One of the things that hooked readers (and show watchers) so quickly with the series is the richness of the world GRRM created. World building is also one of those incredibly challenging things that is daunting even for otherwise talented writers. I started this post intending to go into about five different elements of world building, but ending up so far down this particular rabbit hole that I figured it just needs to be its own discussion. I’ll try to get to the others soon, but apparently if you sit outside in the sun long enough with a couple of
Natty Bohs Fearsomely Strong Ciders, you run out of energy real quick, so I’m going to stick just to a single point of world building for now.
Nobody Poops In The Movies
It’s a common trope in literature that we rarely see people doing simple daily tasks like bathing, taking a dump, or washing the dishes. It’s easy to say that stuff’s just boring. We’re not watching a movie to see the normal life of a person, we want to see the extraordinary bits. That can be fine in a popcorn-stuffing action flick or a romcom, but it doesn’t work in the fantasy genre where world building is a necessity. This isn’t limited to fantasy (the fact that Manhattan is so much hotter than Long Island in the summer is a significant detail in The Great Gatsby), but any time the world of the story is unfamiliar to the audience, more time has to be spent establishing it. We don’t need to know how much in rent John McClane (Die Hard) pays every month. We do need to know how a hedge knight gets by.
Rather than gloss over matters of daily life and mundane logistics, GRRM highlights them. We know that there are crabbers in the Watch at Eastwatch by the Sea. We know the crabs are shipped packed in ice. We know at Castle Black they struggle for fresh mutton. We see Jon doing chores (spreading gravel atop the Wall). When Jon deserts Castle Black, he knows he needs to steal clothes to disguise himself, and will lose time on his trip because he’ll have to hunt for food along the way. Ned is given only water, no food, while imprisoned in the Black Cells, and while there he loses all sense of time. Sansa refuses to eat while mourning the death of her father.
Traveling along the King’s Road is made more difficult by inns being filled with knights headed to the Hand’s Tourney. Traveling in the Mountains of the Moon is a death sentence without a large armed guard. Ships are not always immediately available to go where a traveler wants. Travel by sea is perilous during the Autumn. Travel by land in the North is impossible in the Winter. People notice when a large household begins packing up its things. Horses tire, and die when pressed too hard. Inexperienced riders suffer after a long day atop a horse.
Armies cannot stay idle for too long, or else they’ll strip the land of food. Among the soldiers are foraging parties, and scouts are sent ahead — often to kill the opposing scouts. Information doesn’t freely travel among commanders, and the information that does come is often incomplete or inaccurate.
In ASOIAF, people take baths. Half a fat pigeon can be traded for a dubious bowl of brown. People have to build fires — or in some cases refrain from building a fire. Travel at night is a great way to get injured. Injuries hurt, wounds can fester, and diseases can cause diarrhea.
More Than World Building
The mundane things, far from being less interesting, are actually what draws the reader in. Not only does it allow the reader to truly understand what this fantasy world is like, it allows them to project themselves into it. Many stories entertain us, and we find plenty of fantasy settings enthralling, but it is a rare work which leaves the reader day dreaming about what their life would be like in that world.
With the Star Wars universe, if you imagine yourself a Han Solo type of smuggler, your thoughts immediately go to what type of ship you might have, the ship you’re hoping to buy next, and how much work it’ll take to get it. You can imagine your crew, and why they’re with you in the first place — are they hired crew, business partners, droids, or are you a member of someone else’s crew? Are you wanted, and if so, by whom and which planets does this mean you must avoid, what ports are still safe? Who do you go to for work? Have you made contact with the Rebels, and if so, why do they trust you? If you work for the Hutts, how did you manage to earn your first job? With Harry Potter we learn enough about different classes, and homework, and detention, and meals in the Great Hall that we can easily imagine what house we’d be sorted into, the classes we’d excel at, and what presents we’d hope to get at Christmas.
Star Trek: The Next Generation, by contrast, is a fantastic show but it often glosses over the mundane things. It’s easy to imagine the argument we might give in Data’s defense in The Measure of a Man, or how we would act if given the chance to wipe out the Borg, or if we’d have been clever enough to uncover the truth in The Survivors and how we’d respond to it. Next Generation does a fantastic job with inviting the viewers to engage in the show’s philosophical questions, but it lacks when it comes to imagining yourself as anything less than the ship’s captain (though to be fair, no one really wanted more Barclay episodes). TNG actually intentionally dodges the mundane issues; warp speed allows near instantaneous travel, replicators provide food, clothes, etc, and scanners immediately provide a wealth of information (except when the plot needs them to not do so). This allows the show to focus on the ethical dilemmas and philosophical questions, and the sacrifice seems necessary for serialized 45 minute stories. Compare with Deep Space Nine, which spends more time on the day to day normal parts of life, and consequently it’s easier to imagine yourself in any number of roles on the station.
When The Mundane Is Consequential
What sets the world of A Song of Ice and Fire truly apart from many others is the degree to which the mundane parts of life matter. As fun as Star Wars is, it’s not really of much consequence how many droids Uncle Owen needed before he could stand to do without Luke’s contribution to the farm. It never really matters what the kids are eating in the Hogwarts Great Hall or how long of an essay they need to write.
In ASOIAF though, the dangers of the High Road help drive the plot. The mechanics of the kingdom’s debts and its further ability to borrow money constrains the characters’ choices. The Frey’s monopoly over crossings on the Green Fork not only sets up the tragedy at the Red Wedding, but much earlier also prevents Tywin Lannister from being able to reinforce Jaime’s forces once the Stark plan is discovered. The distance between Pentos and Vaes Dothrak drives Viserys into folly and suicide.
This helps to explain much of the disappointment with the final seasons of Game of Thrones. For years (and books, and seasons) we’ve been told these mundane things which many other series ignore in favor of the more extraordinary elements are meaningful. Then suddenly the rules changed and characters could safely teleport around the world and it didn’t matter that the Unsullied had to march across the Reach without a guide and after the Lannisters drained all the grain stores. Were it Star Trek, where we’re told from the start that travel is fast and common daily struggles are a thing of the past, we’d go along with it. But, when the story so painstakingly tells us that mundane details are at the heart of the story, you cannot then cut out the heart.