I was having a think about the end of Game of Thrones (again). Now, wherever you stand on the final few episodes of one of the most popular television shows in recent years, I think we can all agree that endings matter.
I’m not sure anything is capable of evoking such disappointment or elation as an ending. And when it comes to Game of Thrones, I just kept thinking about the three main female characters (beware, *spoilers* ahead):
Dani’s ending was the most disappointing for most, mainly because her descent into madness was so far from the place she’d come from, as a kind, caring and balanced leader, focused on freedom from oppression and good lives for her people. She started to believe in her own destiny, her ego overtook her mission. It made sense, it just suddenly all happened very quickly at the end.
Cersei’s storyline, whilst she could be a nasty piece of work, was always motivated by love of her children above all else. She was the quintessential helicopter mother – her children were the priority. They deserved the kingdom, they deserved control, they deserved the best. It was that cut-throat determination that was her downfall. Her ending was probably the one I had the biggest issue with, because they’d tried to humanise her before her ending. She didn’t get what she deserved. She’d always been strong, unyielding and despicable to get what she needed, to survive. Her ending didn’t reflect that.
But Sansa, there was the ending that saved the show for me. A woman who had grown from a selfish young girl who expected nothing beyond being cared for and looking pretty, to a leader who put her people first at every turn. Sansa was for the North, above all. Not ego, not personal gain, but power enough to give her people a voice and a seat at the table.
I was reading about the idea in fiction that women who have dealt with abuse become fighters because of what they’ve dealt with. On the outside, that looks like a sensible argument. After all, when we’ve had to fight to overcome trauma, that strength can push you forward.
But that gives the power to the trauma, or the abuser, not the person. And something about that feels uneasy.
We are all made of what happens to us and what we make happen. We are riding waves and we sink or swim. But in the story of our lives, do we really want to give power to the worst things?
I don’t have an answer to this, I just recognised that in fiction, in order to transition, often some bad shit has to happen. From frothy, joyful romantic comedies that start with being broken up with or cheated on, through to thrillers where mistreatment, alcohol abuse or physical attack occur, women are put through the ringer. We see this as character-building, fighting from victim to hero.
In my upcoming book, Before We Part, each woman is dealing with their own trauma. Loll is dealing with the husband who left her just before Christmas, her best friend Cass is still recovering from the biggest mistake she made years before, the one that left her with her daughter, Veronica. Vee’s trauma is yet to come, losing her mother to cancer.
Are we defined by our trauma? Does how we deal with trauma say something about us? What if you don’t have grace under pressure, what if you respond to pain with cruelty or harshness? I think the best characters, like people, are imperfect.
Characters are going to have to go through awfulness to learn a lesson or grow. That’s just narrative storytelling. But like real people, we need to avoid labelling characters by the shit they’ve gone through. We have to let them grow and be and move beyond what we’ve known them as. In a series like Game of Thrones, where years and years have passed with these characters, it’s natural to put them in boxes, the same way your parent always remembers that disgusting thing you liked to eat as a child.
The important thing to me is that each character doesn’t have to be symbolic of an entire group or a whole situation. They’re just one person.
What do you think? How do you write and read female trauma? Does it ever put you off?