Full disclosure: I’m a Game of Thrones cheater. I came late to the party. I read all sorts of spoilers while I was pretending that I would never watch/read/follow the story, so I know more than I ought to. Here are my only-kinda-legit credentials: I’ve read the first book, about one-third of the second, and (shhhh) hardly any other fantasy books other than Narnia and Harry Potter and the Frostblood series by Elly Blake.
I’ve seen four seasons of the show, because I can only watch when my middle school boys are out of the house. They’re at the age when GoT is a lot less about thrones and a lot more about boobs. Naked boobs. I’m not ready for the level of awkward that is watching Littlefinger give exposition speeches in a room full of frolicking whores with my thirteen-year-old son.
Given that I am in possession of illegal spoilers, I’m aware that many of you are going to want to fight me on behalf of Sansa Stark, because yes, this post is about Sansa Stark.
Four seasons worth of Sansa Stark.
Four seasons of a character who is clearly intended to be one of the good guys but instead makes my blood boil every time I see her. Game of Thrones has demonstrated many inventive and gory ways to kill people and I’ve imagined Sansa at the receiving end of every one of them. I hate Sansa Stark. Why?
BECAUSE SHE NEVER DOES ANYTHING. She has no agency. Things happen to her. Occasionally if pressed she will issue a bitter but yet tepid remark. So far, she's been engaged to one sadist, married to a man old enough to be her father who is in love with her maid, and kidnapped by a creepy dude who is happy to pretend she is her mother. After all that, she still has so little agency, I'd be surprised to see her squash a spider.
There are a lot of ledges and cliffs and castle heights in Game of Thrones. People are always having conversations at the edge of these, usually with Sansa, and usually with some intent to harm her. Joffrey takes Sansa up to a ledge to look at her dad’s bodiless head on a pike. She thinks about Joffrey hitting the ground, but no. Cersei takes her to the waters’ edge to torment her. Shae feeds her breakfast on a balcony. Littlefinger stands at the edge of the Moon Door.
SHE NEVER PUSHES ANY OF THESE PEOPLE OVER THE EDGE.
Think for a second, just one second, about how much more of a badass Sansa would be if she did this. Arya would be a tame little kitten by comparison. Game of Thrones would have been a very different show if she’d just given one of those monsters a tiny push. I have worn out my rooting rooter trying to send her telepathic messages to just shove out a hip ONE TIME.
Okay, you get the idea. Yes, I know (or have heard) that her arc gets better. I’m only four seasons in. I hear Sansa matures into someone tougher. That she’s supposed to be naïve, gentle, reactive, self-protective, et cetera. It doesn’t change the fact that as a viewer AND as a reader, a character with lack of agency will drive you crazy.
I’m a writer. There was a time when I thought this “characters must have agency” thing was a crock. It wasn’t realistic. Real people aren’t always out there taking the bull by the horns, I said. Most people are just people who have things happen to them. What’s wrong with writing about everyday people?
Everything, that’s what. Agency drives interest and connection. It makes you root for a character. Whenever Arya or Cersei or Tyrion comes on the screen, I sit up straighter. I know I’m going to watch someone DO something, however twisted. Bran, a paraplegic, has figured out a way to do things. Jon does things. Robb and Ned and Catelyn did things. Danaerys does things. Even Ramsey and Tywin do things.
Sansa, however, raises my blood pressure by letting everything happen to her. If Game of Thrones starred only Sansa, I’d have given up long ago.
Be smart about your characters and their agency. Don’t lose your audience before you start.