5 Things George R. R. Martin Can Teach You About Writing

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Twenty years ago, you might not have heard of George R. R. Martin, who, at that time, would have been merely the author of the modestly successful fantasy novel A Game of Thrones. In the years following, he would produce the sequels A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, and A Feast for Crows, all of which made big splashes in the world of fantasy literature but didn’t stray beyond their own niche audience.

It would not be until HBO picked up the series for their 2011 TV show Game of Thrones that George R. R. Martin would be hurled into the limelight at the level of J.K. Rowling or Stephen King. Game of Thrones is now one of the most popular TV shows around, and the franchise has spawned its own spin-offs, video games, board games, toys, comics, etc.

So just what about Martin’s vision appeals to so many people? How can you too piece together your own convincing and vivid fantasy world and fill it with a diverse cast of complex antiheroes doing horrible things to one another? Let’s take a look.

1. Reality is complex – your fiction should be too

Fantasy in particular is a genre often guilty of falling back on tired and idealized dichotomies of right/wrong, good/evil, light/dark, etc. Characters tend to be either shining paragons of virtue or else twisted and sadistic villains – there’s not much room for nuance. Look at The Lord of the Rings – beside standout figures Boromir, Faramir, Denathor, and Gollum, the cast is pretty simply divided into those who are good and virtuous – your Aragorns, Legolases, Haldirs, Gandalfs, Eowyns – and those who are evil – Sauron, Saruman, Lurtz, etc. As Martin says:

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.

– George R. R. Martin

There are very few simplistically ‘good’ or ‘evil’ characters in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, and even those who do appear to be straightforwardly good (Eddard, for example, is presented as relatively fair and noble) find their apparently good actions spark entire chains of negative consequences. Even the most evil of Martin’s characters will have human qualities – their actions can always be understood and make sense in the novels’ twisted internal logic.

Fantasy can benefit from a big injection of realism.Click To Tweet

But character morality is but one example of complexity in Martin’s fiction; there’re also the swollen character cast (with even minor characters named!), the multiple factions, the histories and mythologies, and the intrigue and politics of the novels’ many major and minor conflicts. It’s partly the sheer breadth of Martin’s vision and the remarkable attention to detail that make Martin’s worlds and narratives so engaging. Of course, trying to balance so many different elements in your fiction can be cumbersome, meaning you’ll need to be both organized and great at structuring your narratives. This is where planning can help you out…

2. Plan (or don’t)

While you’d expect a world as vast as Westeros and a plot as convoluted and multi-layered as the A Song of Ice and Fire series’ would require some serious planning, Martin claims he’s not one for mapping everything out beforehand. Indeed, he delineates plotting behavior between ‘architects’ and ‘gardeners’:

The architects do blueprints before they drive the first nail, they design the entire house, where the pipes are running, and how many rooms there are going to be, how high the roof will be. But the gardeners just dig a hole and plant the seed and see what comes up. I think all writers are partly architects and partly gardeners, but they tend to one side or another, and I am definitely more of a gardener.

– George R. R. Martin

This may come as a shock to some – after all, there are many twists and revelations in the later A Song of Ice and Fire books that seem to have their foundations in earlier books. This goes to show how flexible storytelling can be and how good ideas can arise even later on in the creative process.  It’s also reassuring to know that plots as well crafted as A Song of Ice and Fire’s don’t require years’ worth of meticulous step-by-step planning! Of course, they still require years of meticulous…

When it comes to plotting, are you an architect or a gardener?Click To Tweet

3. Research

Afraid so. Like Jennifer Egan, Martin is really one for his research. This is unlikely to surprise many of his readers – it’s fairly common knowledge that his A Song of Ice and Fire series is heavily inspired by the Wars of the Roses. But what might surprise you is the sheer depth of Martin’s research. He favors the ‘total immersion’ method:

Since I do not know going what particular nuggets I may need during the course of writing a novel, I try to learn as much as possible about the subject in question (the medieval world, in the case of A Song of Ice and Fire, or the antebellum river and the steamboat era in the case of Fevre Dream) by reading everything I can get my hands on.

– George R. R. Martin

Indeed, for A Game of Thrones and its sequels, Martin read dozens of ‘specialized books that focus on things like Fools and Jesters, Medieval Feasts, the Knights Templar, and the history of the Hundred Years War or the Wars of the Roses.’ Wow. But Martin too provides a word of warning; while research is a good thing, don’t be tempted to throw in everything you know about a given subject:

A writer cannot do too much research… though sometimes it is a mistake to try and cram too much of what you learned into your novel. Research gives you a foundation to build on, but in the end it’s only the story that matters.

– George R. R. Martin

Research as much as you can and use only what you need.Click To Tweet

4. Self-edit

Just like fellow Americans Maya Angelou and Ernest Hemingway, Martin puts a lot of weight in self-editing. With a text as sprawling and with as many characters as A Game of Thrones, there’re plenty of opportunities to go off on a tangent or else get bogged down in subplots that don’t go anywhere.

Key to avoiding this is recognizing what’s not contributing to the overall narrative and/or world; Martin is great at ensuring that his subplots all relate in some way to his books’ core cast (which is admittedly rather large) and conflicts.

That said, Martin is reluctant to cut back whole chapters or scenes – instead, he ensures his writing throughout is as tight as it can be, thus trimming back on the overall wordcount.

I hated to lose any good stuff – scenes, dialogue exchanges, bits of action – so instead I would go through the script trimming and tightening line by line and word by word, cutting out the fat and leaving the muscle. I found the process so valuable that I’ve done the same with all my books since leaving LA. It’s the last stage of the process. Finish the book, then go through it, cutting, cutting, cutting. It produces a tighter, stronger text

– George R. R. Martin

Such an approach is good for you and for your editor; after all, if the writing is already tight, concise, and expressive, your editor is free to focus on deeper issues of structure, theme, and character.

5. Write what you know

This much-touted piece of writers’ advice finds itself altered slightly by Martin; instead of encouraging writers to transpose their own lives into fiction (for this only works when your life is unusually exciting – see Ernest Hemingway), Martin suggests you instead write authentically; that is, your characters’ responses to a given event should be based in an emotional truth you yourself know and have experienced.

We’re talking about emotional truth here. We’re talking about reaching inside here to make your characters real. If you’re going to write about a character witnessing a loved one die, you have to dig into yourself, and say, ‘Did you ever remember losing a loved one?’ Even if it’s only a dog that you loved as a child or something. Tap that vein of emotional energy.

– George R. R. Martin

Of course, to do this effectively you must cultivate a particular kind of emotional awareness; you’ve got to be able to remember and express in writing the idiosyncratic and abstract details of your own emotions, and that’s easier said that done. However, you’re likely the best person for the job; as Martin says:

The only person we ever really know inside and out is ourselves, and we have to reach into ourselves to find the power that makes great fiction real.

– George R. R. Martin

To communicate emotional truth, begin with self-examination.Click To Tweet

Hold the door!

Few writers ever manage to blow the doors off their chosen genre as completely as Martin has. Long the refuge of a rather niche crowd, fantasy has found a new diverse audience through Martin’s books and their TV adaptations.

It is the depth, complexity, and authenticity of Martin’s novels that make them so appealing, and their clear, concise style that makes them so palatable. Martin dragged the genre into a new maturity, and in doing so, he opened the door for new writers – and through his advice, he’s handed them the tools they’ll need. Go forth!

Which is your favorite of George R. R. Martin’s novels? What lessons did you personally glean from his work? Let me know in the comments, or find out more with How To Manage The Politics Of Your Writing and You’re Making A Mistake In Your World Building: Here’s How To Fix It.


5 thoughts on “5 Things George R. R. Martin Can Teach You About Writing”

  1. Awesome, now I know how to write as well as GRRM without actually reading his work! GOT has too much sex and violence for me.

  2. The tips in this is really helpful. I’d to copy down some of the quotes as a reminder. I just really find it difficult to relay emotions probably because I haven’t experienced so much. Also as a male, isn’t the way we react to things like emotional stuffs differ from those of a female? How can a writer relay the right reaction or feeling a different gender will have towards a given experience?

    1. Yes, Martin has only made so many statements about writing so both the author and I use and comment on some of the the same quotations. Indeed, you’ll doubtless find several other articles who share a similar format. I, however, have tried to unpack Martin’s statements and explore them further.



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