Lesson 1 of story telling (even before “show, don’t tell” and “leave out the parts the reader’s going to skip”) is that stories are inherently about conflict. Someone wanted something, and then they got it — that’s not a story at all. There has to be an obstacle there, something creating conflict for the characters.
What I’ll discuss in this post is a special sort of though, but first a quick tip of the cup to Lindybeige who had a video about creating drama in role playing games which inspired this post. The specific conflict I have in mind is when a character has a deeply personal, emotional or psychological need, call this a sort of “core-self need.” An element of that core-self is that they need to get something from someone else, and of course since we’re talking about conflict, that other person isn’t giving it to them. (There’s internal conflicts as well, but this post is about the interpersonal ones.)
Typically in fantasy and scifi adventure series, the conflicts focus around big dramatic action. The guy needs to get the MacGuffin, but the evil thing is in the way and so he has to destroy it. Robb Stark wants independence for the North and vengeance for his father’s murder, but there’s a pesky Lannister army in the way that needs destroying. With some good pacing and quippy dialogue and a couple clever turns, this kind of conflict can be engaging, but on its own it ends up being a bit more history lesson than engaging story. Throwing in lots of details about the smallfolk and food and farming and the dangers of simply walking down the road makes the story more vibrant, but if that’s all it’s got then it’s just a history book with the history of average folk added in.
What really gets an audience engaged is when there’s an emotional goal as well. Miles Morales (Into the Spiderverse) wants his father to be proud of him, but his father’s attitude about Spiderman gets in the way. To use Lindybeige’s example, Walter White (Breaking Bad) wants respect from his wife Skyler, but instead a sense of pity (and later a lack of trust) gets in the way. Harold Crick (Stranger Than Fiction) wants his life to amount to more than just being a IRS functionary, and Karen Eiffle offers that to him, but at a terrible price.
In A Song of Ice and Fire, of course lots of the conflicts are the sort where a person wants a rather tangible thing, an enemy stands in the way, and the resolution to the conflict is a sword, or perhaps a very large number of swords, or maybe just a single dagger carefully placed. That’s all well and good; if we wanted to read Pride and Prejudice, we’d read just Pride and Prejudice (and you should also read Pride and Prejudice, nothing wrong with it). But, the plot lines that really stand out in ASOIAF are often those where a character needs some emotional thing from someone else who is unable to give it to them. If that sounds like sappy romance stuff, consider just how complex and unique the emotional needs and barriers are in the series with these examples (obviously just a few of many):
Brienne and Renly
We learn about this mostly after Renly’s death, but Brienne loved him and wanted his love in return — not necessarily a romantic love (she’d be too insecure even if she got it), but a sort of loving respect and acceptance. Why can’t Renly give her that? Because of a deep personality clash between the two. Brienne is serious, stern, and humorless, while Renly is joyous and carefree. Brienne offers rebukes for not calling Renly “Your Grace.” Renly offers peaches. She wants to be taken seriously, and her flaw is that she takes herself too seriously. He will value her sword, but never her friendship. Later, she will find what she’s looking for, but it comes from unlikely sources, Jaime and Podrick, and here the conflict is ironic. Instead of seeking psychological fulfillment from people she respects, she has to learn to respect the people who can offer her fulfillment.
Ned and Robert
At the surface level, this friendship seems to run roughshod over the rule of “show, don’t tell.” We’re mostly told that Ned and Robert are great friends, but we’re shown a deep conflict in personalities and intense arguments. What makes the relationship come to life on the page though is that they both need something from the other, and neither of them is getting it. What King Robert wants is to roll back time and reclaim the glory of his youth, and he’s hoping bringing Ned to King’s Landing will give him that. But, Ned can’t do it. He’s a family man now, and can’t just pack up, move across the Narrow Sea and join the Sellsword King on some grand adventure. From Robert, Ned wants the rebellion and the vengeance for his sister, brother and father not to have been in vain; he wants Robert to honor their sacrifice by being a better king. But, Robert can’t give him that. He was made to fight, not to rule, and beyond that, the crown makes moral demands of Robert that Ned cannot accept.
The Hound and the Little Bird
Sandor’s hatred of his brother runs deep, but I think there’s something he hates even more than Gregor, and it’s the society that failed to protect him while elevating Gregor. Fearing death at his brother’s hand, he fled into the service of the Lannisters who treat him like a dog. So why does he reveal to Sansa what happened to his face after the first day of the Hand’s tourney, why try to shield her from Joffrey, why rescue her in the riots and try to help her escape King’s Landing? What the hell is it that the Hound wants from the little bird that only repeats the pretty songs it was taught to sing?
I think what he wants is the romanticized version of the world Sansa imagines, where knights protect the weak and defend the innocent, and brutes who put their brother’s face to the coals and murder their father are brought to justice. And of course Sansa can’t give that to him. It’s not in her power. The best she can do is say Ser Gregor is no true knight, but she can’t give him justice. Then, during Stannis’s assault on King’s Landing, Sandor offers to help Sansa flee the city:
“Why did you come here?”
“You promised me a song, little bird. Have you forgotten?”
Sandor doesn’t want to hear her sing, he wants her to make the song real, to let him be the valiant knight who rescues the beautiful princess from the evil king and his wicked mother. Sansa can’t give him what he wants because she doesn’t believe in it any more.
Of course when stories delve into these emotional conflicts, they often do so poorly. We’ve all seen the bumbling rom-com where He needs to be loved and accepted and She needs the same thing, but oh no, He saw Her with Cousin but thought it was another Him! Aside from just being hack cliches, that kind of conflict also suffers from the needs being too simplistic and the obstacles too trivial.
This is why while A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms stands out as a great moment from Game of Thrones, much of the final seasons feels lifeless (among many other reasons, of course).
Sansa and Arya
Reuinted back at Winterfell, Arya needs to know that Sansa is loyal to the family and especially to Jon. (Sansa doesn’t have a strong emotional need from Arya; she mostly just wants to continue ruling without interference.) What’s the obstacle to Sansa providing Arya with that reassurance? Well, there’s hearing Joffrey say that Sansa begged for Ned’s life but he’s going to ignore her… And I guess there’s the letter asking Robb to bend the knee which proves that when captured by the Lannisters Sansa was scared what’d happen if she fought back? Not a convincing obstacle. A single evening going back and forth about what they’ve been through would be enough to get the sisters on the same team, but to create (faux) drama the show had to resort to the “what if they just don’t talk for no good reason?” cliche.
Euron and Literally Any Queen Will Do
Euron may be a clownish, cartoon character on the show, but at least we do know what he’s after. He’s a great adventurer, and wants his next adventure to be bedding the queen. First he wants the Dragon queen, but then just decides a Lion will do fine instead. He doesn’t just want sex or a high station, he actually does have a fundamental (if shallow) psychological need, which is to Be The Fucking Man. Initially Cersei has a really good reason not to give him what he wants, and that reason is called Jaime. Fair enough. But then Jaime leaves Cersei, Euron returns with the Iron Fleet, makes his advances again and after a bit of “let me say something Badass^TM that Twitter can quote” Cersei gives him what he wants. Euron captured the Sandsnakes in a zero-effort surprise raid and then Jaime noped off while Euron was in Essos. He doesn’t overcome any obstacle, it’s just Euron wants a queen, then Euron gets a queen. That’s not a story at all.