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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Friday Open Thread

It’s Open Thread time!

I’ll start: last night, I finished watching Game of Thrones Season 6 Episode 3 “Oathbreaker,” which means I only have fourteen episodes left before I’m fully caught up.

I know that I could watch those fourteen episodes before the Season 8 premiere on Sunday.

I am choosing not to.

Instead, I’m going to spread them out over the next ten days, so I’ll be all caught up by the second episode of Season 8.

Because I cannot do five hours of television a day any more. That’s just too much TV, y’all. I’m expecting Oompa-Loompas to show up in my apartment at any moment.

(Also, I have a choir concert at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, so I wouldn’t be able to watch the premiere with the rest of the world regardless.)

Anyway, that’s what I decided last night and I already feel like an Iron-Throne-sized weight has been lifted off my shoulders.

How about you? ❤️

Lessons Learned From a 67-Hour Game of Thrones Rewatch

So here’s how my 67-hour Game of Thrones rewatch has gone so far:

Season 1: This is so much fun! I remember why I used to love this show. Look at all the visual detail! The foreshadowing! The impressive amount of history and backstory and emotion these actors are able to communicate in a single glance!

Season 2: Heh, this is a lot of television to watch at one time! Still going to be totally worth it, though. I’m participating in a cultural phenomenon!

Seasons 3–5: I NEVER WANT TO WATCH FIVE HOURS OF TELEVISION A DAY AGAIN.

At this point, the primary reason why I’m still watching Game of Thrones is because I’ve watched too many episodes to quit now. I am almost done with Season 5, which means I’m finally getting to the episodes I haven’t seen before*, and I should be very nearly (if not completely) caught up by the the Season 8 premiere on Sunday.

However, every other life metric over the past week has gotten worse.

This isn’t, btw, because I’m canceling other plans to spend more time with Game of Thrones. In the eight days since I started this watch-a-thon, I rode bikes with my dad and had lunch with my parents and met up with friends and went to multiple choir rehearsals and so on. I kept up with my exercise and my sleep; it wasn’t like I was watching these episodes into the wee hours of the night or anything.

But my sleep got worse, even though I spent the same number of hours in bed—probably because I skipped my usual “wind down with a book” time to fit in one more episode.

My mood got worse, even though I was doing something I theoretically wanted to do, probably because I was spending too much time focused on a single activity (and a single laptop screen). Sometimes I chose to give Game of Thrones partial focus while I did the dishes or whatever, and that just made me worry that I was missing something important, either with the show or the dishes.

My creative output (and the NEXT BOOK drafting process) got way worse, probably because I eliminated all free time that might have gone towards making creative connections. There was no opportunity for new thoughts to occupy my thoughts. Any spare minute was spent staring at Game of Thrones — and although I hoped it would teach me something important about storytelling, it mostly taught me about how formulaic these episodes actually are, when you watch them one after the other.

Don’t get me wrong — it’s a very effective formula. Cliffhangering every scene, for example, is a great way to keep people watching. So is having a character reveal a profound childhood memory right before making a big decision or launching into battle… until you see it happen 40 times in a row. (Then you start wondering why none of these people ever learned anything important after the age of 10.)

I am not going to use this as an argument for television being bad or anything. There’s a lot of really great television out there, and I’ve seen my share of it.

The real lesson is, of course, about balance — and I have lived a very unbalanced life over the past week, and have a few more unbalanced days to go. ❤️

*As you might remember, I stopped watching Game of Thrones after the first episode of Season 5, due to a combination of heartbreak and a disastrous season premiere party.

On Storytelling and Perspective and Re-Watching Game of Thrones in Two Weeks

Last Wednesday, I made an extremely foolhardy decision: I was going to re-watch Game of Thrones, in its entirety, before the final season.

Here’s the background: in 2012, I dated this guy who was all “you haven’t seen Game of Thrones, let me fix that for you” and so I watched the first two seasons and read all of the books.

I continued watching Game of Thrones after that relationship ended, in part because I started dating another guy who was also a GoT fan, and after that relationship ended—and after going to a Game of Thrones Season 5 premiere party by myself and getting inadvertently alcohol poisoned*—I was all I am done with this show, it has only led to heartbreak and vomit.

But I’m a sucker for cultural phenomena—especially when it’s related to storytelling. I started showing up at Harry Potter midnight release parties not because I cared about Harry Potter (I enjoyed the series, but it didn’t shape my soul the way other stories did), but because I cared about experiencing this story simultaneously with the rest of the world.

So I decided I didn’t want to miss out on the pleasure of discovering how Game of Thrones ends at the same time as everyone else, which meant I needed to get myself caught up.

I have re-watched 30 episodes of Game of Thrones in the past five days. (Yes, I could have started with the first episode I hadn’t yet seen, but I figured that if I was going to do this, I wanted the emotional experience of the entire epic.) Turns out you can watch a lot of TV, without cutting back on any of your other commitments, if you just leave the TV on all the time. I’ve been making dinner while watching Game of Thrones, folding laundry while watching Game of Thrones, etc.

It has been surprisingly exhausting to pay 30 hours’ worth of attention to a story in such a short period of time—and I have 40 hours left to go before the Season 8 premiere on Sunday. (I suspect I won’t get fully caught up until the second episode of Season 8, which is fine by me. As long as I’m ready to watch the series finale with everyone else, I’ll be satisfied.)

But none of this is the point.

The point is that, a day into my rewatch, Maggie Stiefvater posted an analysis of contemporary storytelling that focused on our relatively recent shift from single-POV narratives to massively-multi-POV narratives.

The shift from Harry Potter to Game of Thrones, as it were.**

Now, I know that A Song of Ice and Fire was written before the Harry Potter books were published (though not by much; the first ASOIAF book published in 1996, and the first HP book published in 1997). But Harry Potter became a cultural phenomenon before Game of Thrones did, and in between 2007, when Deathly Hallows released in hardcover, and 2011, when Game of Thrones premiered on HBO, the type of stories our culture valued had changed.

To quote Maggie Stiefvater:

Readers and viewers no longer believed in the straightforward hero’s journey. No one was that simple. Batman got rebooted, James Bond got some consequences. Heroes got more and more morally gray. The world was getting more and more morally gray, too, after all, and narrative kept up. What was the price of privilege? What was the price of winning? Was this really a happy ending?

Narrative answered the question by glancing at the situation from other points of view, and those glances got longer and longer and longer. One POV became two. Became three. Became four.

One of the responses to Maggie’s blog post identified television as the impetus for this trend-shift:

The format of television shows almost REQUIRE several multi-character arcs, because the main goal of a show is usually to stretch the story into as many seasons as possible, and you can’t easily do that with just one protagonist. You need viewers to stay to watch every episode every season, and you need a lot of different types of stories to keep their interest. Of course, this leads to a big cast that grows as the show goes on, and viewers get more and more used to connecting with several different characters. Think of Friends, which started with Monica as an everygirl kind of protagonist with a group of eccentric friends, and then gradually morphed into a show that gave equal weight to every character in the main group, because that’s what the show needed to be to keep its viewership. 

If we’re citing television, of course, we have to go further back than Friends; this type of narrative has propelled soap operas, for example, for as long as they’ve existed.

I also wouldn’t be surprised if the internet, with its ability to provide us with thousands of points of view at once, has made us more interested in telling stories that feature a multiplicity of perspectives—and if authors don’t provide us with these perspectives (and even if they do), we write them ourselves, fanfic-style.

The other point of all of this is that I am currently writing a novel that is told entirely from a single character’s perspective. I have asked myself, more than once, if I should pop into someone else’s head for a bit, or if I should do the thing where I divide the book up into multiple sections and give each section to a different character.

But that doesn’t feel like the story I want to tell, even though that’s what the SF&F genre is all about these days. I want the readers to have the same experience my main character has: to be given the call to adventure, to have to choose whether to follow that call, and then SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER.

To write a chapter from the perspective of the character who asks my protagonist for help, for example, would feel like giving my reader more information than my protagonist has, which would make her emotional journey and her discoveries less compelling.

I’m not even jumping to the omniscient viewpoint; you only get to experience what the protag experiences, and her limitations are your limitations.

One of the reasons I made this choice was because I just finished writing two books from a multi-character perspective and wanted to try something new.

The other reason, I think, was because I wanted to cycle away from stories like Game of Thrones, where we follow multiple characters and multiple plots and ask the audience to choose where their alliance lies and create surveys that determine which house we belong to.

I wanted to explore humanity by focusing on one human, the same way other writers wanted to explore humanity by focusing on many different people.

We’ll see if I made the right choice. ❤️

*The party was at a bar, and every attendee got one free cocktail with their ticket. I was not aware that the cocktail, which was handed to me as I walked in the door, was nearly pure alcohol (think Long Island Iced Tea but with a Game of Thrones-inspired name). I knew something was very wrong about five minutes after finishing the drink. I generally vomit after three ounces of liquor, which is why I try not to drink more than two at any given time. That night, I puked so much I had to throw away everything I was wearing including my purse.

**Yes, I know there are these little blips in Harry Potter where we step outside of Harry’s POV, but the books are still Harry’s story.