Friday, May 10, 2013

Fantasy worlds, characters and costumes - Game of Thrones

I've been reading various interviews with writers who work within the fantasy genre as I'm particularly interested in how they go about constructing these worlds and creating compelling characters to live within them. An influence for me is George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, although admittedly I've not read it yet and have only been following the Game of Thrones TV series. I think the reason I like it so much is because, although set in a sprawling fantasy world broken by war, the episodes themselves mostly revolve closely around the often unstable relationships between characters and their own moral struggles. Visually it demonstrates a great attention to detail in aspects of hair, makeup, costuming and environment design, and many of the costumes are very lavish, but I'll write about that later.

In this interview Martin goes into detail about how he grew up with books, why he especially enjoys the fantasy genre, and about how his career has progressed. He goes on to talk about the overarching theme of war in the series: ‘I’m fascinated by war,’ Martin admits. ‘War brings out the best and the worst in people. Literature of the past used to celebrate the glory of war; then the hippie generation in the 1970s wrote about the ugliness of it. I think there’s truth in both.’

The article says:

"It is the richly imagined female characters in particular that set Martin apart from other fantasy writers, and have won him a legion of female fans; women readers make up slightly more than half of his fanbase, he thinks. ‘It’s one of the things that please me most. I'm lucky that I've got such a big project; it means I can have lots of different types of female characters and so avoid stereotypes, which is what fantasy writers can end up doing.’

The portrayal of female characters in just about any film, game or television series is something I pay a lot of attention to. Fantasy in particular tends to feature heavily stereotyped and sexualised female characters, with armour bikini-clad warrior ladies and mystical sirens all designed to cater to a young male audience. Whilst there is a considerable amount of gratuitous female nudity in Game of Thrones, there are also many well-established women characters who have a range of strengths and weaknesses and who challenge the perceived roles women play in the story's era. 

Cersei Lannister, for example, is physically beautiful, but she is more interested in achieving political power, something which she clearly struggles with. "She resents the customs and conventions put on her because of her gender, but never realizes that people do not come to her or respect her commands because she is an ineffectual leader". (

"Early in the series, Cersei displays some real cunning in handling the political turmoil and intrigues surrounding the death of King Robert and the outbreak of the War of the Five Kings. As the series progresses, however, the more power Cersei obtains, the more she proves herself to be incompetent at handling it; although she has spent most of her life scheming to gain power, she seems to have little idea of what to do with it once she has it.

Her quick temper and her easily wounded pride frequently lead her to make rash decisions, and she rarely considers what unintended consequences her actions might have. She lacks the patience for dealing with the tedious yet vital details of administration, and increasingly tends to avoid facing unpleasant facts, surrounding herself with sycophants rather than honest and competent advisers..."

It is also said that throughout the books, Cersei begins to gain weight due to her abusing alcohol, something which she resented her former husband for. All of these things establish her as a believable and three-dimensional character who is susceptible to the same downfalls as her male counterparts. 

Another character that challenges female stereotypes is Brienne, who "is considered ugly and ungainly, but is immensely skilled at combat. " ( At over six feet tall, she is often mocked by men for her unfeminine looks, when all she wishes for is acceptance and respect for her sense of honour and physical prowess. 

I think I enjoy the scenes featuring Brienne and her journeys with Jaime Lannister the most, as they make a very intriguing, contrasting duo but somehow compliment each other well. Brienne opens Jaime's eyes to the often disgusting treatment of women in Westeros and earns his respect. But, most of all I like the fact that she is one of the very few female warrior characters I've seen with reasonable looking armour...

I'm happy to see female characters in these sorts of stories extending beyond just fantasy fulfilment. They range from preened and beautiful to scruffy and tomboy-ish, and from weak and impressionable to cunning and proud. Of course, all his other characters are well-written as well, and all are very inspiring and interesting to look into and study how to develop the strengths and flaws of a character.

"Unlike many fantasy novels, there is no battle between good and evil, and the moral ambiguity is something Jane Johnson believes has added to the books’ popularity. ‘Even the most monstrous characters have moments of almost-redemption; and the “good” are shown complete with flaws.’ There are no heroes, and no character is guaranteed to live – a fan on counted 223 deaths in the first three books. ‘He’s not scared to kill off or maim key characters,’ she says, ‘so half the time you’re turning pages in terror of losing one of your favourites, and the rest you’re laughing out loud at some neat turn of events or the witty dialogue.’

This 'moral ambiguity' is something I'd like to feature in my fantasy world as well, as I've mentioned in previous posts. I definitely believe that 'monstrous characters seeking redemption' or 'good characters shown with flaws' are the basis of the most interesting character developments, and is the route I'd like to take with my characters' stories.

"Despite the inevitable comparisons to Tolkien, Martin’s world is initially one without much fantasy; only at the end of the first book does he unleash the dragons, which had supposedly been dead for 150 years. Chapter by chapter he drip-feeds more magic – spells, prophetic dreams, people coming back from the dead. ‘Yeah, I bring it up gradually,’ he says. ‘That was a deliberate choice.’ Alongside the fantastical, realism is hugely important to Martin, and something he delivers via intensive research. The top of his tower is filled with history books – the story most closely resembles the War of the Roses. Physical descriptions reflect places Martin has seen – the 700ft-high wall of ice that protects the seven kingdoms is based on Hadrian’s Wall, which he visited in 1981."

This is probably the most intriguing part of Martin's stories, and one that I find very inspiring. Although appearing in many ways as a typical fantasy world, there isn't a great deal of magic, and he focusses more on developing realism. Magic is something that is frightening and largely unknown. Although I won't have the time to research our world's history to great lengths to recreate it with a different, fantasy edge, I would like to take a similar approach to Martin in his portrayal of magic. It changes our usual perceptions of fantasy worlds as enchanting, bright and wondrous places to ones that are dark, dangerous and difficult to survive in. The focus is less on the world at large but more on individual characters as they struggle to get by.

I've also been reading about the show's costume design. A good article is here:
It writes about the designer's process, from creating moodboards, swatches, and gathering inspiration to considering how the character's stories and the overall plotlines inform the look of their outfits. 

For example, Danaerys Targaryen's outfits have evolved over the series as her situation has evolved. 

"In the first two seasons, Daenerys only wore clothes given to her by men, like her brother and husband. After their deaths, she’s on her own in her quest for the Iron Throne. Her new robe is in contrast to the earthy and revealing garments she wore as queen of the Dothraki tribe.

“[The light blue-hooded robe] is a good example of Dany adopting ideas from those around her now rather than directly copying them,” says Clapton. “ The robe is a way to protect herself from the sun and to appear more modest. As she develops, we try to give her more ways to express herself, more facets to her character.”

For Cersei:

The beleagu ered queen, currently in an unexpected position of weakness, is now accessorizing with armor. Adding delicate neck and chest plates to her opulent gowns, it’s clear that Cersei knows that her enemies lurk everywhere.

“It’s partly to do with the visual battle between her and Margaery, her son’s new bride. Margaery is incredibly disarming in some ways, although of course we know she’s not. She wears very little and it’s a very young, inspired look,” Clapton says about the difference between Tyrell’s trendsetting look and the queen’s old-fashioned glamour. “Cersei, to battle it, tries to dress in a more regal and heavy way. It’s a way of backing Cersei, visually, into a corner.”

There are a huge range of wonderfully detailed costumes in this series, all of which are relevant to their characters and express to some subtle extent their thoughts, feelings and intentions. Thinking of how an outfit does this, and extends beyond just being functional, certainly creates a more interesting character design and is something I will be thinking about during my character design process. 

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