Courtesy HBO

Winter is not only coming, it is just about here, and as the weather turns colder, my thoughts turn to A Song of Ice and Fire, specifically House Stark. But it isn’t just the austere, wary words of the house, nor its nobles and vassals, that I’m considering. I’m considering the ties it and the other parts of George RR Martin’s world have to our own world.

Specifically, Martin eschews the traditional bastions of so-called ‘high fantasy’ tales, with rather flashy magic and exotic creatures and races, opting for a more grounded backdrop for his narrative, characters, and intrigues. In this way, he hews much closer to historical events and themes such as the War of the Roses, the specter of nomadic marauders, and the roles of international relations and gender politics. It may not be as high-octane as some other tales, but it makes for more concrete and interesting characters involved in situations with high stakes and deadly consequences.

The lack of magic and proximity to history also means that there’s no easy way out for our heroes. Any line that you could draw between “good” and “evil” almost immediately becomes blurred as characters who appear virtuous either to us or to their contemporaries undertake actions to survive or prevail that, normally, they would otherwise shun or dismiss as ‘beneath them’. It focuses tightly on the nature of these characters, showing them not as archetypes or ciphers, but human beings first and foremost.

While genre fiction doesn’t necessarily need to hew away from the fantastical or the far-fetched in order to do this, it certainly never hurts to establish some concreteness in the story, in order to add context and depth. “Hard” science-fiction does this by extrapolating from existing scientific research, rather than creating wonders that basically run on magic.

This is not to say that such narratives are superior; there’s still fun and character exploration to be had in more fantastical settings. It just seems to me that if characters don’t have an easy way out, if they can’t wave a magic wand or spout some technobabble to fix their problems, they need to work harder, and in doing so they reveal more of their character to the audience.

Do you have a favorite historical narrative? Or a hard sci-fi story that does this in an exemplary way?