With the airing of 'The Rains of Castamere' on last night's Game Of Thrones, this seems like a great jumping off moment to continue the discussion of violence. If we can stop weeping and retching.
For those of us who love the books, the Red Wedding has been the most talked-about and anticipated moment in the series. The series creators have said that it was the moment that made them want to actually make the show. It's what everyone talks about, the way that readers of Dorothy Dunnett talk about the chess match in A Pawn In Frankincense. It's the sucker-punch of all time. It's an awesome, awful moment.
Why? Because of the cost. It's not heroic, it's just terrible, heart-wrenching, and bleak. We lose characters we care about, are inspired by, are rooting for.
But this is against the rules! Not the rules of life, or of good story-telling. This is against the rules we're used to in our stories. We expect some kind of catharsis, or for villains to get their just deserts. We don't expect the villains to win.
But every villain is the hero of his/her own story. We writers forget this at our peril.
If we write villains as if they are cogs in our plot, only there to serve as a foil to the hero, then the story is going to be bland. As a long-forgotten episode of The Magical World Of Disney once stated, it's the villain that moves the story.
If violence is going to have meaning, we need both sides to be human. Not just the hero, but the villain. The decision to employ violence should have a cost, too. Perhaps not remorse, but at least a hardening of the soul. Darth Vader, Khan, Belloq - they're the best villains of the Star Wars, Star Trek, and Indiana Jones franchises (respectively) because of their humanity. They are the heroes of their stories, and our heroes are their nemeses.
In these pieces I'm focusing a lot on movie characters, mostly as common reference points. But here's one from recent literature that is a perfect illustration of how to employ violence. In Chapter 32 of Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix, Delores Umbridge (whom Stephen King calls 'the greatest make-believe villain to come along since Hannibal Lecter') talks herself into using the Cruciatus curse on children:
“Very well,” she said, and she pulled out her wand. “Very well . . .
I am left with no alternative. . . . This is more than a matter of school
discipline. . . . This is an issue of Ministry security. . . . Yes . . .
yes . . .”
She seemed to be talking herself into something. She was shifting
her weight nervously from foot to foot, staring at Harry, beating her
wand against her empty palm and breathing heavily. Harry felt horribly powerless without his own wand as he watched her.
“You are forcing me, Potter. . . . I do not want to,” said Umbridge,
still moving restlessly on the spot, “but sometimes circumstances justify the use . . . I am sure the Minister will understand that I had no
choice. . . .”
Malfoy was watching her with a hungry expression on his face.
“The Cruciatus Curse ought to loosen your tongue,” said Um-
“No!” shrieked Hermione. “Professor Umbridge — it’s illegal” —
but Umbridge took no notice. There was a nasty, eager, excited look
on her face that Harry had never seen before. She raised her wand.
“The Minister wouldn’t want you to break the law, Professor Umbridge!” cried Hermione.
“What Cornelius doesn’t know won’t hurt him,” said Umbridge,
who was now panting slightly as she pointed her wand at different parts of Harry’s body in turn, apparently trying to decide what would
hurt the most. “He never knew I ordered dementors after Potter last
summer, but he was delighted to be given the chance to expel him, all
the same. . . .”
See how she's justifying her own base desires? How she wants to please Fudge? In her mind, she's the hero. And it's her very human desires that make her a far more frightening villain than Voldemort, who is almost comic-bookish in his evil. His evil has no base, no grounding. He was born evil, and destined to be evil. Whereas Umbridge is very human in her villainy, and that makes her all the more terrifying.
Yet even Voldemort's evil has a cost. We learn that he is mutilating his soul with every murder. It's the fact that he doesn't value his soul that leads to his destruction. In Harry Potter, violence has a price.
Back to Game Of Thrones - no one in that saga is a villain. The fact that we start to see things from Jamie's point of view was a startling revelation to me, made all the more perverse by the fact that I ended up liking him! Cersi was less likable when I saw things through her eyes, and I took great pleasure in her shaming walk in book four. But she's certainly human, with all the frailties and passions one could wish for. She's not 'evil'. Joffrey comes the closest to being pure evil, and we never see a scene through his eyes, thank heavens. But while he's frightening, he's not as fearsome as Tywin or Cersi or any of the other major players. Even people we despise (like Crastor) we understand, because we see their desires, however base they might be.
Last night the Freys were taking revenge for an insult done to them. In a brutal world, they were fighting for their honour. Of course, they did it in a totally reprehensible way. But it wasn't Frey who broke his word first. To him, this was all Robb Stark's fault. Frey was a father avenging an insult to his daughter and his house. In another character, in another setting, we'd be rooting for that man.
The great thing Martin does in his books (and that the show is maintaining) is that violence doesn't just cost the characters. It costs us, the audience. Twitter is alive today with people talking about vomiting after the episode, about sleepless nights and vows to never watch the show again. Why? Because they are not used to that kind of cost. Which is why it's marvelous story-telling. I said in an earlier post that violence should never be easy. Last night it was not, and the show was all the better for it. So are we.
It's funny, I'm not seeing anyone complain that it was too violent. Instead I'm seeing them complain that it hurt too much, that it made them feel too terrible.
My answer is, good! It should hurt! As story-tellers, that's what we want! Highs should be astronomically high, and lows should be devastatingly low. And all of that, every bit of it, is rooted in character.
UPDATE: A comment from Jan Blixt (my wife) on the Facebook link to this. I think she's spot on: "I would also add that when entertainment-violence hurts as much as last night's The Rains of Castamere did, it actually aids the debate about the influence of violence on television (or movies or gaming). The violence of the Red Wedding was not glorified. There was nothing that happened that we "want to emulate." It was horrific and it hurt-- and, truly, if we are concerned about our too violent culture, storytelling like this, scenes that show just how painful and costly violence is, may be the right way to go."
Thanks for reading. For the actual books, drop by www.davidblixt.com.