George R. R. Martin​

On how to write great epic fantasy.

Click here for the full interview transcript with George R. R. Martin.

“You know, everything I’ve known about human nature . . . we have this innate quest for power and dominance. And if we had the power with just a few spells to undo armies, we would be the rulers. Whoever had that power would rule, they wouldn’t be the adviser to the ruler or someone who lives all alone in a tower. So you have to look, you know, if you’re gonna make pigs fly . . . it’s gonna change the pork industry. [laughter] Hugely! Capturing pigs is going to be much harder. So think through everything where you depart from real life, and where you don’t depart from real life. Make sure you learn everything you can about what you’re writing about, whether it’s, you know, medieval armies, or armor and weaponry, or care and feeding of horses, or whatever it is, try to get it right. Because if you get it wrong, somebody will notice and write you letters about it. [laughter]”

George R. R. Martin on Creating Fiction From Fact

“I mean, fantasy always has to be a little bigger and brighter and more colorful than real life.”

In this clip author George R. R. Martin discusses the importance of practicality for his fantasy and science fiction writing — for example, his insistence that his dragons only have two legs and wings, because no creature on earth has four legs and wings, and four legged dragons offend his sense of biology and realism. Listen or read the accompanying transcript to answer the following questions. 

Discussion Questions

  1. Discuss a time when a book, movie, or TV show had an unrealistic element that jarred you from your suspension of disbelief. (For example, the movie Far and Away, set in the 1890’s as part of the Land Run of 1893, had a vendor giving American flags to new immigrants in New York — with 50 stars.)

    1. What was it about this element that was so jarring?

    2. How did it affect your enjoyment?

  2. How much “fact” do you need in your fiction in order to be able to suspend your disbelief? Why?

  3. As a writer, how much of your time is spent on research, before, during, and after completing your manuscript?

  4. The line between science fiction and fantasy often revolves around facts. GRRM discusses in the clip how people told him his earlier science fiction leaned heavily toward fantasy. What is the line between science fiction and fantasy?

    1. Give examples (books, short stories)

    2. What books have blended science fiction and fantasy?

  5. Discuss a time when an author purposefully threw out the book and rules — and as a result altered history, biology, physics, etc. What did they do that made it still believable?

Writing Exercises

  1. Change ONE fact of our world and write a paragraph on how changing this one fact would affect a story.

  2. Interview a fellow classmate on some basic facts about their life (birthday, hometown, major, interests). Change one thing about them and write a one-page story that incorporates this altered fact.

  3. Take a mythological creature and “fix it.” Vampires that can handle sunlight. Werewolves that don’t change based on the lunar cycle. Faeries that are not trapped when you know their true name. Write an introduction of a story — either your own or one that you’re very familiar with — using this altered mythology. Does this change your understanding of the nature of this creature?

Additional Readings

  • Sand Kings (1979) by GRRM is mentioned in this clip

  • Check out this article that details how you can read some of GRRM’s A Song of Fire and Ice series online.

  • For more on GRRM’s appreciation of dragons, click here.

George R. R. Martin is an award-winning American novelist, short-story writer, screenwriter, and producer. He is perhaps best known for his epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, which was later adapted into the hit HBO series Game of Thrones. To learn more about GRRM and his work, find him on his website, Facebook, or Twitter, or listen to his full interview (31:40). 

Tags: George R.R. Martin, fantasy, epic fantasy 


George R.R. Martin: And that being said, you know, I also wrote some fantasies when I was first breaking in, back in the 70s, a few short stories, but mostly I wrote science fiction in those days; the market for science fiction was a lot bigger. You can look at my science fictions though and say, well, this is not the hard science fiction of the way somebody like Greg Benford would write it. This is really fantasy disguised as science fiction. So there’s a lot of fantasy in my science fiction, and! There’s a lot of science fiction in my fantasy. Always trying to think of how things really would be in practicality.

So, you know, one example of that is my dragons. I’ve always been insistent that my dragons have only two legs, two legs and the forelegs are wings, because there’s no creature on earth that has four legs and wings, the front legs become the wings. And these four-legged dragons really [pause] offended my science fictional sense, [laughter] my sense of biology and realism. And I know that seems ludicrous when you think of it; because my dragons also breathe fire, and there’s nothing on earth that breathes fire. But still, that was so much part of the myth, I couldn’t part with that. And I approached vampires the same way. When I wrote my vampire novel Fever Dream, you know, I looked at the things about vampires that I could justify in a fairly rationalist way. And I kept that. But other things, about ‘vampires can’t cross running water’, well, obviously, that didn’t work for books set entirely on the Mississippi. I threw that out. And vampires are not reflected in mirrors. How the hell would that work? When, you know, that violates all the laws of light, to physics and things like that. So I had to throw that out too. But I played with that and I made use of it.

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