In the writing process, it takes two ideas–rubbing against one another–to make a satisfying premise. In this post, I’m going to give a real-world example.
I don’t know George R. R. Martin, and I would not presume to speak for him. I am, however, willing to speculate about his motives and processes.
It seems to me — and I could be wrong — that Mr. Martin is a fan of the father of the High Fantasy genre, J.R.R. Tolkien. That shared double-R notwithstanding, it’s hard to imagine Martin not feeling some affection for the inventor of his chosen discipline. Not only did Tolkien create the HF subcategory, he also pointed the way to both its virtues and its excesses. High Fantasy stories consist of artificial worlds with elaborate histories, feats of derring-do (upon which the fate of the world generally hangs), a touch of magic, and, of course, an epic scope.
Martin, like so many fantasists before him, has embraced the elements handed down to him by good old J.R.R. His “Song of Ice and Fire” series — which begins with A Game of Thrones — features the made-up continent of Westeros, grand battles to decide the political future of the world, creatures like the undead and dragons, and, as of this writing, five voluminous entries in the saga. He didn’t stop with just those “borrowed” elements, however. No, Mr. Martin threw in a very compelling wrinkle which differentiates his series from many of the pale Tolkien imitations which preceded it.
The protagonist of A Game of Thrones is Eddard Stark, the most principled and noble man in all of Westeros, a true paragon of honor. Stark, dare I say, could’ve been created by Tolkien himself. Here’s the only problem: Stark’s world is not black and white. Though there are others who share his integrity, he’s badly outnumbered. In fact, he’s surrounded by wolves. It’s as though Aragorn, Eddard’s analog from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, had not only the might of Sauron to contend with but also the pettiness and corruption of his fellow Middle Earthers. Under such circumstances, Aragorn probably never would have triumphed and mounted the throne of Gondor.
What I’m saying here is that poor Eddard Stark is outgunned, and ultimately, doomed. It’s the kind of nihilism one rarely finds in books of this kind.
At the risk of oversimplification, I believe Martin must have had two ideas. Allow me to paraphrase the thought process he must have undergone: First he said to himself, “Man, I’d love to do something like The Lord of the Rings“. This notion may’ve percolated in his mind for a while until the second idea occurred to him: “But what if the world of the story was more like the actual medieval Europe and less like the mythologized version found in works like the King Arthur cycle and The Lord of the Rings itself?” This is a nutshell version of “A Song of Ice and Fire” (or at least the portion I’ve read so far). Westeros is a hard place. People die for stupid reasons, people are brutalized, and people are raped. In other words, this ain’t your daddy’s High Fantasy. Personally, I admire Martin’s approach. He’s managed to give us something unique in the genre by returning to the actualities of history. I understand that the author has received some criticism for the circumstances he’s placed his female characters in. Very often they are treated like property with no respect paid to their bodies or their spirits. These critics have, I think, missed the point. I don’t believe Martin is a misogynist pervert; I think he’s giving us a reasonable portrayal of medieval times. Women were not treated well during that period — but, then again, neither were most men.
But I digress. My primary point here was to emphasize the concept of the two-idea approach to story making. I feel confident in my appraisal of Martin’s approach. I believe that the circumstances under which “A Song of Ice and Fire” were born match those outlined above.
Remember: In the writing process, it takes two ideas, cleverly combined, to create a unique and compelling story.