by Thomas Colley
11 June 2019
WARNING: This article contains spoilers.
Like millions of others, I have been contemplating the end of Game of Thrones. Being unable to stay awake until 2am UK time to watch episodes live, I have relied on pre-recording them to watch on subsequent days. It is remarkably difficult not to come across a ‘spoiler’ in between. Article headlines designed to be cryptic reveal more than the author intended. As a narrative researcher, more striking is the sheer quantity of commentary on the plotline of the series and what it should or should not be. This commentary reveals much about the significance of narrative in human communication, but also its limits when used as a political instrument.
Fiction draws inspiration from everyday life. In turn, international politics researchers are increasingly drawing lessons from fiction. Security studies scholars emphasise the value of studying Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The Star Wars and Star Trek franchises are promoted as useful teaching tools for students of international relations. Suggesting that lessons can be learnt from Game of Thrones is not novel. The mountain of commentary across media outlets, blogs and social media reveals aphorisms: ‘power corrupts’, ‘war is hell’, ‘imposing liberty through force ends poorly’.
I generally assume that my narrative research does not interest the broader public. It is therefore surprising to observe that millions of people appear obsessed with whether the plot construction of an entertainment product meets their expectations. Some may see this as reflecting an entitled society when citizens demand to be told a certain story in a certain way. Can’t entertainers just tell whatever stories they like? Or since viewers are customers, maybe they have the right to be told certain stories? Leaving this aside, and looking closer, the contention over the plot of Game of Thrones, and the fate of its characters, reveals much about how humans interact in the ‘narrative age’ in which we supposedly live.
Politicians and militaries continue to emphasise the importance of communicating ‘strategic narratives’ –storylines that explain one’s actions to relevant audiences. Elites construct, audiences receive and hopefully internalise a story if it reflects their existing beliefs. We are told that narratives are the key to contemporary war, that they have unique persuasive power, that they can be ‘weaponised’ to win ‘battles of the narratives’ and ‘wars of ideas’, or that they are the key factor in human evolution. Technical construction of the right collection of words is supposedly the key to persuasion, be it convincing citizens to accept regime change or to rebel against it.
That audiences contest narratives is recognised, but receives far less research attention. Little research examines how ordinary citizens contest the strategic narratives they encounter. What is striking about the Game of Thrones commentary is the strength of feeling with which people challenge the narrative in an entertainment product. Over a million people petitioning for a series to be rewritten is astonishing. It is also remarkable how sensitive people are to narrative incoherence – when the plot of a story doesn’t quite hang together. Most complaints seem to centre on this not being convincing, largely because it happened too fast. Observers counter by saying that signs could have been spotted throughout the eight series – notably the Targaryan Queen’s willingness to execute opponents by burning them to death with her dragons. However, a counterclaim can be made that some may be committing the teleological fallacy by reading those past events as an inevitable path towards the present. It is doubtful that hundreds of people would have named their babies ‘Khaleesi’ or ‘Daenerys’ were this the case. People rarely name their children after those they perceive as tyrants.
Wherever one stands – or if one just does not care and is happy to be entertained – this shows how intuitive and strong everyday citizens’ understanding of narratives is. This is a point rarely acknowledged when narratives are discussed as political instruments. Citizens have been fed on stories from birth – this is why some claim narratives to be the most natural form of communication. They are highly sensitive to narratives that don’t seem to fit together. They bring with them expectations of how stories usually (or should) play out – and these are intuitive, and hard to counter. The familiar plotline many Afghan citizens have when confronting a foreign occupier trying to impose a system of government on them is of resistance and the outsider’s eventual defeat.
Indeed, the plotline of Game of Thrones Season 8 will appear to many as a crude analogy of recent Western conflicts in reverse. Daenerys Targaryen arrives in the Western continent (Westeros) with an army from the eastern continent (Essos) of ‘Unsullied’ former slaves and Mongol-esque ‘Dothraki’ hordes. These are visibly and culturally distinct from the local Westerosi population. They resemble white Westerners, whose militaries would not look out of place in medieval Europe. Daenarys is a foreign invader but she has benign intentions of freeing populations from tyranny. However, the population appears hostile to her and her visibly and culturally alien forces. Locals have also been primed by domestic propaganda to fear the foreign invaders. This is grounded in centuries of oral tradition, whereby children have been taught to fear the invading hordes from the East. Daenerys, apparently unable to win over the population and frustrated by numerous setbacks, incinerates thousands of them instead. This transformation, and the speed at which her ‘character arc’ changes, is a major source of complaints about the series.
Personally, I can scarcely recall a clearer illustration that narration is a negotiation between narrator and audience. Moreover, that before one even begins to construct political communication, it is imperative to identify first the narrative understandings and expectations of target audiences. Too often this is forgotten.
What makes the response to Game of Thrones different from how political narratives are interpreted is the level of emotional investment in the audience. Like many others watching Game of Thrones, I have experienced physiological responses when viewing it. I have felt excitement when the side I support wins a battle when defeat looked more likely. I have felt anxiety, disappointment and frustration when, as is common in the series, one’s favourite characters are wiped out, almost provocatively. No doubt much of the outcry about Daenarys Targaryen’s fall from grace is that so many have become extremely attached to her. The idea that narratives persuade through achieving emotional identification with their characters – typically heroes – is a key aspect of why political actors think they are uniquely persuasive. The power of narrative to move people emotionally can be experienced when one finds oneself experiencing contradictory impulses to find out what happens in advance – hence the sheer volume of predictions and spoilers online – but also not wanting not have the surprise ruined.
The emotive response to how characters are treated in Game of Thrones illustrates the power of narrative to engage and persuade. Unfortunately, this level of emotional engagement in a character’s development – for many Game of Thrones characters from childhood to adulthood – is not accessible to today’s politicians. Political communicators today extol the power of narrative, but communication in the digital age takes the form of soundbites, catchphrases, tweets, slogans, that at best allude to a broader narrative rather than immersing the audience in it. This fragmented, piecemeal approach does not come close to the emotional engagement needed to make narratives as compelling as many think they are today. Even when narrated coherently, it will typically be by a politician whose credibility as a speaker is limited before they open their mouth. Certainly strategic narratives can engage people emotionally – calls to ‘Make Westeros Great Again’ perhaps – but the sustained emotional immersion that leads people to chain watch half a series at a time is largely inaccessible to contemporary politicians. Audiences have fleeting attention spans between different platforms and products, and many of whom veer towards disengagement, indifference and distrust rather than emotional investment.
Commentary about Game of Thrones reflects the pre-existing understandings and expectations audiences bring to the story – myself included. Personally I have scarcely been so engrossed in a cultural product, whatever its flaws and fantasies. Maybe the plot has unfolded too fast, or certain narrative arcs are more or less credible. Though surely it is important to suspend disbelief in a world of dragons, where the apparent winners in the ‘Game of Thrones’ have done so partly due to the coincidental development of superpowers including reincarnation, the ability to see the future, and the ability to impersonate anyone at will. Tying off political drama is difficult, however fantastic, because politics never ends. What matters more, reflecting on my limited experience as a narrative researcher, is that Game of Thrones shows what is theoretically possible with compelling storytelling, but how inaccessible this is in contemporary politics.
Dr Thomas Colley is a Teaching Fellow in War Studies, King’s College London.
 See for instance Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. London: Harvill Secker, 2014; Patrikarakos, David. War in 140 Characters: How Social Media Is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Basic Books, 2017; Simpson, Emile. War from the Ground up: Twenty-First Century Combat as Politics. London: Hurst, 2012.
 ‘Game of Thrones: Parents who named their children Khaleesi respond to Daenerys becoming the Mad Queen’, https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/news/game-of-thrones-khaleesi-daenerys-children-name-season-8-mad-queen-a8913046.html, accessed 24 May 2019.