Game of Thrones: Little People, Big World
A couple months ago, I wrote about The Mandalorian and one of my favorite parts of the Star Wars universe – the sheer scope of it. There are just SO MANY cultures, so many creatures, so many backstories, so much complexity, that the Star Wars universe at its best feels vast and grand and deep.
Or as I said then:
One of the things that has long puzzled me about the popular writing of the past thirty-ish years is what I call The Scope Problem. The Scope Problem rears its ugly head when we have this freaking mind-blowing world created for us in the first half of a movie or the first few episodes of a show or the first few books in a series, and then all that stuff fades away into the background as the plot starts to take over. No more do we have a wide-open universe where anything is possible. Instead, the story focuses in on a handful of heroes with one single goal, usually defeating a villain who also has one single goal.
The vast horizon of possibilities present at the beginning of the piece shrinks to a few players on a small stage, as if we’re looking at the fictional world not through Imax or Panavision, but through a pirate’s spyglass. Even when (or possibly especially when) our heroes are fighting a Big world-ending Bad, the story ends up feeling pitifully small, even more so when that Big Bad turns out to be shockingly easy to beat.
In Independence Day, for example, despite there being alien spacecraft descending from the clouds all across the globe, the President of the United States and Randy Quaid team up to bring down the Mothership, which is conveniently located right over America, assisted by a computer virus. In The Avengers, a world-threatening hole is opened by Loki right over NYC (not outer Mongolia where no one would have noticed it till after it was too late), and Iron Man blows it up pretty darn easily, putting an end to the Chitauri invasion in one fell swoop. In the Harry Potter series, Lord Voldemort, despite being such a threat to the whole entire world that the British Prime Minister was notified about him, was left to be defeated…by some teenagers at a boarding school. (Where was the bloody RAF?) Buffy the Vampire Slayer had “The First Evil”, the source of all evil in the whole entire world, brought down with relative ease by the Scooby Gang. For all its mystical lore, Lord of the Rings hinged on two hobbits and a hobbit-like creature with specious motives throwing a ring in a volcano. LOST will go down in history as being the lamest thing in ever when this big complicated mystery-filled universe they’d created so spectacularly just ended up being the hallucinations of some dead people or something.
IDK. I try to block that one out.
These supposedly huge and terrible threats that our handful of ragtag heroes spend all this time stressing about are easily defeated by like four people armed with bargain basement technology. The Scope Problem makes a fictional universe feel small and lame to me. And the bigger and more magnificently complicated the universe was to start with, the more of a letdown it is when the scope of the ending is disappointingly puny.
Despite my earlier praise of Star Wars, sadly it has often fallen into the same trap. Luke and Leia are…brother and sister? And their dad is…Darth Vader? And…Anakin built C3PO? And the Death Star…could be defeated by shooting a single bullet? Though they did retcon an explanation for that, I suppose, but…it was thanks to the father of the chick who brought Princess Leia the plans for the Death Star in the first place?
What are there, like 27 people in this universe? And they’re ALL involved in this life or death universe-ending situation that has to be avoided somehow by the exact same 27 people?
LAME. No scope! No scope at all.
Even The Mandalorian itself, which started off so promising, seems to be succumbing the Scope Problem. Boba Fett, Asoka Tano, and then (SPOILER ALERT) Luke freakin Skywalker have all made an appearance, turning a story I thought was about a dude and a Baby Yoda having adventures in a pretty awesome universe, into yet another dispatch about the lives of the Skywalker clan and their chums.
It’s a small world after all, I guess.
I mean, it’s not BAD, exactly, I don’t HATE it, but it just makes this incredibly vast universe Lucas et al created feel like living in a small town where everyone knows what everyone else is doing all the time. “VernaLou, did you hear the news? Leia Organa and Luke Skywalker are actually brother and sister!” “Oh my stars, LeeAnne Marie, and after they kissed when escaping from the Death Star!! Does their father, who is Darth Vader and also built C3PO BTW, know?”
Again I ask, are there 27 people in this universe?
What it is in the human brain that leads writers to create these marvelous fictional universes with what seems to be unlimited amounts of potential, and then not be able to stick the landing? Why is it writers keep going back to the same goshdarn well of sending a paltry handful of people to defeat the greatest evil the universe has ever known?
Let’s ask the master of creating an exquisite fictional universe and not being able to pull off the grand finale – George RR Martin.
I bust George’s chops now and then, and bust his proteges/minions David Benioff and DB Weiss’ chops even more, but the truth is the guy created a freaking world like no other. I’m not completely obsessed with it for no reason, fam. The world of Game of Thrones is rich and varied and full of interesting people, places and things. When you’re in it, it seems mindblowingly huge. Massive scope, phenomenal vision. Even as you, the reader/viewer, are all wound up about the White Walkers coming and what the Lannisters are plotting you know there’s this whole other section of the GoT universe where there’s all this other stuff happening, where people haven’t even heard of the White Walkers, and none of what our main characters are going through matters to any of them.
But as we all know, the dude’s reach outstripped his grasp, and he couldn’t finish the fictional panorama in a timely manner. He had to turn it over to lesser creators, and they dropped the ball, big time.
When it comes to the Game of Thrones TV show, pretty much everyone agreed it was disappointing how unepically the Night King was defeated. The once formidable Cersei Lannister was like a clown show compared to that, and Dany was taken out by a cute boy.
Of course, GRRM was not technically responsible for the mistakes of David Benioff and DB Weiss, but allegedly they were simply following his lead. No matter what happens in the final books, I suspect that the Others will go down with a whimper not a bang, and then Cersei will just be an afterthought on the way to doing in Daenerys.
And why do I think that?? Because pretty much EVERY story with this massively huge world that’s in peril from some terrible dark force being fought by this small band of people ends up feeling small and lame to me. I still hold out hope that GRRM is going to surprise the hell out of me, but not much hope.
After giving The Scope Problem a lot of thought I have concluded it’s gotta be something fundamental about the nature of creating an “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” kind of scenario. At the beginning of the story when the world is wide open, the writer has the freedom to hint at all these marvelous things, drop bread crumbs down lots of different trails, but as human beings, writers are limited to the number of people and plots their brains, let alone their readers’ brains, can handle. What needs to be epic often ends up being lame, because neither writer nor reader can manage to track it all. Eventually the story will, by necessity, end up focusing on a few people coming together to do one or two or a few brave and heroic things.
Shortcuts have to be taken. Maybe those shortcuts come from having all our main characters come from the same village growing up. Maybe they take the form of having the main villain be shockingly easy to defeat. Maybe Anakin really DID have to build C3PO. Regardless, these shortcuts end up cutting a world of endless possibilities down into, “ok here’s the exciting part” and before you know it (to use the earliest example of The Scope Problem I’m aware of) a group of schoolchildren led by Chosen One Ender Wiggin is defeating the species of giant ants known as the Formics, the precocious kiddos thinking the entire thing is just a big video game.
Welp, that was unsatisfyingly easy.
Discovering pat solutions to highly complicated problems is not how things work in the real world. If there’s one thing I’ve learned the last fiveish years or so, it’s that shit is complicated and it isn’t just about one bad guy who is gonna be easy to defeat (sorry to shatter everyone’s illusions here). Whenever a vast and interesting fictional universe boils down into the outcome of one battle or the killing of one villain, it feels SO fictional to me.
There just seems to be some kind of irreconcilable disconnect between creating fictional worlds and then making huge events happen in them. It’s like in its lack of epicness, the huge world-saving event always manages to pull back the curtain and reveal that the world is artificial, an inch deep and a mile wide. Authors just cannot make fictional universes that are as complicated and involved as reality, no matter how hard they try.
Why? Well, try to explain the difference between Seattle and Portland. It’s not very easy to do. There is a difference, we all know there is, but if you were trying to describe the two cities to an alien from another planet who had no concepts of things like liberalism or salmon or “Seattle Nice” or coffee or food trucks you would be hard pressed to do it. There are tons of things in the real world that are close, but no cigar. Cleveland and Cincinnati. Coke and Pepsi. Keira Knightly and Natalie Portman. Potato salad and macaroni salad and spinach salad and fruit salad. HOW TF CAN ALL THESE THINGS BE SALAD? But in the real world, we understand they’re all salad, even if we can’t quite explain the reasons why.
A writer creating a universe has to be able to explain why some of these things are not like the others. That’s what being a writer is fundamentally about – the expressing of inexpressible differences. Capturing in words all those crazy nuances and subtle understandings that we have accrued over a lifetime of existence without even thinking about it. How is poor GRRM supposed to be able to describe the difference between King’s Landing and Highgarden when you can’t even adequately explain why Seattle and Portland are two different places!?!
Let’s take a truly epic good vs. evil scenario IRL like storming the beaches at Normandy to illustrate why creating realistic fictional universes is so hard. In order to fictionalize D-Day, you would rely on the ability of people to understand concepts like “France” and “Germany” and even more obscure things like “Normandy” and “pillbox” and “Higgins boat”. You would expect your audience to be up to speed on the most important individuals involved. The technology of the time, geography of the area, and even things like the religion, language and culture of everyone involved are known by us to some extent.
All that stuff came together to form one moment in time in which some men did a pretty freaking amazing thing.
We know everything we need to know to understand D-Day because we’ve grown up our entire lives hearing about European history and WWII. So when it comes time to learn about that battle we have all that background already there in our brains before we ever start hearing the story of June 6, 1944.
The landing at Normandy was an event of mindboggling scope. Imagine trying to create that kind of scope in a fictional universe. Imagine trying to write a D-Day scenario as a fantasy writer. All that history, geography, religion, culture, and technology would have to be set up in advance of the big battle – and that doesn’t even get into the characters themselves, or the overall plot. But that’s what a writer has to do when it comes down to creating a battle like one of the many battles in Game of Thrones. George RR Martin and everyone involved in the tv show had to basically create the equivalent of D-Day out of thin air, using people, places and things that they had to not only create, but explain to their viewers.
It’s not so hard to understand why most writers would simply imagine D-Day written as a LARP where a handful of Jungian archetypes with some complicated frenemy backstory somehow all managed to survive the beaches against completely overwhelming odds, and for some reason Hitler was at the top of the hill and the most obvious guy offed him. Imagine Saving Private Ryan rewritten as “Chosen One Saves World As We Know It.”
That was the battle of Winterfell, basically.
This is why so many fantasy stories devolve into sagas set in fictional England and involve the occasional visitor from fictional Asia like Khal Drogo, without that much nuance or creativity involved. It’s just easier to fall into the set patterns that already exist in our brains than it is to truly make something from nothing. In a fantasy story like Game of Thrones, everyone rides horses, everyone has a sword, there are kings and queens and noblemen. Because our brains already know and expect those things. You just cannot build a D-Day from nothing, and if you tried, it would probably be so complicated it would be asking too much for your readers to even track it.
The truth is, as much as I see the end of the TV version GoT as a massive disappointment, and as much as I fear the books will let me down even more so because they’ll be so final, I have to admit that George, David, and DB are doing/did something that is quite tough – bringing a vast and complicated world to a satisfactory close for the finite number of characters we’ve gotten to know along the way, without making it feel like microscopically small potatoes.
These two goals – vast and complicated world plus small and intimate characters feel mutually exclusive to me for all the reasons I’ve already mentioned. So much so that I actually hope that writers in general start to move away from the “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” plot in favor of something else. It just doesn’t seem to be possible to pull off ITEOTWAWKI without making that grandiose, intricate world you created in the first part of your story seem lame and amateurish, when the fate of everyone on the whole planet ends up resting on the shoulders of a single besieged building in Northern England, and in the end either Harry Potter or Arya Stark just HAS to be the one who gets the baddie.
Invariably the writer ends up telling a much smaller story than the story he or she was telling at the start, and as a fan, how can you not be disappointed in that?
When it comes to solving The Scope Problem, I think that’s where the answer lies. If you’re going to end up reduced to telling a small story anyway, why not start with that goal in mind? Rather than setting up a plot where an ultimate good is fighting an ultimate evil and the fate of the world hangs in the balance, why not aim at telling a relatively small story against the BACKDROP of an infinite, exciting, extremely complicated world? That way authors don’t ever have to take a step backwards and make their worlds feel smaller in order to bring them to a conclusion. The fictional universe can stay as huge as you want it to be, because your story is reasonable in scope.1
I personally believe that the best ending, of anything, ever, is in a much less assuming piece of fiction than GoT called Toy Story. (After ragging on him in my last piece, I must give Joss Whedon credit where it’s due). In Toy Story, Woody and Buzz don’t end up preventing some supervillain mastermind from killing off all sentient toys, and they don’t unravel the mystery of why toys talk in the first place. They just exist in this weird, cool universe where toys come to life, and in that universe, they want the things they want and those things are totally relatable both within the boundaries of the world, and to us, as human beings. It works so well because the big finale simply entails Buzz and Woody getting back to the boy they both love and working out their differences rather than disarming a nuclear warhead, stopping the Ultimate Evil, or killing the zombie king.
The end of Toy Story is so much more effective than the end of Game of Thrones, because the world stayed big but the characters and story were small enough for both author and audience to wrap their brains around. Even though I know it feels counterintuitive, I truly believe authors trying to make their characters too important within the bounds of their fantasy world end up simply making their world feel smaller without making their characters any more important in the hearts of the audience. I love Buzz Lightyear just as much as I love Arya Stark (if perhaps nowhere near as much as I love Sansa.)
Not every character has to be the Chosen One! Not every character has to be a king! Because in the real world, none of us are that important really – not even kings. Even when it IS the end of the world as we know it, most of us simply fulfill our parts and live out our tiny lives. In real life, there is no one single Chosen One upon whose shoulders rests the fate of the whole universe. In real life, even in times of crisis, there are many people working together to accomplish attainable human goals, sometimes together, sometimes alone, and any one of their individual stories carries with it both scope and intimacy.
Look, this is doable. The Scope Problem is fixable. It can be solved. I believe that the telling of relatable stories in massive fictional universes be done successfully and well (if I didn’t, I would not be a writer at all). But we gotta quit ignoring The Scope Problem or we’ll just end up with more things like Game of Thrones that start off amazing and end with a disappointed “meh”.