Friday 29 March 2013

The GRRM Step Change

A post sparked by Peter V Brett's recent use of the concept of post-GRRM fantasy.

For many people, indeed for a decent chunk of a whole generation of fantasy authors, George RR Martin's A Game of Thrones was a step change in the genre.

For me and a lot of other authors Martin's work opened our eyes to what felt like a whole different world of what fantasy writing could be, and we've run out into those new territories eager to try to copy not the style or subtance, but the quality.

In my youth when we entered a fantasy land we were expected to suspending our belief about magic and alternate worlds, but not only that. We were expected to enter a sort of mythic / fairy tale world where people weren't quite... real. They didn't feel like actual regular humans, bound by the same fears, worries, ambitions, aches and pains as you and I - they felt more like actors in roles, cogs in a plot engine, icons and ciphers. They were too good, or too evil.

Fantasy had its conventions and we played within them, reader and author exercised a mutual understanding regarding the rules - rather like ancient Greek theatre, or a musical where for no reason the cast can break from the story into a rousing song.

Of course I exaggerate. And this isn't to say that authors didn't weave fascinating and compelling stories within those conventions. The fantasy of the 70s and 80s kept me very happy and some of it was written by writers of surpassing genius. Even so... it was quite definitely 'apart' from the books that really touched me or showed me new things about 'what it's all about' - works of literary fiction, and miles distant from what 99% of the public was reading.

The step I'm talking about may be entirely artificial or demonstrable fact. It may be that in the 90's when I was reading very little fantasy the genre moved smoothly into what it is now. It may be that GRRM is talked of as a step change by so many simply because his success meant that A Game of Thrones was the first book that fantasy exiles actually picked up after their absence, and thus they saw in it a 'sudden' significant difference ... or it may be that he really did raise the bar in one swift move.

Either way, what he did was to present us with real people. I'm not talking about the 'gritty realism' that is of late so hotly debated in some quarters of the interwebs - I'm just talking about the strength of his characterisation, the creation of real people with everyday weaknesses, wants, ambitions, set in a world that feels like it has a genuine past that matters to them, both on the grand and small scales.

What he did drew many people back into the genre, as readers and as writers. His work was both a challenge and an invitation. He showed what fantasy could be. Real people who didn't carry a particular flaw around like an attribute rolled up in a role-playing game, but who were complex, capable of both good and evil, victims of circumstance, heroes of the moment. Heroes in gleaming mail could suffer from corns without it being a joke. That's a big part of his secret - EVERY ONE IS HUMAN - get behind their eyes and nobody is perfect, nobody is worthless.

I don't write anything like George RR Martin. I don't lay claim to any significant portion of his talent. But I do count myself as one of his many inheritors (in this game you can inherit without requiring the other person to stop writing!). And what I inherited was the desire (if not the ability) to put it all on the page. Fantasy no longer feels like an acquired taste, a club where you have to learn the conventions, the forms, what the masks mean, what the short hand is for... fantasy feels real. And I love it.


  1. @travisrgriffin29 March 2013 at 12:46

    It was the Dark Tower series that brought me back to the fantasy world. In my teens and into my twenties I would only read "important" books like Fitzgerald, etc, or Palahniuk type stuff. While these were great books my real love was fan/sci fi. After Dark Tower I found GRRM which definitely stepped up the game. After that was the Malazan books which I felt were so great it ruined other books for me. I finally found Prince of Thorns and my favorite character of all time Jorg. Please keep writing the character driven fantasy that you write, sir.

  2. What made me instantly love GRRM when I discovered his writing was that he provided what I had long been searching for in fantasy but could never find. I loved LOTR or Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser as much as anyone, but the characters never felt fully lifelike (and they didn't need to be within the context of their stories), yet I wanted stories that were more lifelike. Martin did it, and I can reread his stories over and over again just to wallow in the delicious details of his creation.

  3. Martin definitely made a big impact but there were rumblings of this sort of stuff before him. I'd argue that for 'real' characters, Ursula Le Guin got there first. If you read The Tombs of Atuan, it presents you with a brilliant dilemma about the priestess Tenar. Do you like her? She's an abused child, essentially, but equally she's abusive. Morally this is at a place where 'good and evil' aren't terms that really apply - you're presented with a flawed, scarred, human being not someone about whom you can make easy judgements. When the series gets to Tehanu the theme of abuse is picked up again. The book could be seen as fantasy's take on post-traumatic stress. Le Guin's focus in these books is personal, Martin's is epic but I love them both.

  4. Can you also be an inheritor without having read any GRRM?

  5. Thanks, Mark.

    I think a couple of things came together to help transform fantasy. Martin is as good a signpost as any, although it probably will be pointed out that other authors started doing the same thing at the same time. Martin is the clearest example of the phenomenon.

    It's my thought that Martin's sojourn in Hollywood gave him the tools to apply them to fantasy, and, lightning struck, bringing it to the attention of a lot of readers.

  6. I think what GRRM did was open this aspect of fantasy up to a wider audience via his huge success. There have been other authors putting real people on the page prior to this, but you had to either stumble across them or hunt them down--if you weren't reading a lot of genre, then your odds of finding them were slim. That's not to take away from GRRM's skill and writing--I had several "Whoa, shit" moments as a writer while reading, especially in the earlier books of ASOIAF--but its as much the size of the crater as the rock that caused it that helps explain at least partly the current trends in the field.

  7. I have to admit; I didn't care for The Game of Thrones. It came off as too long and uneventful. But I completely understand your point about the character development. Yourself, Brent Weeks, Peter V. Brett and Joe Abercrombie all do a fantastic job of creating characters and a world that just feel real. Thank you.

  8. Well for Swords and Sorcery sure. I think 'fantasy' is too broad a term. GRRM's affect on the likes of Kelly Link, Terry Pratchett or Neil Gaiman would be minimal I'd guess

    Nearly Headless Ned.

    1. I think Gaiman was very aware of Martin's work. I'm sure I read that Gaiman tried to get a character into one of Martin's collaborations (an early version of Dream IIRC) but was turned down (a rejection GRRM had later opportunity to regret!)

    2. It's worth noting that SANDMAN (1988-96) predates A GAME OF THRONES (1996) by a fairly significant margin.

  9. GRRM inherited ideals and mantles from earlier authors. The two books that started the post-Tolkien, modern epic fantasy genre both came out in 1977 and were THE SWORD OF SHANNARA by Terry Brooks - a disposable popcorn novel - and Stephen Donaldson's LORD FOUL'S BANE, a brooding dark novel about a leper who rapes a woman two chapters in and things proceed to get grimmer from there. LORD FOUL and its five sequels - THE CHRONICLES OF THOMAS COVENANT, THE UNBELIEVER - are hugely influential in the fantasy genre, especially on GRRM, who borrowed Donaldson's rotating POV technique (from an SF work, THE GAP) for ASoIaF. Indeed, it doesn't appear to be until somewhere around 2006-07 that ASoIaF's sales finally eclipsed that of the older work.

    If we also look at what was going on in fantasy in the 1980s and 1990s, there was a major shift towards realism, sexual matters, more visceral violence and psychological studies going on before ASoIaF. Glen Cook, Tad Williams and David Gemmell were part of that loose movement and so was the excellent Paul Kearney. Cook is the master of sympathetic protagonists put into difficult positions, even the position of being the bad guys despite thier personal morals. Even an author sometimes said to be part of the post-GRRM movement, JV Jones, actually got her first two novels out before A GAME OF THRONES was published.

    I think it's safe to say that GRRM publicised this step change, but as an evolutionary part of it and as a reflection of the direction fantasy was taking already. He's even said that two such authors, Williams and Donaldson, were a direct influence on ASoIaF. The reasons for GRRM's individual success may be ascribed to a combination of those gritty/dark elements and his employment of traditional fantasy furniture, such as good characters, maps, glossaries, large battles etc.