The Citadel

The Archive of 'A Song of Ice and Fire' Lore

So Spake Martin

Odyssey Con 2008 (Madison, WI; April 4-6 2008)

[Note: The following report is excerpted from a LiveJournal post by author E. E. Knight, with his permission. It should be emphasized that this is a rough transcript, and features paraphrases throughout rather than being word-for-word.]

Okay, here's my write up of the Martin panel on characterization. Well, it was about a lot of stuff but mostly characters and points of view.

Please, keep in mind that this is a rough transcript. The description of what was said is as accurate as I could make them typing on my laptop but I had to paraphrase here and there, therefore I'm not using any quotation marks. I'm sure I made errors. So don't write George R.R. Martin and say that you don't understand what he said or you think he screwed the pooch with his Gandalf observation unless you were actually there, m'kay? All errors of style are mine.

The panelists were:

Monica Valentinelli (moderator) (MV) free-lance writer of games and fiction
Sean T. M. Stiennon - (SS) college student, some short fiction and an anthology
Richard Chwedyk - (RC) Nebula winner, short story writer
George R.R. Martin (GRRM)

What sorts of characters do you like to write?

GRRM: I like to write many different kinds of characters - part of the reason my books have multiple viewpoints - people perceive differently. Different POVs allow you to explore all the varieties of humanity - people you can love, loathe, or have mixed feelings about. The goal is to let you understand the characters even if you find them reprehensible.

Do you prefer some over the others?

GRRM: I like all of them when I’m writing them.

I don’t believe in omniscient viewpoints. It gets in the way of understanding the character. The reader must see the world as the character would experience it as they’re living events. The 3rd limited allows closer identification and deeper understanding of how the character sees the world. Once you get inside them the common humanity makes you sympathetic with them.

Did you hate any?

GRRM -The act of writing them makes you like or understand them.

RC (or possibly MV)- Characterization is kind of like method acting, do everything you can to get in the role of the character.

Any way to get into the mood to write?

GRRM - I wish I had something entertaining to describe, but it’s just me in front of the computer, no strange creative rituals.

Different character creation for gaming and fiction?

GRRM - Told a story about a superhero turtle, with many hindrances to improve his armor. Recreated him for Wildcards fiction to make it more interesting.

MV: Challenging in writing game fiction is that I had to imitate powers and game mechanics exactly. Book packagers were demanding that she adhere to game mechanics right down to time spent concentrating and so forth.

GRRM: You can’t just take your games and make fiction of them. Today the most common story sent in to sf/fantasy genre editors is someone who has written up their RPG - often starts with meeting in a tavern. Start a story in a tavern and it’s coming right back to you.

RC: I’ve read some of those manuscripts.

SS: Characters have to be beyond a list of traits, they need personality.

GRRM: Would like to write about leper king of Jerusalem - has a lot of empathy for his problems and it’s a fascinating exercise to try to get into his mind. Creation of a character who is not like yourself is very difficult. You have to be able to project yourself into these different kinds of people.

How do the tropes influence your writing?

GRRM: You have to be aware of them but you have to smash them with hammers and make up your own. Tolkien twisted an old cliché of elves (tiny faeries) into something else - met with resistance from his editors at first, arguing over what an elf or dwarf is. Now Tolkien is the cliché. Can’t just regurgitate them you have to do something with them.

RC: Games are open ended - with certain characters I know the ending. There’s a gravestone waiting - there’s a dramatic structure to a story. You’re focusing on a very crucial moment in a characters life and you know the outcome.

MV: Purpose of a game character is to make it playable. In fiction the point is to make it readable and interesting as possible. When I write I don’t know how they’ll play off everyone else.

GRRM: How you experience life is unique to you, and it should be unique to each character. You have to somehow get from inside your body and into theirs - we all see life through one set of eyes, none of us are telepaths, we all have internal monologues - at the same time we’re experiencing the world.

Use of POV has to be structured, has to be under control. Have a reason for switching POVs. The big problem is when you’re switching promiscuously is it’s not clear.

MV: A common pitfall of new authors is to try to do too many POVs.

RC: 3rd person omniscient is annoying to read. It’s tough.

Character creation process?

GRRM: Hopefully you know the general shape of your story. Writers generally come in two flavors: architechts and gardeners - gardeners plant a seed which is the character and in the earth which is the world you created and you water it with your blood.

Is it hard to write when a character dies?

GRRM: It can be tough. Hardest chapter I ever wrote was the death of a character - had to skip over it for a long time. Part of the process is emotional - something like grief, because you’re dealing with the grief of the characters who knew the person, also the commercial consequences, what will editor and readers think of this. But it’s good to kill someone off now and then. Tolkien made the wrong choice when he brought Gandalf back. Screw Gandalf. He had a great death and the characters should have had to go on without him.

RC: Death has a strong effect, writing a death’s been murder. Opening scenes leading up to death have been incredibly difficult to write.

GRRM: My books deal with death, but I do try and deal with mourning and grief. There’s a moral component to people who kill.

Horror stories in the 19th century were morality plays, showing how a flaw in a character brings about a tragic downfall. Innocent characters being killed by the horror is a more modern version - we have rules. "The Grudge" doesn’t obey any rules as to the guilt or innocence of who it kills.

RC: SF is a way of looking at the world that isn’t tied to a story or genre structure. There aren’t demands on characters short of space opera.

Favorite character?

GRRM : Tyrion in Ice and Fire. Abner Marsh in Fevre Dream.

Glad to hear you pronounce the names

GRRM: In my youth I had a strong NJ accent, only reader in family, knew a lot of words that I had never heard spoken aloud. When I went away to college I found I was pronouncing a lot of these words wrong. I came to not care much about pronunciation. Pronounce the names of my characters however you like.

There are dangers in being a gardener, the story can run away from you - Shakespeare had to kill Mercutio because he was taking over play.

RC: Has a character who thinks of herself as a background character in revolt against being a background character.

How important is religion and myth in your stories?

GRRM: Mythos is important and it can also be very difficult. An author’s beliefs color the character, audience’s beliefs color it. Easier for me to write a secular character or someone who mocks and insults the gods than it is to write a sincerely devout character. It’s a secular society, especially our sf/fantasy readers.

How do you keep dialogue distinct in different points of view - how do you bring personality through dialogue?

GRRM: What appears between quotation marks is what was said. But you don’t have to quote everything a person says. You can paraphrase, or use someone’s perception to illustrate their character. Can present dialogue as stream of consciousness.

RC: Make sure the voices are distinct and what they’re saying is important enough you don’t want to paraphrase it. Try and strengthen dialog with each draft.