Jinx asked about a Scientific American essay called “The Real Reason Fans Hated the Last Season of Game of Thrones.” by Zeynep Tufekci:
“I read a recent article from Scientific American . . . with a thesis . . . that the series broke its implicit promise to viewers because when it reached the end of the author’s previously published material, the new showrunners switched from Martin’s more sociological approach to plotting and character development to one that is common to most film and tv writing these days, with a purely psychological perspective. So… individuals moving through their conflicts with others, in place of individuals within a social framework adapting to others and finding their place in a complex social world.”
Criticism and analysis can be thought-provoking and insightful, but it’s rarely good writing advice. It’s not meant to be writing advice, it’s not craft, it’s theory. So while Tufekci’s analysis is interesting, it’s not a practical application for writers (which was not her intention, so not a flaw in her work). The essay reminded me of my PhD course work (no I never finished the dissertation) when I did a ton of literary criticism, then started to write novels, then did my general exams. One of my profs said, “Your criticism really changed once you started to write fiction.” Well, yeah. After publishing, I was on the inside looking out instead of on the outside looking in. Big difference.
This critic is on the outside looking in, which is the best place to do criticism; you need distance for insight. But the writer must be on the inside of the fictional world that she creates, immersed in the story elements not because they make academic sense but because those are the things that she’s obsessed with, that drive her to write. I am willing to accept Tufekci’s thesis that George R. R. Martin as a writer is more interested in the sociological impact on character than the psychological (I’ve never read nor watched Game of Thrones), but an analysis that says, “Pick a lane and this lane is more valuable” is too reductive to be helpful as a writing tool for two reasons.
First, no good story is ever all psychologically or sociologically based. Your deep psychological story is meaningless without a sociological context; as Eudora Welty once put it, “Nothing happens nowhere.” Where your characters are standing–time, place, community, social beliefs–has a huge impact on how those characters move. But an epic story about a society in transition is not much without vivid characters with distinct personalities who arc throughout the story. I know who Arya and Dany and Cersei and Jon Snow are just from the drive-by commentary I read. I know what happened at the Red Wedding because people were so upset about the characters. I have no idea what the sociological aspects are in this story–it’s a medieval society with lots of rape and murder and dog killing?–but everywhere I turned people were obsessing over the characters. Why? Because we don’t connect with societies, we connect with people. Societies are an abstract, people are us. But people are also the societies they live in, the non-conscious ideologies they absorb, so we need setting and context. We need both to tell stories.
So think of storytelling psychology and sociology not as two lanes but as a spectrum. On one end is characters talking about their feelings. On the other end is characters fighting for or against social forces that threaten their world. It’s a continuum, and somewhere on that continuum is where you are drawn to place your stories. Definitely examine both aspects, but arguing that one is more valuable than the other is like the original Dumb Question of Writing Theory: Which is more important, plot or character? You need both or you don’t have story. Where your emphasis is going to fall depends on the story you’re going to tell and–above all–the kind of writer you are.
Which brings me to the second problem I have with this essay: Tufekci seems to think that America’s current political nightmare requires sociological narrative, that fiction is somehow better if it has a social responsibility and writers are more valuable if they provide that: “In a historic moment that requires a lot of institution building and incentive changing (technological challenges, climate change, inequality and accountability) we need all the sociological imagination we can get, and fantasy dragons or not, it was nice to have a show that encouraged just that while it lasted.” But writers have only one overriding responsibility: To tell the stories we need to tell as honestly and as selflessly as possible. Good storytelling is not didactic, it does not seek to educate people or change society. Good non-fiction can do that, but good storytelling has to first and foremost be an honest expression of its writer’s heart; if it’s true it will often naturally reflect important ideas and change those who read it, but that can’t be its purpose or it becomes just another screed with characters shoved through the plot line as an illustration of an idea. That way lies story death. “It’s more valuable for writers to base stories in sociological imagination as opposed to psychological character exploration” makes as much sense as “Writers should write about dogs.” Good writers write about the things that move them. Period.
Which brings me to the real reason Game of Thrones changed: They switched writers, and when they switched writers, they inevitably switched stories. THIS ALWAYS HAPPENS. Even if both the old and new writers have the same psychological or sociological focus, every time a show switches writers, it changes (see West Wing, Gilmore Girls, Buffy). Every time a book series is taken over by another writer, it changes (see the post-mortem Rex Stout stories, Ngaio Marsh stories, Dick Francis stories). The change has nothing to do with society, determinism, or Hollywood modes. Writers can only write their own stories; therefore a change in writers changes the story which breaks the contract with the reader. It’s like switching spouses in mid-marriage: You’re gonna notice a difference.
This is why I have a problem with Tufekci’s conclusion: “Unfortunately, most of our storytelling—in fiction and also in mass media nonfiction—remains stuck in the hero/antihero narrative.” Our storytelling is not stuck in protagonist mode, it’s not stuck in any mode. Our storytelling is inevitably and intrinsically a reflection of the stories we need to tell. So just write the truth as you are compelled to put it on the page and don’t worry about sociology, psychology, or anything else you took your freshman year in college. It’s the story you need to tell that’s important because only you can tell that story.
Also, write about dogs.