Prompted by nothing in particular, some thoughts about Game of Thrones.
At one level, Martin has an amazing accomplishment. His world is symbolically believable. Many of his characters have become almost iconic. Most creators never reach the point of establishing even one such character. In contrast, for example, Moorcock, despite all his creativity, really only has one or two (the character of Elric, the idea of Stormbringer; maybe a popularization of the struggle between the principles of law and chaos).
Consider in contrast the list of powerfully identifiable Game of Thrones characters. Circei, Tyrion, Brienne, Jon, Arya, Daenerys, Joffrey!, Petyr, Samwell, Davos, Melisandre, and that is just off the top of my head. “Winter is coming.” The new gods and the old. Wargs. The faceless men. Melisandre’s summoning. The wall. Even Tolkien might have fewer such characters and concepts. Bilbo, Gandalf, Golem, a realization of the Norse Ring mythology, Smaug, maybe Thorin, maybe the Steward of Gondor. There are probably a few more, but not that many and either way the contest is close.
Now, I am not really interested in arguing whether these characters resonate or not with you or any other person in particular; I think it would be difficult to reasonably claim, however, that they do not resonate more broadly. Madonna cosplaying your character is some sort of achievement unlocked.
Back in the late 90s, I read the first couple Song of Ice and Fire books and liked them well enough, but at some point Martin fell afoul of my Wheel of Time rule* to avoid multivolume doorstop fantasy sequences unless they are finished. So my experience with Westeros is mostly recent and through the HBO series.
In contrast to the power of his characters and setting, the plotting of Game of Thrones is muddled. Part of this may be decisions that were made for the TV adaption, but I suspect that this is true of the novels as well based on the few that I have read. When you have 10+ plot lines moving in parallel, it is difficult to make them all matter. For example, how can it be that Bran Stark has not showed up at all in the first five episodes of season 5? The story sprawls too large and loses its focus. It almost feels as if Martin himself sometimes forgets about what is happening to some of his characters. I find myself caring less about what happens, and this is not because of the low character life expectancy. Living or dying, the outcome just does not seem to matter all that much.
* Still active and broken only once for The Name of the Wind.
By the 5th book the Song of Fire and Ice is also a rambling meandering stumble around mostly minor characters. Only the Tyrion, Jon Snow and Arya arcs seem to have any coherence because they fir into the simple classic novelistic structure of an individual or group (in Tyrions case) having an adventure in a distant land. Westros itself is in shambles and its denizens are lost by Dances with Dragons and the book feels mostly like little vignettes about a fantasy 100 years war, depravity and lost men, brigandage and bad lessons about power curdling the whole society.
Perhaps there is a point to this, and G.R.R.M will pull it together illustrating the folly of these human concerns in the face of the real enemy. The injured and damaged characters in the books seem to be realizing the folly of the war (mostly Jamie as he tries to put the RIverlands back together), but also perhaps Sansa (in the vale and likely to rule it) or Tyrion, or even Asha Greyjoy. I bet this is just my hopes for a dying, floundering series of books that B. Sanderson will undoubtedly have to finish in a decade.
I think the show has tried to reign this meandering in – but perhaps they should have embraced it, done a few episodes that are about random minor characters dealing with the aftermath of this war – and the looming apocalypse of white walkers that the Westrosi are ignoring in favor of fighting over their pointy throne.
Yeah I could see a fantasy march of folly working but what’s gone down so far in GoT lacks the craft to pull off such a concept album. It has too much embraced already the soap opera character structure. Like, you could do a good soap opera or a good series of things falling apart vignettes but those together would be spread too thin unless handled by an absolute virtuoso.
It’s relatively easy to create iconic, resonant characters when they’re the same archetypes that have been used time and time again. There’s nothing wrong with that whatsoever – originality is overrated, the classics are classics for a reason – but concepts like the scheming amoral politico, the young Caligula, the Nizari assassins, Hadrian’s Wall, old paganism vs. new faith, and all the other characters and concepts you list don’t represent any accomplishment on Martin’s part in themselves, his accomplishment is in conveying them effectively and using them in a way that makes people want to read his books.