Anyone who’s read more than one fantasy novel or watched the Lord of the Rings on the big screen knows that fantasy tends to be very black-and-white. It normally assumes there are two sides to conflict: Good and evil. Sauron versus the Fellowship. Elves versus trolls. You get the picture.
George R.R. Martin, however, is no ordinary fantasy writer, and that shows through in both his books and the HBO series. While he does have some purely bad guys with few or no redeeming qualities, most of his antagonist characters fall somewhere in the innumerable shades of gray that exist in real life.
His most evil, more purely fantasy-like enemies are barely even seen in the first two books. White Walkers and the Others are his most evil antagonists, and they’re not human. He does drop a few truly awful human characters on us. Joffrey is a cruel, abusive, spoiled punk-turned-tyrrant, and Gregor Clegane–the Mountain that Rides–is a foul human being, as well.
However, most of the major antagonists, the characters making most of the trouble for the Starks and Snows, are a shade or two shy of purely evil.
Take Cersei, for example. While she’s an adulterous, incestuous, conniving, power hungry b-word, Martin gives us glimpses of a softer Cersei. She loves her children above all else, with even Tyrion saying that’s one of her few qualities. Martin also shows us what made Cersei this way: her father’s preference for Jaime, her mother’s death, and her late husband Robert’s neglect. Yes, she’s a bad person, but we see the human side. We know why she is that way.
Jaime is much the same. While he fights for the wrong side, tries to kill Bran, sleeps with his sister, and doesn’t hesitate to kill innocents, he’s also brave, an elite fighter, loyal to his family, and compassionate toward Tyrion, his “half-man” brother.
The mighty Sandor Clegane– the Hound–is a ruthless killer, sent by the Lannisters to brutally eliminate the Lannisters’ enemies. Yet this hired thug shows a soft spot for Sansa and Arya, and we see how it was his brother’s cruelty that made him the monster he is.
In fact, most of Martin’s antagonists are this way–severely flawed, even immoral, but not evil, as a typical fantasy bad guy would be.
This does several things to make GoT the epic story it is. First, it makes the antagonists more identifiable and understandable to the reader. That, in turn, makes them more believable, especially to people who don’t normally read or watch this genre, drawing in new audiences. It’s also incredibly entertaining, making it fun to read the portions written in a bad-guy point of view. Finally, it makes a point that people are rarely black-or-white, and much of the good-bad argument is perspective-based. Martin’s villains stand out to us because they’re real.
The best part of this is that his protagonists–the heroes of his stories–are every bit as flawed and “gray” as his bad guys. And the ones who are too far on the good side don’t tend to live very long.