Theon Greyjoy – do you like him now? Did you ever like him? Will you ever like him?
As a writer, I find Theon by far the most interesting character in Game of Thrones. He illustrates a lot about how to make a character disliked. He also, in his long redemption, illustrates the techniques novelists and screenwriters use to build sympathy in a character.
Theon has had many of these sympathy building techniques applied to him in the course of his redemption, but here’s the thing – up until the very last scenes of the last series of the Game of Thrones TV series, they simply have not worked.
He’s particularly interesting when compared to another GoT character who has undergone his own redemption – Jaime Lannister.
[Please Note: Spoilers for Game of Thrones!]
On the surface, the two are similar: Scion of a great house, check; tough on battlefield, check; willingness to endanger or kill children, check; arrogant, check; captured and have their favourite body part removed, check.
So why do we like Jaime and despise Theon?
For me, the central reason is that Theon breaks a cardinal rule for a non-comic character. He doesn’t really know who he is. This is quite literal in his split loyalties to the Starks and the Greyjoys but also that he embarks on courses of action he himself knows to be wrong. We might hate Jaime when he throws Bran through the window but we don’t feel the contempt we feel for Theon, who acts disloyally, not only to the Starks but — crucially — to himself.
Theon’s signature deception – the killing of the children to pass them off as the Stark children is not comparable to Jaime’s attack on Bran. Jaime is unrepentant – it’s simply a practical move to protect his secret. We don’t like him for it, in fact we may hate him for it but it’s nothing to the contempt we feel for Theon, first in his betrayal of the Starks and then for his guilt. Either do it or don’t, we feel, don’t behave atrociously and then wibble about it.
Jaime appears first as a villain and then climbs his way back to hero.
Theon starts as a hero and then throws it away in a manner that ensures his journey back to favour will be much harder. Classic comedy characters do not know themselves – from Captain Mainwaring to David Brent, before and since. This is what makes us laugh. However, pretentiousness is poison to a character in a heroic world. Theon’s problem isn’t that he’s a villain, it’s that he’s a fool. We can forgive the former, not the latter.
However, things get really interesting when Theon is captured. The reader or viewer has really wanted to see this treacherous idiot punished.
But the brilliance of Game of Thrones is the question it poses to the reader: ‘How much do you want to see him punished? How much is enough? Offered freedom and have it withdrawn? Lose a tooth? A toe? Now he’s been castrated, is that enough? What will suffice for you, oh avenging reader/viewer? Do we hate Theon more because he makes us complicit in Ramsey’s outrages? He makes us cast a light on ourselves?
Game of Thrones does consistently defy our expectations but, for me, the torture and eventual release of Theon is more undermining of traditional narrative than the death of the central character Ned Stark – even though the Hitchcock’s Psycho trick was very effective. This is because, after all he’s been through, after we’ve had our desire for revenge sated more fully than we could ever have reasonably wanted, we still don’t like him. Making a character suffer is usually seen as an excellent way of building sympathy for them – GRRM certainly uses this technique with many of his other characters, virtually all of the heroic characters in GoT are victims of injustice.
And this is the problem for Theon and what makes the reader uncomfortable. His fate isn’t unjust. But it isn’t exactly just either. It’s over the top, too much.
Crucially, his suffering doesn’t change him.
On the outside he may have changed entirely, underneath it all the arrogant Theon is the same as the crushed Reek – the spine of their characters is that they feel sorry for themselves. This is a very unattractive quality.
Jaime has his hand removed but he doesn’t whine, “I can’t possibly fight any more!” He goes and rescues Brienne from a bear! We like him now! The spine of his character – bravery and decisiveness — has been turned to good, not selfish purposes. And he wasn’t a bully. He’s as prepared to face danger maimed as he was when he was the greatest warrior in Westeros. He’s had his punishment, he’s changed and grown – just as we would have wanted.
Theon remains crushed, inward focussed, incapable. He doesn’t do things, things happen to him without him reacting – poison to any would-be hero. But is his inaction also annoying to the reader/viewer on a deeper level?
Are we really a bit shocked at ourselves because GRRM has played with narrative convention? “Don’t worry,” say the storyteller. “This rascal will not prosper,” and we eagerly turn the pages to find out how the idiot traitor Greyjoy will meet his fate. But, turning up for our feast of revenge, we find Ramsey Bolton as our waiter, forcing the food down our throats as if we’re fattening geese to the point we fear we might burst.
In the end, we want Theon to get back on his feet, not to tell us that he’s going to be OK but that we – the readers and viewers – aren’t a little villainous ourselves. He’s shown us a glimpse of ourselves and we haven’t liked what we’ve seen.
Theon needs to be OK, because in a way it was we, the readers and viewers, who messed him up so badly in the first place and we don’t want to live with that. We don’t like people who make us feel guilty.
Mark Alder is the author of the Banners of Blood historical fantasy series: Son of the Morning and the recently released Son of the Night. Both are published in the UK by Gollancz, and in the US by Pegasus. As M.D. Lachlan, the author also writes the Wolfsangel series.