Character Groups: What George R. R. Martin Taught Me


I’ve been getting writing lessons from George R. R. Martin lately— OK, I’ve been binge-reading the Game of Thrones series. (I’ve never seen the TV show except for a few minutes when HBO had a free preview. Didn’t care for it at the time.)

The main thing I’ve learned so far is actually from an appendix of Book One (A Game of Thrones) in which it lists characters by which families they are associated with. There’s House Baratheon, House Stark, House Lannister, House Arryn, House Tully and more. Not only are the family members listed, but also their servants, knights, bannermen and the lesser houses connected to them.

In my own current WIP, I’ve come to realize I need to work on forming sets of characters like this myself— for two different kingdoms, Schwalenland, and a neighboring, poorer kingdom called Ruthenia where my protagonist goes into exile, hidden from the tyrannical king who kills her parents, her father’s dragon, and his own wives, whenever he wants a different one.

For Schwalenland, writing lists of the noble houses and other noble families is part of the worldbuilding. For Ruthenia, it’s important because my protagonist will be meeting different Ruthenian noble families, including, eventually, the Tsar-Autocrat of Ruthenia, who is also the Postmaster of a postal service which uses firebirds to get messages across the land (to the few Ruthenians who can read.)

Character groups are not only important in sweeping fantasy fiction series. Even in a contemporary mystery novel, your character may interact with a group of characters in a workplace, another group in the home environment, and other groups in places associated with solving the mystery.

I’ve realized that NOT thinking about the character groups I shall need, and creating them, slows down my progress on the WIP. I’m trying to take time to create a few of the character groups I shall need. For my Ruthenian characters, since Ruthenia was settled by small groups from the different Slavic-language-speaking countries, I have to research names typical of Ukrainian, Serbo-Croatian, Russian, Polish, Czech and other Slavic groups, and find names for the noble estates as well. And work out the economic resources of the different estates. House Pavliuk has a copper mine, vicuna wool, and rare types of wood valued by woodworkers.

One creepy thing about the mass-market paperback edition of the books I am reading— among the endorsements by other fantasy writers they include one by MARION ZIMMER BRADLEY. Whose daughter Moira Greyland has interesting things to say about the abuses inflicted by MZB and her husband, Walter Breen, a convicted pedophile. MZB is no longer someone whose endorsement would be respected by anyone, I am afraid. (I used to be an obsessive Darkover fan, but now I can see too much of the real MZB in some of the stories.)

Comment: How do you create character groups for your fiction? Do you create them in advance or as you need them? Do you have any good tricks for doing it?

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