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Character Arcs-how far is too far?

Whether it’s in books, films or TV shows, one of the things we enjoy most about stories are the characters within them. Whilst we like being able to identify with the characters due to specific traits (like personality or appearance) most characters do grow over time, adding realism and depth to their personas. Yet the question remains: how much should a character develop before they completely change from the character you fell in love with in the first place?

As someone who enjoys Game of Thrones, I decided to turn to the show to find my answer. For those who don’t know, Game of Thrones is an incredibly popular HBO TV show based off of the novels created by George RR Martin. It is a fantasy story that ran for 8 seasons and contains multiple narratives and character arcs that run concurrently, eventually all converging at a finale. Fans got to witness incredible growth and throughout the many twists and turns, saw their favourite characters reach a conclusion in their arcs. However, the reason why the show has been a controversial topic is because of the level of satisfaction (or lack thereof) of said conclusions. A prime example of this would be Daenerys Targaryen.

A quick warning, there will be spoilers ahead for people who have not watched the show or read the books. When we are first introduced to Daenerys Targaryen in Season 1 of Game of Thrones, she and her brother, Viserys, are the exiled children of ‘Mad King’ Aerys Targaryen, who was murdered and usurped during Robert Baratheon’s Rebellion. They are forced to live on the other side of the world from their rightful place in King’s Landing, and have very few people who they can trust. Daenerys is beautiful and intelligent but unfortunately, finds her fate to be in the mercy of other people, notably her harsh brother Viserys and Khal Drogo, the leader of the Dothraki who is soon to become her husband. In the viewers’ eyes, she is painted as an underdog, helpless to the situation she finds herself in, but still likeable. By the end of the first season, her dragon eggs (which Targaryens are famous for having) hatch as she symbolically, and literally, emerges from the flames of her old life. It is from here that the seeds of hope are planted. From then on, we begin to identify with Daenerys’ righteousness as she travels from city to city liberating slaves and prisoners, whilst punishing those who have oppressed them. A quote of hers that resonates with me is ‘I will answer injustice with justice!’ What makes her character stand out even more is the contrast with other characters in the show, especially those who seem to care little for innocents. Cersei Lannister is a prime example of this. In season 6, Cersei blows up the Sept of Baelor, a huge religious monument that contained most of her enemies. However, the explosion also killed an immeasurable number of civilians, all of which happened whilst Cersei looked on with a smile on her face. Her character is perfectly summed up in her quote from season 1, ‘When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die!’

As the seasons progress, Daenerys amasses a notable army and finally crosses the Narrow Sea to get back to Westeros. From here, she makes more allies and begins to draw up battle plans. When Olenna Tyrell suggests that Daenerys should storm King’s Landing with her dragons, Daenerys says ‘I’m not here to be queen of the ashes.’ Once again, even with her goal in sight, we are reminded that Daenerys has no desire for needless slaughter. She joins forces with Jon Snow and goes out of her way to help assist him in his fight against the Night King and his White Walkers. She falls in love with Jon and he pledges his loyalty to her. When we reach the final season of Game of Thrones, Jon learns of a secret that has grave consequences for everyone in Westeros: he is the son of Rhaegar Targaryen, Daenerys’ oldest brother who was murdered during Robert’s Rebellion. This makes Jon the rightful heir to the Iron Throne, instead of Daenerys. When he tells this to Daenerys, we can see that it has left her unbalanced. After they defeat the White Walkers, Daenerys desperately pleads with Jon to keep this new discovery as a secret. She explains that she is not loved amongst the people of Westeros in the same way he is and fears that even though he does not want the throne, public opinion will shift to him regardless. From here, we see change and doubt beginning to form within Daenerys character, which is understandable, but given the time frame does not completely justify what she does next. Daenerys eventually gets Cersei to surrender Kings Landing (only after Cersei executed Daenerys’ close friend Missandei and allowed the two armies to fight) However, this doesn’t seem to be enough for Daenerys, who suddenly snaps and rains fire on all of King's Landing with her dragon, killing enemies and civilians alike. This move is very shocking to watch and is equally shocking to her companions, as she has now become the very thing she swore she wouldn’t be: a queen of the ashes! In the last ever episode of Game of Thrones, Daenerys and her army stand victorious amongst the devastation. She gives them a rousing speech and later on in the throne room, she is visited by Jon. She optimistically reaches out to him, requesting that he help her run the world by her side. Her dream is cut short very suddenly as Jon plunges a knife into her chest, clearly scared by the threat she possesses to the realm. Daenerys’ character arc comes to an end with the same tragedy with which it began, seeing as she never actually manages to sit down on the Iron Throne.

Needless to say, this turn of events did not sit well with fans, and it’s plain to see why. A story as immense as Game of Thrones allows for change and development for the characters on an enormous scale. Daenerys went from an exiled princess, to a beloved Messiah figure for the disenfranchised, to a conqueror and finally to a mad queen! The issue lies with how quickly that last transformation happened. As stated earlier, Daenerys was not afraid to use brutal tactics but it was always as a final necessity or as a response to a great injustice. In the space of a few episodes, Daenerys threw her morality out of the window and became as evil as the tyrants who opposed her at every turn, thus rendering the interesting contrast between her and Cersei Lannister null and void. Now, I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it would be impossible for her to end up that way, in fact many people were counting on it. However, the fact remains that the show could have reached that conclusion naturally through a longer narrative. It had the budget and the demand for it, after all.

Another interesting thing to consider about Game of Thrones is the nature of the character development. The show has no shame in its subversion of expectations, something which it has been praised for in the past. The hero doesn’t always win in the end and the line between good and evil is blurred when it comes to the matters of personal survival. This layer of realism adds extra depth to the character’s personalities and as a writer, I admire the way the show handles it. However, I don’t think that this technique should get in the way of good storytelling. Jamie Lannister for example, is first perceived to be a selfish, arrogant man who only cares for his sister. Over the course of the show, the audience identifies with him more as he reveals he gained his moniker of ‘King Slayer’ due to him realising how dangerous the Mad King truly was and that if he hadn’t have killed him, many more innocents would have perished. This gets somewhat turned on its head when he eventually joins up with Cersei again and remarks to his younger brother Tyrion, ‘I never much cared for the people, innocent or otherwise.’

I suppose that the key thing to take away would be that the best type of character development is the one that occurs naturally. Even if the audience didn’t see it coming from a mile away, once they look back, they should be able to justify the transformation in their heads.

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Alex Ransome
Alex Ransome
22. Nov. 2019

Couldn't have said it better myself. In my opinion, when the showrunners ran out of source material they didn't know what to do. They had a vague idea of where the story was supposed to end, courtesy of notes from the author George R. R. Martin, but didn't know how to connect those dots together that would make it all cohesive.

Like you said, they had all the time in the world and all the demand they could possibly hope for, but instead chose to shoot themselves in the foot and end the show prematurely. This could have all been avoided if they split the last season in two. The first would resolve the Night King plot line and introduce…

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