I’m just now about halfway through George RR Martin’s A Dance with Dragons. He is a fine writer and has a gift for characterization, but, while I tore through the previous four books (okay, the first three and read the fourth in a week), I’ve found myself stumbling through this fifth in the series. I’ve been trying to pin down why, exactly, and I believe I’ve figured it out: This series isn’t about a person anymore, or even a group of people or two groups of people. It’s about Everyone.
Let me be frank: I don’t care about everyone. I mean that in the context fiction, specifically (primarily, at least, but let’s not delve into my misanthropy just now). No matter how much I get drawn into a work (and Martin really sucked me in with A Game of Thrones), I pin my interests and cares on the main characters, whoever they are, and there my concerns stay. I did not cry when they blew up Alderaan. I did not give a crap when all those dwarves died in Moria. I produced a big shrug when the aliens in Independence Day nuked Los Angeles…
But I cheered when Will Smith’s dog evaded that giant fireball.
A story, to my mind, should be about a character or groups of characters going through a journey that changes them and challenges them. The more characters you have, the harder it gets to keep the reader focused on the story and the harder it becomes to engage them with the characters. Too many irons in the fire; too many cooks in the kitchen. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire has become an unwieldy behemoth of a series, with well over 100 characters. It’s a pretty huge struggle for me to give a crap what happens to them all. There are barely over 100 real people I care about that much.
Let me make this clear, as well: it isn’t that I can’t keep the characters straight. I have a pretty solid memory for things like plot and character – I picked up Dance and started reading after having read the other books many, many years before and was able to keep up just fine. I remember most things of consequence and the stuff I forgot I am reminded of as soon as it comes up again. I’m on top of the narrative – comprehension isn’t the problem.
The problem, I’ve come to realize, is that the only characters I care about – and I stress the word only – are those
characters present in Winterfell when King Robert came to visit in the first book. That’s it – those are my characters. Even Daenerys is, well, only mildly interesting (I was frustrated by her inclusion in the first book, honestly. She got better, but I still wouldn’t give a crap if somebody stuck a knife in her eye…well, aside from the overriding plot repurcussions that might prevent GRRM from reasonably resolving this story, but whatever). Those characters at that castle set the tone for the rest of the series and presented to me all the protagonists and antagonists I’d really care to meet in this world ever.
Now, how many of those characters are still around, keeping us interested? How many of them are still relevant to what is happening in the world at large? How many of them have we even seen in the past book and a half? Yeah, not that many. Two? Three? Screw it, I say. I’m getting bored, and not because the book is badly written (far from it), but because I feel like I’m done here. It’s like watching the playoffs after your team’s been eliminated – why bother? I got plenty of other books to read where characters I like are still involved in the main plot.
This, in the end, is the main cost of writing ‘epic fantasy literature’ in its various forms. The author gets so invested in his world, he forgets why it exists in the first place: To give interesting characters a place to live and strive and die. Take away the characters, or drown them in a sea of unfamiliar faces, and the books lose something essential, something elemental to all storytelling.