For a while, I’ve been wondering what makes Game the TV show work as well as it does. The viewership of Game of Thrones has increased each successive year. Something about the show accounts for that. I tried for a really long time to figure something out, beyond the basic stuff. I hadn’t started watching the show up until a few months ago. Then a book gave me what I was missing.
Historically, channels like HBO chose shows with a narrower market than network television. Fewer viewers, but more dedicated viewers. Game of Thrones grew far beyond the expectations. A fantasy series isn’t supposed to have 25 million paid viewers. Something special was there. This is my understanding of what makes Game of Thrones successful.
Most pieces of wildly successful fiction arrive in time to resonate with a trend in society. Take Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. It was released at a point where it could get traction. The thriller genre was filled with long established authors. The readers wanted something new. That desire mobilized a high number of sales. Also, there was a push to talk more about the lives of woman. How the world’s expectations of woman could start to be discussed and deconstructed. The other aspects of its success are probably lost on me. A good story, prior books, and an established voice are all prerequisites, but lucky timing takes a book one step further.
A few events can be inferred as the reason Game of Thrones was so successful. The fear of terrorism is increasing. It seems like every year, some terrorist action takes place. There’s increasing fear of allowing in refugees displaced because of war. Small groups of people have more capability to hurt others. The number of mass shooting around America is troubling. Everything just seems less safe. And Game of Thrones resonates with that uncertainty. The plot of Game of Thrones is basically who should be King. No choice of successor feels right.
This is a time of uncertainty. Russia is making a power play in Ukraine, Syria, and maybe even in America. The United States isn’t as powerful as it once was simply because of the active conflicts we’re involved in at this time. America has been in a continual war since 2001. Then the emergence of China as a superpower and the possibility of India joining that rank somewhere down the line. Such a huge shuffling of power hasn’t happened for a quarter of a century. Again the uncertainty echoes with the story of Game of Thrones.
The power of the internet is finally getting recognized. Everyone now has a voice to say anything they want. It’s highly likely that at least some like-minded people will agree with your voice. We’re in a world where anything can be printed with the authority of a newspaper without any truth based sources. There are so many distractions than ever before, and people are becoming numb to it. We want to go back to a time of less confusion. We want more clarity. That gives rise to the interest in mindfulness and other meditative practices. In the world of Game of Thrones, everything is much clearer. Everyone knows there place, whether Lord, King, or peasant. Everyone has clearer allegiances than in the world we live in. And it’s very difficult for one person to change anything. We find the stability comforting at times. Things changing about when we expect them to.
The threat of hacking is troubling. The average computer user finds the whole thing unnerving. Everything that seems stable could suddenly crumble with a misplaced click. For years, we didn’t really have to worry about computer security. Now, it routinely hits the news. A big company is hacked and customer information is lost. The possibility that hacking played a role in the previous election. Sometimes wouldn’t it be nice if we could see our enemies coming at us? In Game of Thrones, you always see it coming. That’s all I could come up with at the time of writing this.
Recently, I’ve been reading The Mists of Avalon. I found a ton of similarities between the book, Mists of Avalon and the TV show, Game of Thrones. Everything I’ve heard says the show basically follows the plot of the book. Game of Thrones is just a handful of iterations beyond Mists of Avalon as Mists of Avalon is a few iterations beyond Le Morte d’Arthur. Both stories have a similar geographic and political setting. We have a High King or King of the Seven Kingdoms. Then a lot of Lesser Kings or Lords rule under the principle King. We have a wall protecting the Kingdom from Northern invaders. Then finally a horde attacking from across the sea. The Norseman or Dynerays fills that role.
That paradigm has been repeated over and over again throughout history. We have ancient China. The Great wall protected China from the Mongols. South of the Great Wall, we had a country ruled by the feudal system. Then that of Japan before the Meiji Era. Japan had a feudal system sheltered against foreign invaders by the ocean surrounding the island. After the Meiji Era, the feudal period ended. Then the case of India which was largely protected by the Himalayas. India had a feudal system before British colonization/occupation. Then the Greek civilization. Protected by the Alps, they also had a feudal system. I would probably even argue that a feudal system only arises when some wall or natural barrier protects the civilization from frequent outside attack. Nothing unites people better than a common enemy.
Both stories are about the end of polytheism and the beginning of monotheism. In Game of Thrones, we have the Septons as the priests for the Seven Old Gods. The Melisandre for the Lord of Light, the one true God. In Mists, we have the Goddess and the Horned One. They each take on different forms depending on their duties. Then, the God of the Christian faith.
There’s a character that’s capable of uniting people more than anyone else in history. We have King Arthur and Daenerys Targaryen. In Mists, Arthur unites the people of Avalon, the people of the Lesser Kings, the Hill People, and a few other groups. Daenerys has the backing of disaffected people from the Seven Kingdoms, a few of the Dothraki, a mass of freed slaves, a group of mercenaries, and she’ll probably gather more followers before attaching the Seven Kingdoms.
In both pieces of fiction, the side we’re rooting for always loses. The protagonist of Mists is frequently Morgaine or Morgan Le Fey. She is a representative of the Old Religion. In Mists, we know that Christianity ultimately overthrows what came before. Marion Zimmerman Bradley tries giving a positive end through the epilogue, but it still feels like defeat to me. We know it’s going to happen, but the side of the protagonist loses. In Game of Thrones, a few characters seem slightly better than the average. We invariably root for those characters. An idea about Game of Thrones is that the good guys lose and the most ruthless win. We can’t help but want the good people to win. Frequently that doesn’t happen, but we still hope.
We never really know who’s going to survive. That happened once in Mists too. In most TV shows, the show runners always survive. Captain Kirk is never killed unless they can revive him. Usually, disposable characters are invented right before they die. Game of Thrones changes that usual dynamic. Frequently, show runners or major characters are killed off. Granted that only happens in the last two episodes of a season, but one or multiple characters could be on the chopping block. That adds a little excitement whenever there’s a fight. Any blow could mean death.
I think Game of Thrones works because it came at the right time. Society is in such a way that people are drawn to the show this post has been about. And it tells a nearly timeless story. A country feuding on internal matters and forgetting threats from the outside. Good storytelling is of paramount importance. None of the other aspects matter if the story isn’t good in its own right.
The next question is, can that example be used to inform fiction writing? How do we write a story that resonates with society? I think it’s about luck. Writing something within a few months of an event is nearly impossible. I think luck is the only way. Knowing about the trends in society might help. Writing more books helps. Getting out helps. Knowing things helps. Writing different things helps. Getting something published, getting your name out there, finding an audience are all prerequisites of course.
What about writing an ageless story? There are already a few out there. A small force overcoming a bigger enemy. Someone triggering an event accidentally while trying to stop it. Getting people to join a cause and fight by your side. People surviving by hurting others. The darker tendencies that come out under pressure. That alone won’t get you anywhere.
I think I’ll just write what I feel passionate about. Maybe that won’t work so well. But just maybe it will.