enter our final season of Game of Thrones and I continue drafting NEXT BOOK.❤️

*Yes, that means both “multiple characters that murdered children” and “characters that murdered multiple children.”

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