Game of Thrones reached popularity not just because of the sex and the violence (though that helped), but because the characters felt so incredibly rich and interesting. However, in the final seasons, some of those characters have begun to feel flat, dull, and most importantly, one dimensional. So, where does dimensionality come from?
Borrowing (very heavily!) from Michael Byer’s excellent book Faking Shapely Fiction, we can look for three qualities that bring a character to life: unaligned traits, spectrum traits, and self-reflection.
If we describe Tyrion Lannister as we meet him in Season 1, he is intelligent, witty, a keen observer, sarcastic, loves to read, and a bit defensive or insecure though he doesn’t like to let it show. These are generally aligned traits, meaning they naturally go together. Someone who tries to hide their insecurity tends to be sarcastic. Wit and observation are simply certain kinds of intelligence, and reading and intelligence often go together.
Tyrion is also a bawdy, lecherous drunk. This is an unaligned trait. While we may know real life examples of intelligent, sarcastic literature aficionados who are also drunken lechers (yours truly), these traits are independent of each other. We can find them together, but we don’t expect to the way we expect intelligence and wit to coincide.
When Tyrion has a custom saddle made for the injured Bran, we also see a kinder side to him, though it’s maybe limited to people who he personally identifies with (he is also sympathetic to Jon as a bastard). Again, another unaligned trait, though perhaps aligned with his insecurity.
After being captured by Catelyn Stark and ambushed by a hill tribe, we witness Tyrion being brave. He even goes so far to protect the woman who has taken him prisoner, so we get a kind of gallantry as well.
Intelligence doesn’t necessarily go along with kindness, kindness doesn’t necessarily go with bravery, and bravery doesn’t at all correlate to being witty (see: Ser Friendzone).
Aligned traits are the ones that are largely correlated with each other. They don’t give a character depth. Unaligned traits, ones that can go together but are not correlated, make for a more interesting character. They’re particularly interesting when they cause us to describe a character with “but” instead of “and”: Tyiron is intelligent and also brave. Tyrion is a hedonist but also generous. So, what makes for a nice but? We’ll see in a moment.
Unaligned Traits vs. Contradictory Character
Having unaligned traits does not mean someone routinely acts out of character or contradictory to their personality. It means their personality is complex.
A character who is generally intelligent, but who makes a tactical blunder because of their overconfidence is not contradictory. Intelligence and overconfidence often go hand-in-hand. The same intelligent character doing something stupid for no good reason is acting out of character.
A fully realized character is one whose traits exist on a spectrum. That is to say, they’re not always expressed, and some will take precedence over others. A character can be witty often, and generous rarely, and brave when his friends are in danger. We may quite simply express these traits as, “The character is X, but not always.” Tyrion is a hedonist, but he doesn’t go straight to the brothels when returning from The Wall to Winterfell; for a moment, his generous (or perhaps strategic) side is taking precedence.
We can also think of these traits as existing within a hierarchy of values. Daenerys wants to take the Iron Throne, but she also wants to protect the innocent. Which of these desires is higher up on her hierarchy will ultimately determine the actions she takes, but at no time do the other values disappear. She may take the Iron Throne but deeply regret what was sacrificed to take it.
Placing traits on a spectrum also allows us to see how characters grow. Some traits will become more prominent, while others recede. After falling in love with Shae, Tyrion’s bawdy side recedes a bit; we see his cockiness supplanted by caution. With Dany, we see her go from being meek to slowly gaining confidence as she learns to be a Khaleesi, but then she faces some setbacks (such as her struggles in ruling Mereen) that push her confidence down and brings up her self-doubt.
Consider self-reflection to be a bit of extra credit. It’s not a necessary trait for creating a well-rounded, three dimensional character, but it helps to elevate a character. A self-reflective character thinks about themselves, their traits, and how they fit into the world.
When we first meet Tyrion it isn’t his witty banter or his way with whores that makes him stand out as an interesting character; it’s his self-reflection. In his conversation with Jon Snow, he remarks that “all dwarfs are bastards in their father’s eyes.” With that line, we immediately know that Tyrion is very aware of his own traits and how that situates him within the world and the lives of other people. We are drawn to characters when we know that there are gears turning in their heads, and more to their thoughts than what comes out of their mouths.
When we first meet Jon Snow, he isn’t self-reflective. But, one of his best moments in Season 1 is when that changes. After some early sparring sessions, he gets a lecture from Tyrion about how privileged he was to grow up in Winterfell and train with Rodrick Cassel. At this moment Jon becomes more self-reflective, and the audience becomes much more invested in him.
What Went Wrong With Cersei
In the final seasons of Game of Thrones, Cersei has been criticized as a poor antagonist because she is one dimensional — little more than a vengeful wino.
However, in earlier seasons she was not a particularly rich character either. She can be described as someone who is politically intelligent, over-confident in her intelligence, ambitious, ruthless, and protective of her family (excluding Tyrion). Ambition, ruthlessness, and family protectiveness are all aligned traits. Perhaps the most interesting thing about her is that we don’t know if her love for her children is genuine, or merely an extension of her own personal ambition. She doesn’t quite fit the bill as a three-dimensional character, but one reason we liked her is that she is at least self-reflective.
In the later seasons, her character remains largely unchanged. The biggest difference for her is that she no longer has any children to protect, so that dynamic of the character has been removed. Think about it as scratching something off her hierarchy of values — perhaps scratching off the most important thing from it. The character is largely the same, but much less dynamic.
So then, why is it only in the later seasons that Cersei’s character is so sharply criticized, while she was generally liked (we liked watching her, even though we didn’t like her) in the earlier episodes?
I believe the answer is that King’s Landing has become so unpopulated. Earlier, we had Ned, Robert, Tyrion, Tywin, Joffers, Varys, Littlefinger, Margaery, the High Sparrow, and a few others for her to play off. She was complex enough to be an effective secondary character. Now, she has become the central character in the King’s Landing story without becoming better fleshed out, and she is supported only by Qyburn and Euron, who are themselves both one-dimensional.
Secondary or supporting characters don’t need three dimensionality. It doesn’t hurt, but typically the audience doesn’t spend enough time with them to see it. Their role is more to create an environment that lets the main characters shine, and Cersei did that well for characters like Robert, Ned, and Joffrey. When she moved into a more central role without gaining any additional complexity however, the thinness of the character became apparent.