George RR Marten has become rather broadly famous owing to his ‘Game of Thrones’ series of books and television series. Mainly for making complex, believable characters that we genuinely care about and then killing them. In job-lots sometimes.
A lot of folk revile him for doing this, but Game of Thrones is a history, and history doesn’t ponce about trying to spare our feelings. OK, it does sometimes, but usually it does so in the name of charity or to advance a particular viewpoint. But Mr.Marten is a very neutral historian. The good die, the bad die, the innocent and guilty- everyone is at risk. These people he is writing about are the movers and shakers in their society, and in their world this puts a target on their backs. People won’t miss that mark forever. It’s not done gratuitously, or to shock the readers or even–as some have suggested– to be cruel to his faithful audience. It’s simply that the story, the development of the characters and the logic of events say these people are going to die and the author is honest enough to let them. That’s called craftsmanship, or at least good storytelling.
So get off his back.
I’m not a big one for building up characters and then killing them off, and fortunately thus far my stories have not demanded this of me. But the current book, “Rage of Angels’ is different. It’s a war story and worse yet it’s a war story where the main characters are facing a foe with overwhelming military superiority. It would be unreasonable for everyone to survive. That’s not how war works; it is a notably indiscriminate killer.
I’m not a believer in war stories that glorify combat. It is a cruel, messy, dirty business and part of the horror of it is that it randomly kills people we like and love. People that don’t deserve it, people that we desperately want to live, people that aren’t supposed to die are all swept away by the maelstrom. To not show this in the story would be dishonest. It would short-change both the tale and it’s readers. It would lesson the impact of events and downplay the conflict and it’s awful consequences in terms of human suffering. It would trivialize the experience of war.
Increasingly technology is isolating us from war and it’s consequences. We see a monochrome rendering of a vehicle, or a building or a bunker, and then it suddenly expands in a bloom of white. Cool. We admire the technology, the precision and the skill that brought about this event. We don’t see the severed limbs, the mangled flesh and splintered bone. We don’t think about the fact that each pathetic, smashed and ruined remnant was once part of a human being. Good, evil or whatever, it was a person that was just trying to get along in the world as best they could. Someone that was a child, a brother or sister, a father or mother. A lover. A person that was important to other people, depended on and cared about.
War may be necessary or at times unavoidable. But when we engage in it we need to remember that real people are dying. We need to be reminded of the human cost. Sometimes, if we are very, very lucky, that reminder comes in the form of the notional death of a beloved character.