One of my favourite things to do is to read the negative reviews of books I hate on Goodreads and Amazon. This is as much for pleasure as for genuine market research — especially for books that are notorious such as the Twilight franchise. One of the most common criticisms I’ve seen of such books is that they are merely wish fulfilment literature, where the desires and fantasies of the authors are enacted and satisfied through the stories they write. Often wish fulfilment literature is dismissed as lazy. I think that is a valid criticism in many cases but we should not automatically deny works of merit their deserved praise even if they have characteristics of wish fulfilment literature.
Some “literature” deserves the criticism. The Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey franchises come to mind instantly. Though that doesn’t mean those types of books don’t have their place. I consider the success of the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise to owe a great deal to the failure of both Harlequin and explicit erotica publishers to anticipate upcoming trends and market their books properly. Unsurprisingly both Harlequin and erotica publishers have changed their marketing strategies in the wake of Fifty Shades of Grey’s success.
The reason we must not dismiss wish fulfilment literature entirely is that books such as the Harry Potter franchise, or even the Chronicles of Narnia, are just as much wish fulfilment literature as Twilight. The Harry Potter franchise may not be wish fulfilment on the part of the author, I’ve no doubt JK Rowling does not want to be an eleven-year-old boy, but it is undoubtedly wish fulfilment on the part of the readers. What child wouldn’t want to wake up one day and be told that there’s something about them that makes them different from other children and that they’re going to a magical school? What ordinary children wouldn’t want to find a magical kingdom in the back of a wardrobe?
What makes Harry Potter different from Twilight, however, is the awesomeness of the wish. Going to a wizarding school and conquering evil is a much more interesting wish than getting a good-looking paranormal boyfriend who’s infatuated with you even though you’re a thoroughly average looking person. Especially as Stephenie Meyer’s interpretation of what vampires are has nullified many of the undesirable vampiric traits found in works such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula. And as for Fifty Shades? There are actual billionaires alive today more interesting than Christian Grey. Fantasy that pales in comparison to reality, is not good fantasy.
Since a great deal of good Fantasy and Sci-Fi does contain desirable wish fulfilment elements it would be unwise of authors to not be aware of how it can be used successfully. Wish fulfilment is a feature that can make literature incredibly satisfying. The cases where the quality of literature declines are the cases where wish fulfillment is the only feature of that respective work. This is where the accusations of lazy writing ring true. It’s also a wasted opportunity. The great thing about literature is that you can have mundane everyday wishes, like getting a rich, handsome boyfriend, fulfilled and go on a swashbuckling adventure as well. Indeed, in extraordinary settings, the presence of mundane wishes and desires can add realism to otherwise improbable characters.
I know what I prefer to read and write.
I don’t know George RR Martin or have ever communicated with him. I can, however, say with some certainty that I know how Game of Thrones will end.
Yes, I do realise that this is an incredibly bold claim (and obviously it’s only an educated guess) but I think I have good reasons to be certain.
I have spent the last three years developing, then writing my debut novel. Despite changing day job several times and moving all my belongings to another country, the desire to complete my first novel and take the first steps to becoming a published author has never wavered. I have obsessively consumed information on writing and story-telling from the internet, books, writing courses, Booktubers, Goodreads, both literary and TV reviews, and my experience as a long-form improvisational comedian until my novel not only took shape but took the shape I wanted it to take. I didn’t know when I began that those were two different things. Now the novel is almost finished, I’ve had time to reflect on what it took to get it to this point.
I’ve always loved fiction, but until I started writing my own, and engaging with the novel writing process, I could never articulate what separates the fiction that I like from the fiction that I don’t beyond the way it made me feel (though that’s arguably the most important part). I was also less able to discuss why I did not like a work of fiction even though I thought it had merit. I now find myself more willing to continue reading books I find myself not enjoying because I can recognise their merit beyond my personal tastes.
The most important thing I have learnt from all this research is that there are features that must be present in fiction to make it enjoyable and/or satisfying. This is why I feel confident enough to make predictions on the ending of one of my favourite fantasy series.
Spoiler Alert: If you have not read all the published books in the Song of Ice & Fire Series and are not caught up on the TV show, I recommend not continuing beyond this point. This article probably won’t make much sense anyway.
I have been hooked on Game of Thrones ever since Ned Stark lost his noble, valiant, honourable head.
In choosing to kill off Ned Stark, George RR Martin dropped the literary equivalent of an atomic bomb on his readers. It can’t be underestimated how significant this authorial choice was. Up until that point, Games of Thrones was shaping up to be an unspectacular fantasy novel, the only thing making it unusual and intriguing was the incestuous relationship between Cersei and Jamie Lannister. Game of Thrones could have easily been another unpublished cliché as it conforms to the done-to-death, fantasy quest-ish based on mediaeval European tropes that are oh-so-familiar. I’ve even seen several literary agents specifically ask not to be sent fantasy novels set in a mediaeval European type society because they are so common.
In separating Ned Stark from his head, George RR Martin subverted everything we had come to expect from a typical fantasy novel. These expectations took a long time to create and were forged by literary giants such as Tolkien and T.H. White. Ned Stark comfortably fulfilled an archetypal Hero on what was easily recognisable as a “Hero’s Journey.” His death two-thirds into the first novel signalled to readers that this was going to be something completely different. It is from this choice that the work becomes subversive.
Killing off your Hero is only something you can do in a book which has multiple POVs. After Ned’s demise, Robb Stark’s character quickly supplants Ned to become the new Hero on a Hero’s Journey. This is why Robb ultimately had to die. When I first read the Red Wedding, I was so devastated by Robb and Catelyn’s deaths, I had to put the book down and sit in the garden alone and in silence for forty minutes. Now I am more familiar with constructing a story, I get it. Robb Stark had to die. You cannot be an archetypal Hero on a Hero’s Journey in a saga designed to subvert the archetypal Hero’s Journey. Not for very long anyway…
Martin’s departure from the Hero’s Journey story structure has several consequences, unfortunately, many were to the detriment of his writing. There is a distinction between writing and story-telling, and I regard Martin as a superlative story-teller and world builder but an above average writer at best. (If you can only do one well I suggest you choose story-telling/world building over writing, though my reasons why are best explained in a separate article.)
Having many POV characters allowed Martin to kill off Ned Stark, but it’s telling that HBO decided to cut great swathes of characters out. Adding many POVs allows you to add dimensions to your story. Too many POVs and you risk creating a story with so many facets that it’s hard for the audience to follow and their emotional energy and connection to the characters is spread too thin. As a fan, I’m not sure if I’ll ever truly forgive the team at HBO for the mutilation of the Dorne plot but as a story-teller, I understand the need to make the story leaner. Once Martin departed from the Hero’s Journey, the books became less of a fantasy adventure and more a story of political intrigue. Now he has to strip some of that back and make it a story of fantasy adventure again — to defeat the White Walkers — then I imagine it will swing back to the Jon/Daenerys versus Cersei conflict and it’s back to being a story of political intrigue.
If you described a story like this to me, and I didn’t know it was GoT, I would say it would be impossible to write because those two aspects are hard to marry. I suspect this is precisely why Martin is taking a long time to finish writing the sage. What he’s doing is hard. Harder than successful novels have to be.
From Robb’s death, the saga certainly loses pacing and drive. It becomes painfully meandering in many places. The Jamie Lannister/Brienne and the Arya storylines, in particular, struck me as long-winded. I chuckled to myself when I saw that HBO had slashed Jamie’s return trip to King’s Landing in half. TV fiction is generally better paced than literary fiction. Writers with backgrounds in writing for television such as Suzanne Collins (Hunger Games) and Ernest Cline (Ready Player One) tend to write faster-paced novels. The reason the Hero’s Journey is a popular and effective story structure is that the Hero’s needs drive the story giving it pace automatically. In the absence of a clear proactive protagonist, any story will lose speed.
In the most recent series of GoT, one glaring departure from the previous series has been the pacing. Among the reasons for this (aside from the practicalities and cost of making a TV show) is that two characters have become more proactive as protagonists; Jon Snow and Daenerys. This suggests that in order to finish A Song of Ice and Fire, Martin is steering the story back to the Hero’s Journey.
There are only two ways Martin can finish Game of Thrones:
1. Daenerys ends up on the Iron Throne (with or without Jon Snow), Cersei dies.
2. Cersei Lannister holds on to the throne, Jon and Daenerys die.
He could take us down another road, sure, but in choosing anything other than the options listed above, he risks robbing his audience of a satisfying climax.
1. If I were a gambling man, Daenerys would be my top choice for Iron Throne occupant when the dust settles. This is not because she’s the character I like the most, it’s because her aspirations are the clearest and compelling. She doesn’t just want the throne, it’s acquisition would satisfy her emotionally too. It would make all her suffering worthwhile. This is why she is willing to do the most to get what she wants. No one has gone further to attain what they want than Daenerys. She is the most proactive protagonist in the books and TV series. I don’t think there is a single person in Westeros she wouldn’t be willing to kill to get the Iron Throne and that includes loverboy, Jon Snow.
2. Cersei is an active and effective antagonist. In the books, she’s told by her Uncle Kevan to go back to Casterly Rock and live out her days in peace when Tommen marries Margaery. She refuses. Her overriding need is to maintain power. That’s what satisfies her emotionally. I don’t think there is a single person in Westeros she wouldn’t be willing to kill to keep the Iron Throne and that includes Jamie Lannister. For Cersei Lannister to remain on the Iron Throne, as the undisputed Queen of Westeros, Martin would be completing the demolition of the fantasy adventure tropes that he started with the beheading of Ned Stark - the ultimate subversion of the Hero’s Journey.
For these two characters, the stakes are simply higher than for anyone else. Neither of them has anyone to lose anymore. Cersei’s lost her children. Daenerys has lost the rest of her family. They both have all to gain.
What about Jon Snow?
So what about Jon Snow? He may be the rightful heir to Westeros, according to the TV series, but as a protagonist, he’s fairly passive and reactive rather than active. Unless learning he’s the legitimate son of Rhaegar Targaryen completely changes his attitude to power, I could easily see him making peace with Cersei in exchange for a long peaceful life left alone in Winterfell once the White Walkers are dealt with. He is fundamentally less proactive than Daenerys. From everything we’ve learnt about his character, I don’t see him killing the other Stark kids for power if they stood in his way. If anything he’s too moral and lacks ruthlessness to be the ultimate victor in Martin’s world where the morally good often come a cropper. If he ends up on the Iron Throne, it will be with Daenerys by his side or not at all.
I think it’s fair to rule out genocide — even in the case of George RR Martin! If Martin does choose some White Walker induced Westerosi apocalypse, it would be like Voldemort winning the Battle of Hogwarts, there would have been no reason for Harry Potter to survive the killing curse as a baby and all the books in between become redundant.
A wildcard character like Euron Greyjoy could take the throne in Martin’s books but since we’ve only become familiar with him recently, as an audience we are not emotionally involved with his struggle. He’s also fairly unappealing, but then so is Cersei. Cersei is still different because we’ve seen her character arc from teenage bride to vengeful queen. A choice like this also runs the risk of making his reader’s say, “What was the point?” We’ve followed Daenerys, Jon and Cersei from the first book. For an outsider to take the throne, and his audience to be happy about it, Martin would have to make us feel pretty strongly about that character and I don’t think he could override the emotional connection with the other characters we’ve built up over the series.
But! But! But! What about Tyrion, a clear fan favourite? Plenty of emotional connection there. I’m sure plenty would love to see him on the throne. Much like Jon Snow, he’s not as active a protagonist as Daenerys. I doubt claiming the Iron Throne would mean as much to him emotionally as it does to Cersei either. Throughout the series, he has been reactive in many instances rather than proactive e.g.; when he got kidnapped by Catelyn Stark, when he was freed from prison by his brother… So I’m not convinced he will be the final bottom on the Iron Throne when the curtain comes down on the series.
I am a true fan of A Song of Ice and Fire and whilst I’m fairly certain I can guess the bigger picture, I hope there are still some surprises along the way. As a writer and as a fan, I will be disappointed if a passive, reactive character ends up on the Iron Throne by default on account of other more active characters having killed each other or died. Even if you don’t agree with all I’ve said in this essay, I hope you can see why that type of scenario is poorer story construction.
All of this is just my opinion, of course. George RR Martin may choose an ending that is deliberately unsatisfying for us. He’s already promised us a “bittersweet” ending. We know he can deliver on the bitter, but can he deliver on the sweet?