As any epic fantasy fan knows, there are currently two big fantasy franchise prequel shows on screen. The first is, of course, The Rings of Power, set thousands of years before the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings take place. The second, for fans of a darker brand of fantasy, is House of the Dragon, set some two hundred years or so before Game of Thrones.
With the shows airing side-by-side, this is a perfect opportunity to look at how the two productions have handled character creation within the scope of epic fantasy.
There is an ever-present debate in writing about what is more important: plot or character. You’ll hear terms like ‘character-driven’ or ‘plot-heavy’, but ultimately the divide comes down to whether a writer (and reader) prefers a focus on character or plot. I’d argue that well-written characters can easily carry a weaker plot but that, however fabulous your plot is, you still have to create characters that interest readers. You still need that spark of connection that drives the need to read, to discover, to embrace.
And here is where the two shows, for me, part ways. Whatever the plot weaknesses, or the Tolkien-lore-related discrepancies, The Rings of Power has something crucial going for it: characters I’m invested in and want to follow to the end. Fierce, socially inept Galadriel; stoic and honorable Arondir; a young Isildur, desperate to find his path. Yes, I want more of the awkward bromance between besties Elrond and Durin. I want more of Halbrand teetering between duty and denial. I want all the Bronwyn content, please!
House of the Dragon, on the other hand, is failing miserably on the character front. Now, I love myself a morally gray character, a scoundrel, a snarky yet lovable baddie. I don’t need characters to be likeable, in a hero, light-side-of-the-Force sense of the word. But I do need to like them. I need to be able to root for them, or at least want to follow their arc, even while screaming, “NO! You absolute dumpster fire of a human, don’t DO that!” But HotD has exactly zero characters that I like, and this, for me, is a huge problem.
The original TV show (and books) had great characters that I really, truly loved. Arya Stark. Jon Snow. Tyrion Lannister. Brienne of Tarth. Grey Worm. The list goes on. Not every character I enjoyed was a good person, or was good all the time. But I liked them, and I wanted to see where their stories would end. The prequel show, however, is sorely lacking in interesting characters. I dislike them all so thoroughly, and find them all so boring in their awfulness, that I’ve pretty much given up on the show at this point. (Of course, the production isn’t helped by the decision to time skip every few episodes, bringing in new actors to play aged-up versions of characters and adding to the disconnect.)
Last year I took an online writing course with YA author Maggie Stiefvater, known for her rich characters. There was a lot of emphasis on spending time with your cast before even writing one single word, and after watching the trainwreck that is House of the Dragon, I can see where she’s coming from. I’ve always considered my own work more plot than character driven, but even so it’s always been clear to me that if you care about your cast, if you write characters people can care about (yes, even if they’re evil), then at least half the job is done: to light that spark and give readers a story they can connect to.