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Why Game of Thrones surprises us – Part 1

in Film & TV Psychology by


What’s in a plot twist? Part of it’s surprise. In the case of Game of Thrones, it’s usually in the form of a sudden and brutal shock. Just when you thought you knew what was going to happen, writer George RR Martin throws a curve ball.

To surprise a modern, savvy audience, you essentially need to be a master at misdirection. That is, get them to anticipate the direction of a story, set up all the pieces and clues, and then catapult the plot into a completely different direction.

One way to play with an audience is to present them with familiar story archetypes.

Game of Thrones and Story Archetypes


The Lover



The Caregiver



The Everyman



The Explorer



The Father The Hero



The Ruler


According to Carl Yung, archetypes are universal ‘thought-forms’ that are innate to all people. Put simply, there are familiar characters and stories throughout history and across cultures that continually re-emerge in the form of archetypes.

The ‘hero’ archetype is depicted in countless popular films. This archetype involves the hero going on a journey where they fall, confront their inner demons, and then rise again to fight another day. These themes underpin films like Star Wars, Rocky, and pretty much every superhero movie.

Martin uses these common archetypes to prime the audience and then often does the complete opposite. That is, the hero may fall but then doesn’t rise again. Or maybe he becomes the villain?

What are some examples? Spoilers ahead!

The Hero


Ned Stark


Robb Stark


The Red Viper

Hero Twist #1. Ned is beaten and cornered but there’s an escape plan

Ned Stark is the main protagonist in the first series and played by A-List actor, Sean Bean. He’s honourable, loyal, and strong. And, like all heroes, he takes on the primary villains: The Lannisters.

Ned ends up beaten and delirious in a black cell. This isn’t an odd situation for a hero. Surely he will escape? We are given plenty of evidence to support the notion that Ned is simply on a hero’s journey and will eventually rise again.

First, he’s played by Sean Bean, the main star and protagonist of the series! Second, he’s given a terrible choice: die or beg for mercy. Mercy will lead him to his son, Jon Snow, at a cold and merciless purgatory with the ‘Night’s Watch’.

It just so happens the Night’s Watch look like they are about to face a larger, supernatural evil too. So, we are led to think Ned will escape death and make his way to his son to help him fight this evil. All he has to do is sacrifice his honour.

Which he does.

Hero Twist #2. The son avenges the father

Now we want revenge! Robb, Ned’s son, is mounting an attack. He’s unstoppable. He has his father’s characteristics of loyalty and bravery. But even though the ‘young wolf’ never lost a battle, he’s losing the war.

Again, we are led to believe Robb is beaten but not defeated. His hero’s journey is to rise up and win the war and avenge his father.

He’s even got a back-up plan. An ally in the war is ready to lend his support. Robb’s just got one obstacle in his way. Robb promised to marry the daughter of this ally, Walder Frey, but instead chooses to marry another. He ultimately needs to rely on Walder who arranges another wedding…


Hero Twist #3. Red Viper to the rescue

The Red Viper (Oberyn Martell) is introduced well into the series with his own hero arc. We learn that one of the chief villains of the series, Gregor Clegane (aka the Mountain), murdered the Red Viper’s sister and her children.

Glegane is begging for a comeuppance. He tortures, rapes and murders with fury. He’s also partial to animal cruelty.

When the Red Viper agrees to fight Glegane to the death to save Tyrion Lannister’s life, George RR Martin has us in his crosshairs again. Everything makes sense. Oberyn will rescue Tyrion, who will otherwise face the executioner. The Red Viper gets his revenge and the Mountain is toppled by the much smaller Viper in a classic David and Goliath battle.

Of course, this happens…(check out the reactions from the audience)

In part 2, I’ll look at how Martin uses the Lover archetype as misdirection.

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