George R.R. Martin Has a Good Reason for Killing ‘Game of Thrones’ Characters Left and Right

The death of Ned Stark might be one of the most shocking moments in television history. It was something other shows don’t do. Ned Stark was easily the main character in the first season of Game of Thrones, and he was played by Sean Bean, an actor of no small stature. It created the sense that no one was safe, and Martin has had no qualms about killing off literal scores of important characters, including fan favorites, during the run of the show and the novel series that it’s adapting.

In a preview for the PBS series The Great American Read, Martin talks about the impact his favorite book, The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien, had on his work and how it lead to his decision to kill Ned Stark and other popular characters.

Tolkien’s greatest invention was the characters who struggle with the temptation of the ring and what to do with it. They’re all fighting these battles inside their hearts. That can take place anywhere and anytime and anyspace in all of human history. And then Gandalf dies! I can’t explain the impact that had on me at 13. You can’t kill Gandalf. Conan didn’t die in the Conan books, you know. Tolkien just broke that rule, and I’ll love him forever for it. Because the minute you kill Gandalf, the suspense of everything that follows is a thousand times greater, ’cause now anybody could die. Of course that’s had a profound effect on my own willingness to kill characters at the drop of a hat.

Martin is, of course, absolutely right. Without killed Ned Stark in the first A Song of Ice and Fire novel, there would have been no suspense over the death of Jon Snow later. And even though we’ve expected the main characters like Tyrion Lannister, Arya and Sansa Stark and my favorite, Daenerys Targaryen, to be safe until the end of the series, we couldn’t be certain that would happen.

Compare this to a Marvel movie. It’s been ten years and twenty movies, and so far we’ve seen the deaths of two minor characters, one of whom was brought back to life and given his own TV show. Does anyone actually think that Thanos’s snap at the end of Infinity War that killed most of the major characters won’t be reversed? No one seriously believes any important characters will actually die because no one important ever dies.

George R. R. Matin understands more than anyone (aside from possibly Gundam director Yoshiyuki “Kill-’em-All” Tomino) the need for stakes in fiction. A world where the good guys always win is boring, and in reality, the good guys usually lose. Without the fear of death by the audience, the victory of the good guys is basically meaningless. The again, it’s likely that A Song of Ice and Fire will never be completed, so it doesn’t matter who he kills anyway.

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