Expectation subversion has been very trendy amongst writers in recent years, ever since Game of Thrones made it cool. So cool, in fact, that Rian Johnson seemed to use it as the entire basis of his plot in The Last Jedi, and it can be such an effective tool for surprising and shocking audiences, it’s really no, er, surprise that it’s become so popular.
The most famous (or infamous) moment of expectation subversion in the last ten or so years is, without doubt, the beheading of Ned Stark in Game of Thrones. Writers’ groups still delight in laughing at the Twitter commentator who came late to the show, Tweeting his confident expectation after one episode that Ned would end up sitting on the Iron Throne. It shocked audiences, who were told throughout that first season that Ned was their hero, the man they would follow throughout the show, only for him to be dead by the end of episode nine. And not even in a blaze of glory, but kneeling meekly on the ground, unarmed, without even an attempt to fight back. It marked out Thrones as something different, a show where beloved characters could be killed off at a moment’s notice, with little or no warning.
Ned was a classic Noble Hero-type character, brave and selfless, a man who puts the interests of the realm (or in his case, upholding the laws of the land) before his own. In traditional high fantasy, such characters (Aragorn in Lord of the Rings is the shining example) usually inspire others to follow them through their bravery and selflessness, rallying together a disparate group of followers that win the day against overwhelming odds, just by being so noble. Ned’s death tells us that This Isn’t One Of Those Stories. Looking out for Number One in Westeros is the only way to get ahead. If you don’t, you lose your head.
It’s a smart bit of worldbuilding by George RR Martin, showing us early what kind of universe his stories are taking place in. It’s gritty, it’s dark, any one of the characters could die at any moment. It parallels the real world, where the good guys don’t always win. Audiences do love to be shocked, so Ned’s death, more than anything else in Thrones’ first season, marked it out as something different.
Then the audience started to get bored when Martin kept repeating the trick.
One of the most common complaints about horror writing (bear with me, this is going somewhere) is that all the characters are stupid and make dumb decisions. Horror writers are, of course, well aware of this, and it’s a common horror trope to kill off the only sensible character in the group early in the story, often while they’re trying to do something sensible. It’s known as Death by Pragmatism. The other characters are intentionally stupid, otherwise the story would never happen. And, to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with this, every genre has its tropes and cliches that writers have to rely on to allow the plot to happen. Crime writing relies so heavily on alcoholic maverick detectives that there’s a joke about a writer pitching a strait-laced cop who does everything by the book as a radical new idea. The death of the sensible character in horror is intended to A) get rid of the person in the group who could make smart decisions and keep them safe, and by killing them off whilst doing something sensible, B) demonstrate that being sensible won’t keep the group safe anyway. It serves the same function as the death of the Noble Hero in Game of Thrones, establishing the rules of the universe for the audience. Being the smart one doing something sensible doesn’t keep you safe in horror; being the noble brave one doing something selfless doesn’t keep you safe in Game of Thrones.
The idea of Death by Pragmatism, though, is that you only need to do it once. George RR Martin just keeps doing it, and it gets boring after a while. He’s not the only author either, it’s a fairly common trope in dystopian narratives to both kill off Noble Heroes early in the narrative, and then to keep on doing it. It’s present throughout the Hunger Games, for one well-known example. I’m going to talk more about David Peace’s Red Riding quartet in this post, for three reasons. Firstly, I’m more familiar with it than I am with the Hunger Games, secondly, Peace was heavily inspired by James Ellroy’s LA Quartet which I’m also very familiar with and which manages to avoid this trope, and thirdly, this is supposedly a crime-writing blog (talks loudly over complaints and people pointing at the many non-crime related posts) so I should probably use crime series.
Just know that I see you, Suzanne Collins. Every time someone tries to do something remotely selfless in the Hunger Games, they get something unpleasant as a result. Especially if their name is Peeta.
Ned Stark may be the first Noble Hero to die in Game of Thrones but he certainly isn’t the last. His son Robb Stark also fits the archetype, so does his… fuck it, if you’ve not seen it by now this is on you, so does his nephew Jon Snow, in some respects so does Dany, and all of them end up being given a kicking by the narrative for it. Ned and Robb die as a result of being noble, Jon Snow is also killed but gets resurrected but then gets exiled, and Dany is driven mad by the constant rejection of her efforts to be noble. Ned tries to prevent Joffrey, the result of incest between Queen Cersei and her brother and not the son of King Robert, from taking the throne, even alerting Robert’s brother Stannis (whom he doesn’t even like) to Joffrey’s illegitimacy. He’s betrayed to Cersei and executed as a result, and because he trusted Littlefinger, a man in love with his wife. Robb’s fall occurs for different reasons; he executes a powerful lord who had murdered prisoners in Robb’s care, costing him the support of many of his followers, he trusts his foster-brother Theon Greyjoy only for Theon to sack his castle at Winterfell, and he marries a minor lady whom he’d gotten pregnant, having previously promised to marry a daughter of the powerful, and strategically important, Walder Frey. Jon is stabbed by his own men for protecting wildlings from the demonic, undead Others (in the TV series) or for wishing to lead an army to protect his sister (in the books). Dany decides to liberate the slaves of Slavers’ Bay, only for a violent insurgency to begin against her. I could write a whole blog post on how this comes across as a morally confused allegory for the Iraq War, with Martin not really doing much in the books besides appearing to argue that Dany shouldn’t have freed the slaves because ‘It’s always been like this here.’ That’s not the point I’m making here though, which is that Dany’s noble intentions lead to an increasing cycle of violence that begins her descent into madness, and her incredible transformation from Mother Theresa to Bomber Harris.
Maybe it’s a bit of a cheat to bring it in, but Fire and Blood, Martin’s in-universe history of the Targaryen kings of Westeros also does this. Only one volume has been published so far, but it’s worth noting that Martin’s fictional history gives an awful kicking to Jaehaerys Targaryen, the closest thing to a noble hero in the book. He outlives his wife and all but two of his children – one of whom he is estranged from. One of his daughters become the first Targaryen ever to die of an illness. His wife is barely speaking to him by the end of their lives. And all he ever did was to try to build some roads.
Any time anyone does anything noble in Westeros, they get punished for it.
The Red Riding quartet, written by David Peace between 1999 and 2002, adapted for TV by Channel Four in 2009 and possibly best described as Leeds Confidential, does much the same. It’s set in West Yorkshire between 1974 and 1983 and describes a tangled web of police and political corruption, against the backdrop of the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper, and some other murders which occurred in West Yorkshire and went unsolved at the time. In Peace’s story, fictionalised versions of the murders of Leslie Molseed (better known as the Stefan Kiszko case after the man wrongly convicted for it) and Joan Harrison (wrongly attributed to Peter Sutcliffe) are committed by a paedophile gang linked to corrupt police officers, and by the corrupt officers themselves. Various journalists, honest(ish) police officers, and lawyers become aware of parts of the corruption, but all are either killed or otherwise dealt with before they can do anything to expose it.
That’s the basic plot of three of the books. It’s no coincidence that the best book of the quartet, 1977, is the only one which diverges from the formula.
The other three, 1974, 1980, and 1983, all feature broadly the same plot. Noble-hero type becomes aware of the corruption. Corruption becomes aware of him too. Noble-hero type is killed. In 1974 Eddie Dunford, a journalist working for the Yorkshire Post, learns that the murder of Claire Kemplay was carried out by a gang of paedophiles whose members include a prominent local businessman. Some of his investors include senior police officers, who’ve stitched up a man called Michael Myshkin for the murder. Dunford is falsely arrested, brutally beaten, threatened with murder, and then finally appears to deliberately crash his car after killing… someone sort-of connected to the paedophiles, but not actually one of them. The end of 1974 isn’t really explained until 1983 and I think the idea is that Dunford just goes after the only person left.
Noble hero nobly tries to expose corruption, gets the shit kicked out of him, then gets killed altogether after continuing to nobly fight corruption. This isn’t that kind of story. If you think the Red Riding Quartet has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention. 1974 is a memorable opening to the series, firmly establishing the world of Yorkshire Noir, the epic scale of the corruption, and that this isn’t a place for heroes. Indeed, the very first sentence of the blurb of the sequel, 1977, begins ‘No more heroes in 1977.’
Which is true. 1977’s protagonists are the morally-grey journalist Jack Whitehead, and the morally-dark-grey detective Robert Fraser. It’s definitely the best book of the bunch, and I can see where the comparisons to Ellroy’s LA Quartet came from. There are some significant differences in Ellroy’s approach though, which I’ll come to in a minute.
In 1980, another Noble Hero comes galloping over the Pennines in the shape of ‘squeaky-clean,’ Greater Manchester Assistant Chief Constable Peter Hunter, in Leeds to investigate the investigation into the Yorkshire Ripper. Like Eddie Dunford six years earlier, Hunter learns of the widespread corruption in the West Yorkshire Police, like Dunford he’s falsely accused of crimes (in Hunter’s case financial impropriety), and like Dunford he’s killed trying to do something noble, in his case confronting murderous West Yorkshire detective Bob Craven. Although, unlike Dunford who at least takes out one of the crooks involved in the corruption, Hunter achieves literally nothing; the detective has already been killed by other bent cops who’ve concluded that he is a liability. The TV version shows them staging the scene to appear that Hunter and Craven shot each other; it’s not clear how they explain it in the novel as the narrative ends with Hunter’s death and he isn’t referred to in 1983.
1983 has three strands, one of which explains the events of 1974 and 1977 through the eyes of tortured villain Maurice Jobson, the bent cop behind everything. The audience learns that he knew who one of the paedophiles was in 1967, killed another of them in 1974, and probably arranged the death of the one he identified in 1967. There’s another strand featuring BJ, a male sex worker who was abused by the paedophile gang as a child and has been on the fringes of the story ever since. When another child is abducted by the one paedophile who survived after 1974 BJ ends up coming back to Leeds and taking revenge on him, before apparently committing suicide by cop. These are the two most interesting strands of the book and it would have worked fine without the third… in which a noble-hero type becomes aware of the corruption, the corruption becomes aware of him, he’s falsely accused of a crime and brutally beaten, and then commits suicide.
Seeing a pattern yet?
The third strand features solicitor John Piggott, who’s hired to conduct Michael Myshkin’s appeal, and learns during his investigation of the conviction that his own father was the fourth member of the paedophile gang. Piggott knew his father was a paedophile, he’d committed suicide after being outed, but not that he was a murderer, and tries to save the last victim, but he’s too late and is caught by the bent cops with her body, leading to his own death by suicide. And to be honest, it’s, well, kind of boring.
In the TV version, Jobson has a crisis of conscience and decides to kill the last paedophile himself (saving BJ in the process), before helping Piggott save the girl. And this ending stuck with me far more than the ending in the books, purely because I didn’t expect it. I wasn’t sure how the story would end, but I was expecting something horrible, and I wasn’t expecting the girl to survive. Piggott in the end gets to succeed as a Noble Hero, neatly subverting the subversion of 1974. In the book, he just goes down the well-trodden path that Dunford and Hunter travelled before him.
Much like Robb Stark, Jon Snow, and Dany go down the same path as Ned Stark.
It’s not expectation subversion if you keep on doing it.
The deaths of Ned Stark and Eddie Dunford are memorable and shocking because they’re likeable, flawed, but well-intentioned characters who end up being no match for the awful corruption of the world they inhabit. Both deaths send the clear signal: this is no place for heroes. The problem is when the writers keep on creating, and then killing off, noble heroes. We get it, this is no place for heroes. Being noble gets you killed in Westeros, or West Yorkshire, or Panem (no, I haven’t forgotten you, Suzanne Collins).
So show me other characters.
Show me the quipping badasses, the tortured villains, the tough-as-nails antiheroes, the morally grey. Show me the Richard Sharpes who do the right thing but generally for the wrong reason, or do the wrong thing for the right reason. Sharpe, still the finest creation of Bernard Cornwell (a character so awesome even Sean Bean couldn’t die whilst playing him) is a classic anti-hero, someone Cornwell describes as ‘A rogue, but he’s our rogue.’ You probably wouldn’t want to grab a beer with him but you will root for him. George Martin is known to admire Cornwell as an author and it’s not hard to see why, as Cornwell is probably the finest historical military fiction writer of the past forty years. Sharpe’s Waterloo will remain the definitive fictional account of the battle for decades yet. But I can’t help but feel that Martin missed a crucial element of Cornwell’s style – almost none of his characters could be described as Noble Heroes. He writes the lovable rogues, the anti-heroes, the characters who are tough enough to be able to do the right thing in their fucked-up, brutal worlds – or the wrong thing, for the right reasons.
James Ellroy, whose novels inspired the Red Riding quartet, also steers away from the Noble Hero characters, if you ignore The Black Dahlia (which Ellroy mostly did after he wrote it). The final three books of the LA Quartet do feature a Noble Hero, LAPD Captain Mal Considine, who is killed doing something noble… and he’s the only one, and it’s the only time. And his death is totally unrelated to all the corruption he’s just become aware of, he’s killed by a serial killer he’s chasing down to prove that he’s more than just a desk jockey. His other characters include two anti-heroes with moral codes (Buzz Meeks and Bud White), one likeable tortured rogue (Jack Vincennes), one tortured villain (Dave Klein), and my personal favourite, the morally-grey LAPD Chief of Detectives Ed Exley.
Anyone wanting to know how to write a morally-grey character could do with looking at Ed Exley, because he’s pretty much the archetypal character who does too much bad to be considered good, but too much good to be considered bad.
Exley is viewed by his colleagues as a straight-arrow type and is the main opponent of the quartet’s villain, corrupt LAPD Captain Dudley Smith. It makes me wonder if David Peace had him in mind when he wrote the ‘squeaky-clean,’ Peter Hunter character, but Hunter comes across as hopelessly naïve for an anti-corruption detective. Exley, for all his moral bankruptcy, is clearly every bit a match for Smith – as Smith acknowledges, describing him as a far superior detective even to himself at one point. The themes of Ellory’s and Peace’s fictional universes are subtly, but importantly, different. Peace’s theme is that corruption is institutionalised and embedded throughout law enforcement and politics, and therefore there is no justice. Ellroy’s is that corruption is institutionalised and embedded throughout law enforcement and politics, and therefore the only justice is the justice people make for themselves.
So, whilst Eddie Dunford, Peter Hunter, and John Piggott all end up dead after their attempts to expose the corruption fail, each repeating the failure of their predecessor, Ed Exley ends LA Confidential in an uneasy standoff with Smith, knowing he runs most of the rackets in Los Angeles, unable to prove it and move against Smith, too high-ranked within the LAPD for Smith to move against him in turn. Dave Klein ends the fourth book, White Jazz, fleeing to Mexico after stabbing Smith, only to return fifteen years later pledging to expose both Exley and Smith, and the reader is left to guess whether he did it or not. All we know is that he’s tough enough.
And that, for me, is the point, and the reason for this blog post. Because he doesn’t rely on Noble Heroes placed in brutal, noirish universes where nobility is a liability, Ellroy’s stories are more varied, and therefore more interesting. His morally-grey characters and antiheroes provide protagonists who can challenge the corruption, whilst being deeply flawed themselves. They fit into, and can operate within, their universes far better than a parade of noble heroes.
Noble heroes have their place in dark, brutal universes. Both Game of Thrones and Red Riding showed exactly how to use them in their opening instalments. The deaths of noble heroes, whilst doing noble things, because they chose to do noble things, is a signal to the reader of exactly what they’re in for. It sets up the nature of the fictional world. But, once that shocking death has taken place, it’s time to bring out different characters. It’s time for the lovable rogues, the antiheroes, the quipping badasses, the morally grey – the characters who do the right thing but for the wrong reasons, who do the wrong thing but for the right reasons, the characters who somehow manage to do both at the same time.
All a noble hero can do in Westeros is die nobly, and once we’ve seen that happen it stops being surprising, and starts being… honestly kind of boring. All a noble hero can do in David Peace’s West Yorkshire is get killed, and once we’ve seen that happen it stops being surprising, and… you get where I’m going.
Different stories need different characters, and different types of characters, to drive them along. Otherwise, you find that you’re telling, and reading, the same story over and over again.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this blog post. It fits loosely into my ‘Writing about writing,’ series of posts, which also include such gems as https://attemptedmurder.uk/2018/07/25/writing-violence/ (about how I approach writing violence in crime stories), https://attemptedmurder.uk/2018/06/22/now-youre-like-me-how-do-i-impact-on-my-characters/ (about how my fictional characters take on some of my own baggage and the degrees to which they reflect me), https://attemptedmurder.uk/2018/10/31/when-writing-friend-fic/ (my thoughts on a very specific genre that’s very popular in one of my online writing groups), and https://attemptedmurder.uk/2019/01/31/leave-it-to-the-readers/ (about how readers interpret fiction, and how I as an author respond to this).
I also have another blog on hipster-ish comparisons between Game of Thrones and another show which did various things Thrones was known for earlier and better, apart from the special effects, here: https://attemptedmurder.uk/2020/12/25/but-ive-never-heard-of-it-babylon-5-the-first-best-attempt-at-a-tv-novel/. And just in case you’re wondering if all I can do is criticise everyone else’s writing, feel free to check out my own short stories here: https://attemptedmurder.uk/shortstories/.
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