Inside the House of Black and White
Making Gray Characters
To talk about creating gray characters, let’s talk about Jaime, perhaps the series’ grayest. I’ve written at length about him before. Here my point is briefer: Martin makes us believe he’s gray by showing how, to the light characters, he’s dark, and to the dark, light. To sweet Bran and admirable Ned, he’s nasty. But when it comes time to make him a good guy, he starts to play the white knight. He castigates Meryn Trant for abusing Sansa at Joffrey’s behest. He loses his hand to the monster Vargo Hoat for protecting Brienne.
Jaime is consistent in these dynamics. He always thinks Meryn Trant is a shitheel, he’s always disgusted by Hoat. He’s right to do so – both men are reprehensible – but that means these “heroic” positions are easily taken, which doesn’t strike me as real complexity. His relationships with Tyrion, Cersei, and Brienne are closer to the mark, and his relationship to his own myth is the most honest and interesting of all.
The difference between these two sets of relationships is the difference between halftone and continuous tone gray. In halftone printing, no gray ink is used. Instead, tiny dots of pure black are applied to the white background at varying densities, and our eye does the mixing. That’s what I’m talking about with Jaime’s less complex relationships: he is light and then he is dark, side by side, discretely, and his grayness is an average.
This halftone gray works: it’s undeniably interesting to hear that Richard Kuklinski, “The Iceman”, a mob assassin with a huge bodycount, was a normal family man. Or that Lance Armstrong, the heroic cancer survivor, was a cheat. Tabloids stay in business on the strength of our fascination with these contradictions in the human spirit. And good literary fiction can play on that same fascination (though usually with less sensationalist figures). One particularly effective example from AGOT is Catelyn’s cold relationship with Jon, culminating in her horrifying line at Bran’s sickbed, “It should have been you.” There’s a spot of darkness in an otherwise light character, and it does a lot to deepen her: the reader has to reconcile this behavior.
But there’s another way to make gray, which would be the continuous tone. If you zoom in on a digital monochrome photo, you don’t see black dots, but pixels assigned a shade of gray. To convert the analogy back to narratology, that gray is the result of black and white mixing within the character, not something we assign from without. It’s the gray of ambivalence, conflicting impulses. We see it when Tyrion learns the truth about Tysha and lashes out at Jaime, who was once his hero.
“You poor stupid blind crippled fool. Must I spell every little thing out for you? Very well. Cersei is a lying whore, she’s been fucking Lancel and Osmund Kettleblack and probably Moon Boy for all I know. And I am the monster they all say I am. Yes, I killed your vile son.” He made himself grin. It must have been a hideous sight to see, there in the torchlit gloom.
Jaime turned without a word and walked away.
Tyrion watched him go, striding on his long strong legs, and part of him wanted to call out, to tell him that it wasn’t true, to beg for his forgiveness. But then he thought of Tysha, and he held his silence.
Ambivalence is subtle, complex, realistic – doesn’t mean it’s always the right move. There’s plenty of room for the halftone, and the value of a true-black villain is fantastic. The wider the range between the blackest black and the whitest white, the more room there is for the rest of the characters to be arrayed upon the interval between. That’s why we can use characters like the mad king Aerys, and the right honorable Ned Stark. One is so corrupted and cruel, the other nearly inhuman in his rectitude, and there’s Jaime caught in the middle: gray and fascinating.
We should spend a little more time on that Jaime-Aerys-Ned drama, because it shows one more technique for creating gray: by exploiting a disparity between deed and intent. How do we judge someone whose good intentions causes harm? Or someone who does a good thing for selfish reasons? Jaime’s particularly bitter about the topic, because he is by any rational calculation a hero: he slew the wicked king. But, as we all know, kingslayers are not popular. Well, what if the king is a monster? Can folk wisdom account for that? Aerys braised Ned’s father in a suit of armor and contrived for Ned’s brother to strangle himself on a cord in a futile attempt to save his dad. Afterwards, Jaime gets a pep talk from Gerold Hightower
“‘You swore a vow to guard the king, not to judge him.’ That was the White Bull, loyal to the end and a better man than me, all agree.”
Which is a good example of how a code can lead to heinous complicity, even if it usually binds you to a righteous path. In Ned’s case, his loyalty to his sister Lyanna comes at the expense of his wife and Jon. His loyalty to Robert comes at the expense of his brother and father (and Jaime, though of course that doesn’t matter to Ned).
“Aerys…” Catelyn could taste bile at the back of her throat. The story was so hideous she suspected it had to be true. “Aerys was mad, the whole realm knew it, but if you would have me believe you slew him to avenge Brandon Stark…”
“I made no such claim. The Starks were nothing to me. I will say, I think it passing odd that I am loved by one for a kindness I never did, and reviled by so many for my finest act. At Robert’s coronation, I was made to kneel at the royal feet beside Grand Maester Pycelle and Varys the eunuch, so that he might forgive us our crimes before he took us into his service. As for your Ned, he should have kissed the hand that slew Aerys, but he preferred to scorn the arse he found sitting on Robert’s throne. I think Ned Stark loved Robert better than he ever loved his brother or his father… or even you, my lady. He was never unfaithful to Robert, was he?”
But Ned is just like Gerold Hightower. He places more stock in oaths than ethics, and his obession with justice is ultimately subordinate to his feelings, just like anyone else. For his crimes against Ned’s family, Ned would likely approve of Aerys getting beheaded in the old way, with his cheek pressed to an ironwood stump as a proper judge sentences him to die. But Jaime killed his liege without ceremony or the say-so of a higher power, and that rankles him.
And this is why Ned is interesting. In another sort of book, Ned would just be a good father and a loyal right-hand man. In ASOIAF, it’s tough to stay a pure hero, because Martin relentlessly denies his characters the dilemmas that allow for heroism, the ones with easy, black and white choices. Maester Aemon says precisely this in his “love is the bane of honor” speech.
A craven can be as brave as any man, when there is nothing to fear. And we all do our duty, when there is no cost to it. How easy it seems then, to walk the path of honor. Yet soon or late in every man’s life comes a day when it is not easy, a day when he must choose.
The dilemmas Martin presents to his cast have outcomes that will be black to some, white to others, which is easy to do when you have as many competing interests as he does. Jaime knows all about this:
So many vows… they make you swear and swear. Defend the king. Obey the king. Keep his secrets. Do his bidding. Your life for his. But obey your father. Love your sister. Protect the innocent. Defend the weak. Respect the gods. Obey the laws. It’s too much. No matter what you do, you’re forsaking one vow or the other.