io9's Charlie Jane Anders has asked some hard questions to the creator of the popular fantasy TV series Game of Thrones. George R.R. Martin talks about the future of the story and some of the tough decisions he had to made. A fascinating interview full of spoilers, so be warned.
When we interviewed A Song of Ice and Fire author George R.R. Martin at Comic-Con, we decided to drill down and ask some intense questions. Like, is this series only seven books long because some subplots took over the story? Are the Dothraki one-dimensional stereotypes? What does he think of Sliders? Here’s what he told us.
Warning: Major spoilers for A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons below!
Note: Our George R.R. Martin interview was too epic in length to include in full here. The complete unedited version can be read over here.
Are there scenes in the Song of Ice and Fire series that you dreamed up 20 years ago, that you’re finally writing? Moments you were excited to get to at last?
Yeah. I didn’t know at first, in ‘91 — I didn’t know quite what I had yet. I didn’t even know whether it was a novel or a novella, or something, at first. So I sort of found that out. But by the summer of ‘91, you know, it just came to me out of nowhere, and I started writing it and following where it led. But by the end of that summer I knew I had a big series. Initially, I thought it was a trilogy, but it’s grown beyond that. But the size is different, and I’ve introduced some other elements to the books, but it’s still the same characters, the ‘91 characters.
What was the thing that made you realize, in the middle of the first novel, that it had to be more than a trilogy?
It was quite at the end, it was by ‘95 that I realized it had to be more than a trilogy, because I had 1,500 pages of manuscript [and] I wasn’t anywhere close to the end of the first book. So I said, “I know I can’t get all this into three books here. I’m gonna have to break this first book into two books to get it all done.” Which required a certain amount of restructuring, but I went back and I did that, I took out about 300 pages or so, and that became the beginning of the second book. And I moved things around.
You’ve had these characters and places for 22 years, and that’s a long time to live with a particular set of characters. So have you lost interest in any of those characters during that time?
You know, not really — because I haven’t finished the story I want to tell. The story I set out to tell in 1991 is still not done. I think if I finally finish these seven books, or however many it takes, I will be tired of them. I will not necessarily be open to returning to tell more stories about the ones who survived [after the end].
There you run into a Sherlock Holmes, Reichenbach Falls sort of thing, where [the writer says], “I’m sick of Sherlock Holmes, I never want to write any more stories about him.”
But I haven’t even [finished a single story.] As many books as it is, as many words as it is, it’s still one story. One story that’s not finished yet. I want to finish telling that story. And then I’ll worry about that.
You actually said once that you don’t enjoy writing, you enjoy having written.
Yeah. Which is not original again with me either. A lot of writers have said that. But writing is hard. I mean I sit there and work at it.
Boy, there are days where I get up and say “Where the hell did my talent go? Look at this crap that I’m producing here. This is terrible. Look, I wrote this yesterday. I hate this, I hate this.” And I can see a scene in my head, and when I try to get it down in words on paper, the words are clunky, the scene is not coming across right. So frustrating. And there are days where it keeps flowing. Open the floodgates, and there it is. Pages and pages coming. Where the hell does this all come from? I don’t know.
I had, very early in my career, even before I was a professional writer — I’m going back now to my fanzine days in the 60s and 70s — I was very prone to starting stories and never finishing. I’d have some great idea and I would start a story, and I’d write a few pages, five pages, ten pages, and it would never be as good as when it was in my head. It was this incredible thing, [and then] I put it on paper it and it was never as good as I imagined it to be. Then I’d think of some other idea, and I’d go, “Yeah, that one would be really magical.” And I’d put aside the half-finished one.
One of the big breakthroughs, I think for me, was reading Robert A. Heinlein’s four rules of writing, one of which was, “You must finish what you write.” I never had any problem with the first one, “You must write” — I was writing since I was a kid. But I never finished what writing. [I realized], “I gotta actually finish these stories. It does me no good to have this drawer full of fragments.” And always be chasing the next idea, which is so much better, so much more beautiful, so much more entrancing then the idea that you’re actually working on.
So, I started finishing things. And I’m bound and determined to finish Ice and Fire.
So people have this idea that back when Ice and Fire started as a trilogy, you had an outline where there was a single line that went, “And meanwhile, nobles squabble over power in Westeros.” And that single line turned into the middle three or four books of the series. Is there any truth to that?
It’s a grotesque exaggeration — but there’s at least a nugget of truth to it, yeah. You introduce characters, and sometimes they take on a life of their own.
Some major characters — yes, I always had plans, what Tyrion’s arc was gonna be through this, what Arya’s arc was gonna be through this, what Jon Snow’s arc is gonna be. I knew what the principal deaths were gonna be, and when they were coming. That would be the closest thing.
But there would be some secondary characters, like Bronn, Tyrion’s henchman, [who] became a such a popular character. He came out of nowhere. [I was thinking], “Okay, Tyrion has meets these two sellswords, Bronn and Chiggen. And one’s going to fight for him. Which one is it gonna be? Okay, we’ll go with Bronn.” But as I wrote about him, he developed a personality of his own. And his past is super-mysterious, you don’t know where he’s born from, where he comes from, but he’s fun to write about. He comes into a scene — once he’s been cast in the TV show, they have a wonderful actor playing him — and he becomes real.
There are characters on the TV show, I feel like, because of the actors playing them, they have an extra dimension, does that come back to the novels? Do you think about the actors? Like Natalie Dormer is amazing as Margaery Tyrell.
She is, she’s incredible.
Do you now think about what she’s going to do with the material you’re writing now, as an actor?
To some extent. You know, the most extreme example of that is Natalia Tena as Osha. Who is a pretty minor character in the books, has a one-note personality, is really there to advance the plot, and fulfill certain plotpoints. And Natalia Tena made it such an interesting and vibrant, alive character, and much different. Natalia is much younger and much more attractive than my Osha, who was ten, fifteen years older, weathered, leathery...
There was no ‘seducing Theon’ scene.
No. And, with Margaery — my Margaery is younger than Loras, not older than Loras. So she’s really just like a sixteen year old kid. And Natalie is brilliant, but she’s clearly not a sixteen year old kid. She’s very smart. She’s almost what my Margaery will become in ten years.
So these changes have consequences. So there’s two missing Tyrell brothers in the show. [The television] Tyrell [family] has Margaery and Loras, and there’s two older brothers, Willas and Garlan in the books. We have the biggest cast in television, so we can’t afford to add more characters. I have the biggest cast in literature, I think.
There’s some speculation that there might be fewer members of the Martell clan on the TV show.
It’s possible. They haven’t gotten to that. I know they’re, we’re bringing in Oberyn this year, there’s been that huge Internet controversy about that. So that we will definitely have the Red Viper and his brother Doran at some point. And I think we will have Areo and the Sand Snakes. I don’t know. I wrote these books, never dreaming they would filmed or made. It was almost a reaction to my tenure in Hollywood. “I’m just going to do this as big as I want.”
I’m obsessed with the five-year gap you originally planned in the middle of the series. How would that have happened?
Originally, there was not supposed to be any gap. There was just supposed to be a passage of time as the book went forward. My original concept back in 1991 was, I would start with these characters as children, and they would get older. If you pick up Arya at eight, the second chapter would be a couple months later, and she would be eight and a half and [then] she’d be nine. [This would happen] all within the space of a book.
But when I actually got into writing them, the events have a certain momentum. So you write a chapter and then in your next chapter, it can’t be six months later, because something’s going to happen the next day. So you have to write what happens the next day, and then you have to write what happens the week after that. And the news gets to some other place.
And pretty soon, you’ve written hundreds of pages and a week has passed, instead of the six months, or the year that you wanted to pass. So you end a book, and you’ve had a tremendous amount of events — but they’ve taken place over a short time frame, and the eight-year-old kid is still eight years old.
So that really took hold of me for the first three books. When it became apparent that that had taken hold of me, I came up with the idea of the five year gap. “Time is not passing here as I want it to pass, so I will jump forward five years in time.” And I will come back to these characters when they’re a little more grown up. And that is what I tried to do when I started writing Feast for Crows. So [the gap] would have come after A Storm of Swords and before Feast for Crows.
But what I soon discovered — and I struggled with this for a year — [the gap] worked well with some characters like Arya — who at end the of torm of Swordsas taken off for Braavos. You can come back five years later, and she has had five years of training and all that. Or Bran, who was taken in by the Children of the Forest and the green ceremony, [so you could] come back to him five years later. That’s good. Works for him.
Other characters, it didn’t work at all. I’m writing the Cersei chapters in King’s Landing, and saying, “Well yeah, in five years, six different guys have served as Hand and there was this conspiracy four years ago, and this thing happened three years ago.” And I’m presenting all of this in flashbacks, and that wasn’t working. The other alternative was [that] nothing happened in those six years, which seemed anticlimactic. The Jon Snow stuff was even worse, because at the end of Storm he gets elected Lord Commander. I’m picking up there, and writing ‘Well five years ago, I was elected Lord Commander. Nothing much has happened since then, but now things are starting to happen again.” I finally, after a year, said, “I can’t make this work.”
Was it going to be five years and then Winter was going to arrive or was it going to be during Winter?
No, it wasn’t going to be during Winter. The arrival of Winter which would have been on stage.
So, like another five years of Fall?
Yeah. There is plenty of precedent for that [in] the way I set up the series. Summer lasted ten years. A five-year Fall [is] nothing much.
I know that some of the stuff you wrote for after the five year gap is in the books, including Dance with Dragons.
Dance with Dragons and Feast for Crows. Some of it is in there. Some of it, I’ve reworked. A version of it is in there, but not the same version is in there. Some of it is just out. It just didn’t work.
So you had to have change it, so that Arya was not as seasoned, Jon Snow not as experienced as Lord Commander.
I know not all my readers are happy with that, but I think I made the right decision.
The readers are unhappy with leaving out the five-year gap?
Well no — some of the storylines from Feast for Crows. I get complaints sometimes that nothing happens — but they’re defining “nothing,” I think, differently than I am. I don’t think it all has to be battles and sword fights and assassinations. Character development and [people] changing is good, and there are some tough things in there that I think a lot of writers skip over. I’m glad I didn’t skip over these things.
And that has been interesting, you know. Jon Snow as Lord Commander. Dany as Queen struggling with rule. So many books don’t do that. There is a sense when you’re writing something in high fantasy, you’re in a dialogue with all the other high fantasy writers that have written. And there is always this presumption that if you are a good man, you will be a good king. [Like] Tolkien — in Return of the King, Aragorn comes back and becomes king, and then “he ruled wisely for three hundred years.” Okay, fine. It is easy to write that sentence, “He ruled wisely”.
What does that mean, “He ruled wisely?” What were his tax policies? What did he do when two lords were making war on each other? Or barbarians were coming in from the North? What was his immigration policy? What about equal rights for Orcs? I mean did he just pursue a genocidal policy, “Let’s kill all these fucking Orcs who are still left over”? Or did he try to redeem them? You never actually see the nitty-gritty of ruling.
I guess there is an element of fantasy readers that don’t want to see that. I find that fascinating. Seeing someone like Dany actually trying to deal with the vestments of being a queen and [dealing with] factions and guilds and the economy. They burnt all the fields [in Meereen]. They’ve got nothing to import anymore. They’re not getting any money. I find this stuff interesting. And fortunately, enough of my readers who love the books do as well.
I commented on my blog. You can find a more studied response there. I made a couple of comments as to what people said about that. I always pictured Oberyn Martell in my head as a — what I call a Mediterranean type. I know people attacked me for that by saying “He’s ignorant, he doesn’t know that Africa is on the Mediterranean.” No, I know Africa is on the Mediterranean. But in common parlance, when you say Mediterranean you are thinking Greek, Italian, Spanish. When you are thinking Moroccan or Tunisian that’s North African. That’s the way people talk about that.
I always pictured the Martells and the salty Dornishman as Mediterraneans, so the casting I think is perfectly appropriate with what I wrote in the books. I do sympathize. I mean, I understand.
Some people have written me some very heartfelt letters, and I’ve tried to respond to them about how they wanted to see someone who looked like them in the books, and how they were [disappointed]. They had pictures of the Martells looking like them, and they were disappointed.
I understand that, but it still wasn’t my intent to make... Even the terminology here is such a land mine. I don’t even know what words to use here “black” or “African.” I used African at one point, sort of like African American. [But] if you use “African” you are guilty for saying all Africans are the same.
I don’t know. I am drawing from history, even though its fantasy. I’ve read a lot of history, The War of the Roses, The Hundred Years War. The World back then was very diverse. Culturally it was perhaps more diverse then our world, but travel was very difficult back then. So even though there might have been many different races and ethnicities and peoples, they didn’t necessarily mix a great deal. I’m drawing largely on medieval England, medieval Scotland, to some extent medieval France. There was an occasional person of color, but certainly not in any great numbers.
And meanwhile, you’ve got Daenerys visiting more Eurasian and Middle Eastern cultures.
And that has generated its controversy too. I answer that one to in my blog. I know some of the people who are coming at this from a political or racial angle just seem to completely disregard the logistics of the thing here. I talk about what’s in the books. The books are what I write. What I’m responsible for.
Slavery in the ancient world, and slavery in the medieval world, was not race-based. You could lose a war if you were a Spartan, and if you lost a war you could end up a slave in Athens, or vice versa. You could get in debt, and wind up a slave. And that’s what I tried to depict, in my books, that kind of slavery.
So the people that Dany frees in the slaver cities are of many different ethnicities, and that’s been fairly explicit in the books. But of course when David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss] and his crew are filming that scene [of Daenerys being carried by freed slaves], they are filming it in Morocco, and they put out a call for 800 extras. That’s a lot of extras. They hired the people who turned up. Extras don’t get paid very much. I did an extra gig once, and got like $40 a day.
It’s probably actually less in Morocco, since you don’t have to pay quite the same rate. If you’re giving 800 Moroccans 40 bucks each, you’re not going to fly in 100 Irishmen just to balance the racial background here. We had enough trouble meeting our budget anyway.
I know for some readers, they don’t care about this shit. But these things are about budget and realism, and things you can actually do. You are shooting the scene in a day. You don’t have a lot of time to [worry] about that, and as someone who has worked in television this kind of stuff is very important to me. I don’t know if that is answer or not. I made that answer, and some people weren’t pleased with that answer, I know. They are very upset about that.
People complain that the Dothraki are this one-dimensional barbarian society.
I haven’t had a Dothraki viewpoint character though.
I guess it’s too late to introduce one now.
I could introduce a Dothraki viewpoint character, but I already have like sixteen viewpoint characters. I could kill some of my viewpoint characters, to get down to the seven or eight I started with, or some numerical equivalent. The Dothraki are partially based on the Huns and the Mongols, some extent the steppe tribes like the Alvars and Magyars. I put in a few elements of the Amerindian plains tribes and those peoples, and then I threw in some purely fantasy elements. It’s fantasy.
Are they barbaric? Yeah, but the Mongols were, too. Genghis Khan — I just saw an interesting movie about Ghengis Khan, recently. I’ve read books about Genghis Khan, and he’s one of history’s more fascinating, charismatic characters. The Mongols became very sophisticated at certain points, but they were certainly not sophisticated when they started out, and even at the height of their sophistication they were fond of doing things like giant piles of heads. “Surrender your city to me, or we will come in and kill all the men, rape all the women and make a giant pile of heads.” They did that a few times, and other cities said, “Surrender is good. We’ll surrender. We’ll pay the taxes. No pile of heads, please.”
So getting back to something you said earlier about time moving too quickly for characters to age the way you want them to, do you feel like it was a mistake to have ravens that could send messages more quickly?
No, I don’t. I haven’t considered that, really. We could have slowed things down more, I suppose, with just riders. But I wanted a certain speed to the message-delivery.
Because ravens are like the Internet of Westeros.
They’re an Internet that’s subject to hacking, with arrows and archers and shooting them down, and people killing the ravens, and messages not going through. I do try to reflect that in the books, too. I try to do these little things that impress me from history. One of them is the unreliability of information. You know, they didn’t have CNN. So they would get these reports of battles that were late and were wrong. And even now you read accounts of the same battle, and the number of people who participated — and this is real history I’m talking about — grossly varies from one person to another.
The Battle of Agincourt was either 4,000 Frenchmen and 5,000 Englishmen, according to the French, or between 200,000 Frenchman and 7 Englishmen, who were all armed with fruit knives, according to the English version. So I deliberately do that in my numbers of armies and things like that. Which are different.
I get readers writing me and saying, “Oh, you were inconsistent here. You said that his army only had 20,000 people in this chapter, and then in this later chapter you said 30,000.” No, I wasn’t being inconsistent. I mean, I was being inconsistent, but I was being deliberately inconsistent, to show that these things are [because] the society did not have accurate information. We still don’t have accurate information. People still jigger these things. Ask any reporter. How many people showed up for Occupy Wall Street? Somehow, the crowds are much bigger at MSNBC then they are on Fox. Tea Party crowds are always bigger on Fox, Occupy Wall Street crowds are always smaller on Fox.
Meanwhile, you have a development deal with HBO. Has anything come of that?
I’m working on some ideas to pitch them. I can’t actually do a show, I still have the books to write. But I’m working with various other writers, producers, partners, and so on. I can create the idea and, as with Game of Thrones, maybe write one script a year. Kind of oversee it. But other people will have to be the David Benioff and Dan Weiss, the actual day-to-day showrunners, who are the main guys on it.
It seems like HBO’s development is very slow. They put things in development and it takes a long time.
They do, but they don’t develop nearly as much as the broadcast networks, who typically order 20 drama pilot scripts, will make 10 of the 20 scripts, will actually film them [and then] have 10 pilots and put three shows on. HBO doesn’t do that. When they develop something, they’re pretty serious about it. And they have some interesting shows in development. American Gods would be cool.
You almost made a show with the same premise as Sliders, and then Sliders came out a year later. Do you ever watch Sliders, and what do you think of it?
Doorways, which was my [unaired] show, was basically the same idea, but it was better-written, better-cast, better in every regard. The only episode of Sliders I ever saw was the pilot. I did watch the pilot, and I thought it terrible. But that’s prejudice, I recognize my prejudice. Put that in if you’re going to write about Sliders here, all right? I realize I don’t have an objective consideration of this because I worked on that show for over a year.
But I do know a little of the subsequent history of Sliders, and it occurs to me that I may have dodged a bullet with Doorways. Because I don’t think I would have been able to do as good a show as I wanted to do. The conception of Doorways was this alternate-world show, where they would have gone through, and every week they would have gone to a different world and had an adventure there. So we would have seen all of these wonderful alternate worlds. I developed like 40 ideas for worlds, and we had six backup scripts written.
But to really do it right, you have to create a whole world. If you’re in the world where the Roman Empire never fell, which was one of our [ideas], it’s still 1993. It’s not a time-travel show. So you have to think about it about it, you have to think of the whole look for the show. That’s very demanding for the set designers and the costume designers. Okay, it’s 1993 — how much has technology progressed from the Roman Empire? Did they have an Industrial Revolution? What are they wearing now? Are they still wearing togas, like they wore in 44 BC? You know, but they’re not dressed like modern 20th Century Americans, either, they’re dressed in some toga-equivalent as it would be 2,000 years later. You have to think about every issue like that.
But what are they driving? Well, they’re not driving Buicks and Chevrolets. They’re driving – do they have cars? Do they have cars based on chariots? You know, the cars would be different, the trains would be different. You know, so it requires a lot of work. But then you have to build that. And at the point where I thought Doorways was gonna go, when I was going to be showrunner, I was looking at pattern budgets, and I was having a horrible feeling that weren’t going to be able to do this on that budget. We were going to have a budget equivalent to any other show on television at that time, a million and a half per episode. You can’t built a whole world for that amount.
And of course, that’s what happened to Sliders. They didn’t go to a world where the Roman empire never fell, or any of these worlds — they went to a lot of worlds where, “Gosh, it’s just like our world, except that Pete Best is still in the Beatles.” So the costumes were the same and the cars were the same. I know they had a big thing — in one world, the traffic lights were different, [so] red means go and green means stop. And that was the big difference.
And, you know, I sneer at that, because it’s bad science fiction and it’s stupid. You don’t want to do an alternate-world show, if that’s the best you can do. But we might have been forced to do the exact same thing, simply because of budgetary reasons. And then I would have had this show, that would have been a bad show, on my resume. So maybe I dodged a bullet there, by not having it picked up.
That being said, we had a terrific cast. I think our writing would have been better. Our characters were very much better. But we still would have faced the same limits of budget and storytelling. What I was trying to do at that time was say to the network, “We have to do arcs. That’s the only way we can make this work. They have to go to Roman world, and they have to stay there for six episodes. You can’t do a world a week. They have to stay, because then we can amortize the costumes and the architecture.” You have to build sets and have Greek architecture for Roman world, or Arabian Nights world, or whatever world they’re going to. But the networks don’t like to do arcs, especially back in the 90s. Now they’re more open to them. But back then, they wanted strictly episodic shows, where you could run them in any order. You always return to the original [status at the end of each episode].
What’s going on with the Wildcards movie?
Melinda Snodgrass is the scriptwriter on that. She’s turned in two drafts. And last I heard, they were talking to directors. So we have to get a director to sign on, and that hopefully will go.
Interview transcribed by Katharine Trendacosta and Amanda Yesilbas.
All images from A Song of Ice and Fire calendars, art by Michael Komarck, Ted Nasmith, John Picacio, Marc Simonetti and Gary Gianni.