A Song of Ice and Fire author George R.R. Martin is known for many things. With the HBO show Game of Thrones, he super-charged a new interest in fantasy TV shows that is still playing out. He’s known for taking forever to write the next book in his saga, The Winds of Winter, even as tons of fans wait eagerly. And he’s known for killing off characters, including characters people thought were the protagonists, including Ned Stark, Robb Stark and Jon Snow.
For a while, Martin’s propensity for killing off characters was the prevailing narrative surrounding him. But while speaking to Portugese magazine Bang! during a livestream, Martin said he thinks his bloodthirsty reputation is “exaggerated.”
“I don’t think I kill more people. But what I do think I do is I try to make you feel the deaths more because I think you should feel death,” Martin said. “I mean, art follows life, and in real life when someone close to us dies, we experience grief, we experience anger, we experience depression. It, it has a huge impact on our life when our parents die or a close friend dies. Or God help us a parent when their child dies.”
And we don’t have to personally know people for their deaths to affect us, something that matters when you’re talking about how the deaths of fictional characters can affect an audience. “Jimmy Buffett, a musician whose work I liked a lot died last month,” Martin said. “Just a few days ago, Dick Butkus, a great football player died. I followed Butkis when he was playing, he didn’t play for my team, but I knew who he was, he was a legendary figure. His death had some emotional impact on me. So…when I kill a character, I want my readers to feel that death. I don’t want to be the death of Alderaan. And that’s why I think people remember the deaths in my books more because I give them more emotional impact, I think.”
George R.R. Martin explains why this huge Star Wars death has “no emotional impact”
When Martin says he doesn’t want “the death of Alderaan,” he’s referring to the moment in the first-ever Star Wars movie where Grand Moff Tarkin destroys the planet of Alderaan, which is densely populated. It’s an iconic moment, but there’s something about it that strikes Martin as unsatisfying.
“You know, as I’ve said in other interviews, Star Wars kills more characters than I do,” Martin said. “You know, if you watch Star Wars, you remember the first movie, right? In the beginning of the first movie, the entire planet of Alderaan is blown up. Alderaan is a highly civilized planet. It has billions of people. So they have killed billions of people right there. But it has no impact on you except, ok, they blew up a planet. They’re bad guys. No emotional impact because you don’t know any of the people.”
Beyond making his readers curl up into a ball at home and cry, Martin also uses death to “ratchet up the suspense” in his books. “I mean, these are dangerous situations, people are at war,” he said. “You don’t know who’s gonna live, you don’t know who’s gonna die…I’m lucky because I have a large cast of characters and I can go back and forth between multiple viewpoints. But when you only have one viewpoint, if you’re reading a Conan book by Robert E. Howard, Conan is not gonna die. He seems in trouble sometimes, you know, at one point they capture him and they crucify him but he still doesn’t die because he’s protected by what the people now call plot armor. You know who the hero is and you know that the hero is not gonna die. I think it’s better if you don’t know who’s gonna live and who’s gonna die because that’s like real life.”
"I know I did not serve in the military myself but I had friends who went to Vietnam and served over there and they tell me stories about their friends dying and they didn’t know who’s gonna die, toughest guy in the platoon is the one who gets killed. You know, the funny guy who was only a week away from his term ending and he steps on a land mine and gets blown up. Death is waiting in war, and a lot of fantasy books, including mine, are about war. And you never know who’s gonna die. So I think my reputation for killing more people is exaggerated, but I will accept that I try to kill people unexpectedly and realistically and I keep my readers off balance there and I want the deaths to have more emotional impact even if it’s a bad guy. I mean, I know a lot of people enjoyed it when Joffrey died. But there are moments if you read the book, I try to remind you that even though Joffrey is dying and he was a son of a bitch, he was also a 13 year old boy. And you know, just at the moment of his death, you realize, hopefully you realize that a 13-year-old boy is dying in front of his mother. And that has a different kind of emotional resonance."
Martin’s propensity for killing characters has upset many people over the years, but they can’t say they don’t remember it. Because he’s willing to commit to killing important characters where other authors shy away, Martin has successfully written several death scenes that have gone on to be iconic, so I think he’s achieving his goals. Even in this interview, which Martin gave alongside fellow author Bernard Cornwell (Sharpe, The Last Kingdom, a lot more), people were bringing up how much they were affected by his death scenes. “I’m not sure I’ve yet forgiven you for killing Ned Stark,” Cornwell quipped at one point.
We can expect more death and destruction from Martin whenever he gets around to finishing The Winds of Winter, and I’m sure we’ll love every minute of it.