In the recently released George R. R. Martin interview with Rolling Stone writer Mikal Gilmore, Martin said that “Both as a writer and as a reader I like stories that surprise me” adding that “The moment the reader begins to believe that a character is protected by the magical cloak of authorial immunity, tension goes out the window.”
But how important is tension to a book? One of the things Martin seems to be rather proud of is how he kills off characters in his A Song of Ice and Fire saga, upon which the Game of Thrones is based. He kills off characters that he cares about and seems to like it that his fans can never know if a character is safe or not. This certainly adds to the tension and to his originality, as he turns expectations upside down, wanting “to remove the certainty” for his characters and, through them, his readers. He relates the moment when Bran Stark is killed, noting that “You don’t expect something like that to happen to him. So that was successful.”
Yet successful writing is more than a numbers game, tallying up a certain number of deaths per book to achieve tension or impact. Jane Austen’s works, which have had tremendous impact and garnered an international following over the centuries since her death, have very few deaths. Characters die before the books, and we are told of their deaths in some of the closing chapters of the books (most notably, Dr. Grant’s death in Mansfield Park, which is mentioned in a summarized epilogue of sorts at the end of the book), but besides the death of Mrs. Churchill in Emma, I cannot think of a single death that occurs to a character in the course of the narrative itself.
And successful writing is more than being ingenious or original. I think too often, modern writers make originality too important, trying too hard to write something that hasn’t been written, when we have reached the point in the history of novels when originality is increasingly difficult to achieve. It can still be achieved, of course, but the question now is whether it is worth achieving. Can it only be achieved by killing off more characters, being more gruesome, more detailed, more gory than previous writers have been? And if so, is it worth it?
J. R. R. Tolkien has some interesting thoughts on this subject. He writes: “[W]e must not in our day be too curious, too anxious to be original. For we are older: certainly older than our known ancestors. The days are gone, as Chesterton said, when red, blue, and yellow could be invented blindingly in a black and white world. Gone also are the days when from blue and yellow green was made, unique as a new colour. We are far advanced into Chesterton’s third stage with its special danger: the danger of becoming knowing, esoteric, privileged, or pretentious; the sate in which red and green are mixed…we cannot go much further, in the vain desire to be more ‘original’. If we add another colour the result is likely to be much like mud, or a mere dead slime.” He then quotes Chesterton as saying “The offspring of the Missing Link and a mule mated with the child of a manx-cat and a penguin would not outrun the centaur and the griffin, it would merely lack all the interesting features of man and beast and bird: it would not be wilder but much tamer, not fantastic but merely shapeless.”
I think perhaps this is where we are. In our struggle to be original, we either become boring, or we must push ourselves past any boundaries that held back previous writers—boundaries like tact, tastefulness, or morality—into the further horror and depravity, when the true antidote is to just attention to the components of good writing. The works of authors like Jane Austen or Shakespeare or Tolkien are not notable primarily for their originality but for their skill, the way they combined elements that had already been done into something different, into a new composition with a balance and grace of its own.
To quote Tolkien again, “Each leaf, of oak and ash and thorn, is a unique embodiment of the pattern, and for some eye this very year may be the embodiment, the first ever seen and recognized, though oaks have put forth leaves for countless generations of men. We do not, or need not, despair of painting because all lines must be either straight or curved. The combinations may not be infinite (for we are not), but they are innumerable.”
Copyright 2014 Andrea Lundgren Photo courtesy of gratisography