What makes Game of Thrones, and all really compelling stories, so great?

Everyone in that book and show, every single solitary person, named or unnamed, ongoing players or incidental  walk-ons, is passionately advancing their own self-interest.  They know what they want and they bite and scream, kill, plot, manipulate, and die for it.

96748a784dfb2c9e87dd7d1f39b4f09fOne character through the first few books, and only one, was known for her passivity. She was a young girl in a dream world, thinking the sadistic Joffrey was her true-love prince, then that a handsome knight would rescue her, etc. That was Sansa, and until recently (when her attitude changed) she was the most unpopular person in the books. She did nothing really wrong but she didn’t fight for what she wanted. Not fighting seemed to be what she wanted–the Cinderella complex in Westeros.

Readers despised her. Proves my point, huh?

Good detective stories start with someone who wants something very badly. Badly enough to kill for it? would be the cliché comeback. The inheritance. The beautiful woman. To not be exposed. Unless they’re willing to kill for it, there’s not much of a story. And the detective wants something too, which drives their pursuit of the evildoer.

Think about the classic detective stories. There’s the nobleman who wants the compromising picture of himself with an adventuress. The drug kingpin who wants more money and influence, the flunkies who will maim to rise up in the organization, and the detectives with heartbreaking backstories which slowly emerge. A good plot brings out all these passions.

Thrillers: Secret societies with devotees who give their lives, over centuries, to protect their treasure. Bad guys want riches and both sides throw an endless stream of operatives into the fray, all willing to kill or be killed. Ivy League professors with physical stamina want to save the world, kiss the girl, and get back to the classroom.

rexfeatures-1998559dWar stories revolve around that kill or be killed mentality. Romances revolve around passion and sexual tension. Westerns throw misogynists and misfits into a setting with no rules and lots of guns. Fantasy? The topic is broad, but does anyone doubt what Katniss wants? As well as any character in the Hunger Games? That’s another series in which even the incidental folks are clearly driven by specific needs.

Every story worth reading makes you root for the hero,  and you can’t really do that if he or she has no deep desires, no wish to fulfill, no purpose.  That is the problem of one book I’m reading now: it started out with a bang, a woman leaves her husband for a disastrous affair. But once that ends, about a fifth of the way into the book, readers become mired in everyday angst and unimportant encounters. I don’t care about the hero or her dates and emails anymore.  I don’t see where this story is going.

In contrast, Gone Girl started with a missing wife and a narrator who flat out told us he was lying to the police. Who could put the book down? We had to find out what he had to find out: who took her? Or did he know? He wanted passionately to clear himself. Gone Girl presents a small cast but each person was willing to destroy the others to get what they wanted.

Ramp up the stakes and desires, and you’ve got Game of Thrones.

If you’ve read any advice on writing fiction, you’ve probably come across the excellent idea that every book or scene start with our hero wanting something, even something mundane. A glass of water that gets them up in the middle of the night. To forget their awful mess of a life, so they spin fantasies about the people they pass while riding a train to nowhere.  A new job for a little extra money that leads them into adventure.

Yes! I can put two and two together!

moby_dick_by_alexiussHerman Melville in Moby Dick used a brilliant twist to hone and sharpen everyone’s desires: he put them all on a ship in the Atlantic, where all anyone could truly desire was a successful voyage. That meant they all wanted to slaughter whales and make bucks. Then, led by their obsessed captain, they all wanted the white whale.

In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the slaves dream of freedom, while the varied cast of white characters enjoy the lives that they’ve chosen – either with slaves facilitating their lifestyles, or by venting their cruelty on said slaves, making commerce of slaves, etc.

The title character in The Great Gatsby was driven to spend years building himself into someone Daisy would love, but his world was populated by shallow, lesser souls who wanted desperately to stay drunk and convince themselves they were having fun. Tom wanted to hold onto what was his. Daisy wanted it all, but like Sansa, she wanted the men to make up her mind for her. Their passions drove them all, and Nick, bless him, wanted none of it in the end.

250px-masha_heddle_hboI want to find the man who killed my father and duel with him. I want true love and will break hearts and marriages to get it.

The best books manage to imbue desires and motivations into every character. I don’t need to know each innkeeper’s backstory, though occasionally it’s given. And later, when one’s dead body is hung up by vengeful brigands, her story becomes complete, even though, in the vast scheme of George R.R. Martin’s world, she didn’t matter at all, wasn’t even a plot point. I’m not sure she even had a name, but I remember her.