George R. R. Martin is one of the most accomplished Fantasy writers on Earth, he’s most famous for … you guessed it, the books series A Song of Ice and Fire which was made into one of the most popular TV series’ of all time. He’s really generous with his advice to writers and I have learned a lot from reading his works and listening to what he has to say. Here’s 10 times he dropped serious truth bombs about writing.
“The most important thing for any aspiring writer, I think, is to read! And not just the sort of thing you’re trying to write, be that fantasy, SF, comic books, whatever. You need to read everything.” – George R. R. Martin
When first starting out as a writer the list of possibilities is both exciting and overwhelming. There are genres, points of view, types of main characters, different formats and it can all seem so different. However, the more you read the more you can begin to identify the basic building blocks of storytelling and from there, you can start to see more advanced techniques. The real learning when it comes to fiction writing is right there in the books on your shelves. It’s like an architect looking at a building – they can look at the building and enjoy it as a building and then, they look closer and see how it was built, the structure and details.
2. Be Honest
For George, this mainly gives rise to his famous habit of killing off main characters. He is writing about war and one of the truths of war is that people die.
“Once you’ve accepted that you have to include death then you should be honest about death and indicate it can strike down anybody at any time,” Martin said. “You don’t get to live forever just because you are a cute kid or the hero’s best friend or the hero. Sometimes the hero dies, at least in my books. I love all my characters so it’s always hard to kill them but I know it has to be done. I tend to think I don’t kill them. The other characters kill ‘em. I shift off all blame from myself.” – George R. R. Martin
This can be a hard pill to swallow for readers, but it hasn’t stopped them reading all of George’s books. It doesn’t mean you have to write a romance and kill everyone off, but it could give rise to questions like, what are some truths when it comes to romance? Does it always happen in the convenient, heart warming, linear way it does in conventional Hollywood rom-coms? Is there something you can bring to the story that conveys a deeper truth?
3. Be Your Characters
I think this is one of the most fun parts of fiction writing, being your character. Even the villains, sometimes especially the villains. It is very much like acting and it forces you to create the character in the fullest sense before trying to write their story. Once I discovered this gem it made writing a lot more enjoyable and easier.
“…even the ones who are complete bastards, nasty, twisted, deeply flawed human beings with serious psychological problems… When I get inside their skin and look out through their eyes, I have to feel a certain — if not sympathy, certainly empathy for them. I have to try to perceive the world as they do, and that creates a certain amount of affection.” – George R. R. Martin
4. Use Your Experiences
Whilst George was at college he lived through a massive blizzard in Chicago – everywhere was covered in snow and it was followed up with a freeze. “They had to dig trenches from the door (of the dorm) to the doors of other buildings,” Martin recalled. “It was like the trench system in World War I, except instead of mud, it was made of snow. You would be in this trench with the walls higher than your head!”
How did this influence his storytelling? You guessed it: The Wall, a gigantic fortification made of ice that features all the way through the series. Experiences for writers can be raw material, and mining those experiences can provide a treasure trove of material.
“You file everything away if you’re a writer, if you’re a fiction writer. Everything that happens to you – good, bad, heartbreak, trauma, love, death,” – George R. R. Martin
5. Invite Complexity
“In simplistic fantasy, the wars are always fully justified — you have the forces of light fighting a dark horde who want to spread evil over the earth. But real history is more complex. There’s a great scene in William Shakespeare’s Henry V where he goes walking among his men in disguise on the eve of the battle of Agincourt and some of them are questioning whether the king’s cause is just or not and lamenting all the people who are going to die to support his claim. That’s a valid question. Then you have the Hundred Year War, which was basically a family quarrel that caused entire generations to be slaughtered. So I try to show that in my writing.” – George R. R. Martin
If, like George, you want to create work that makes your reader think, that challenges them, then seeking those nuances that cast shades of grey over the scenes can be an excellent way of doing it. In real life there are rarely black and white people or black and white situations and reflecting that in fiction can create a huge amount of excitement, debate and intrigue.
6. Continue Despite Failure
George wrote many sci-fi novels before he wrote A Song of Ice and Fire, including his fourth book which was a flop, The Armageddon Rag. He tried TV writing on a few unsuccessful shows, also Beauty and Beast which was mildly successful, then returned to novel writing. It was after all this that he wrote a series that received world wide acclaim.
It is easy to only see the successful parts of a writers career and let that intimidate you when you don’t hit the big time in the first year of trying. If George had given up and got himself a different job at any point during his less successful years he would never have gone on to produce the work that we know and love today.
7. Write Great Characters
“I believe in great characters, I don’t want to write black and white characters …. I have always been fascinated by human beings in all their complexity.” – George R. R. Martin
For all the intricacies and size of plot in George’s work, for me the most exhilarating element is the way he draws characters. They sometimes feel more real than actual people. They have desires, intentions, confusions, pasts, motivations, just like all of us and no matter how bad their actions, we understand them and love them.
Take Jamie Lannister for instance (my favourite!), he is a golden boy, eldest son of a great, rich family, good looking, great fighter, a bad boy but at the same time, involved in a complex incestual love affair, known as a “Kingslayer” for trying to protect the realm, loses his arm, loses his position. We see him transform in the most fascinating of ways, see him become increasingly honourable whilst remaining forever debatable.