Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

The Heel Turn

I’ve been circling around something for a while now, posts almost made, but then pulled back, decided on, then undecided on. The post was initially supposed to be about characterization and Game of Thrones, using the fate of Ned Stark as a basis, but I kept backing off. Now, inspired in part by Bonnee’s review of on her blog last week and by my own viewing of Disney’s Frozen, I’ve decided to go with this. BE WARNED: Spoilers abound, so if you haven’t read GoT or seen Frozen (and plan to), you should probably go somewhere else.
Early on in Game of Thrones, we see Ned Stark, Lord of the North, beheading a man for abandoning the Night’s Watch, a collection of misfits, outcasts and criminals who guard the kingdom’s northern boundary against…all sorts of things. Ned makes a point of telling his youngest son that the one who passes judgment should be the one to dole out the punishment as well. Later, when Ned assumes the duties of Hand of the King, we see that he as honest, a man of integrity and principle, and a man who is overmatched by the complexities of the politics of King’s Landing. After uncovering a rather tawdry secret about the Queen, Ned gets outmaneuvered (largely because of his sense of honor), betrayed, and thrown in the dungeon. He’s given a choice: admit to treason and he’ll be exiled to the Night’s Watch. Hold to the truth and he’ll be executed.
At this point, I was highly conflicted. Ned was my favorite character in this book, and I wanted him to remain true. There’s no way, I thought, that Ned would lie. And then he did the unthinkable: he lied. He confessed to a crime he didn’t commit. He traded his honor for his life, and I was ready to throw the book across the room.
Now, allow me to jump a few steps to the right, to Disney’s Frozen. In Frozen, two princesses grow up isolated from each other and the world because one of them (Elsa) has powers she can’t control. When Elsa is of age to take the throne, the castle gates are opened for the first time in years. Townspeople and foreign dignitaries pour in, and it’s party time.
One foreign dignitary is Hans, a prince from the Southern Islands. Anna, the younger princess, meets him and is instantly smitten. So is he. They dance and talk all night; it’s like Cinderella all over again. As for Hans, he’s one hell of a nice guy, and he asks Anna to marry him.
When Elsa’s powers get out of control (largely because Anna and Hans come to her with news of their betrothal), she runs off, and Anna follows. Elsa has left the town in a deep freeze, kind of like the one that’s settled over my house this week. The problem is, it’s July. Ann runs off and leaves Hans in charge while she tries to track down Elsa and break the spell. Hans is a star. He personally passes out blankets to freezing people. He provides food. He’s dedicated to saving every man, woman and child in the kingdom if he can. When Princess Elsa is on the verge of killing two men in self-defense, it’s Hans who stays her hand—”Don’t become the monster they say you are!” he implores. What a guy!
And then he executes perhaps the most unexpected heel turn since Andre the Giant in 1987.

He leaves Anna to die, lies to everyone, and stands aside so that Elsa can be executed. It turns out, he was lying to Anna all along. The whole thing was a scheme to gain power and prestige. And I was ready to throw my popcorn at the screen.

Two stories. Two unexpected events. But one of them was right, and one of them was wrong. In Game of Thrones, what I didn’t tell you is, aside from being principled and honest, Ned Stark was also dedicated to his family and his children. While not exactly warm and cuddly, he is shown throughout as being a good father who loves his children. The reason Ned ultimately admits to a lie is because the Queen has his daughter, and it’s implied that things will not go well for her at all if he insists on telling the truth. My hand was stayed—I did not throw the book. As I commented on Bonnee’s post on the book, Martin did an absolutely brilliant job of pitting Stark against himself. As much as lying was OUT of character for Ned, protecting his children was totally IN character.
And what of Hans? His heel turn came out nowhere. While we may have thought the romance between Anna and Hans was too good to be true, there was never ANY indication at any time that he was anything but what he appeared to be. Yes, the moment was shocking, but there was no foundation for it at all. When I think about some of the books I’ve read recently that have had surprising plot twists (see anything by Gillian Flynn, for example), if you look back you can always see hints throughout. There was nothing of the sort with Hans. The Magpie has seen the film twice, and she couldn’t even see it coming the second time!
Keep this in mind when building up for the plot twist. “Never saw it coming” plot twists are fine, provided there’s a reason for it, and the reason should be visible in the story. It doesn’t have to be obvious, but it should be something you can see in hindsight. And it has make sense. And that’s what you have to do—make it make sense. Give us Ned Stark, not Hans. Spoiler over, have a nice weekend!

Oh, and yes, that IS former governor of Minnesota Jesse “The Body” Ventura in that video (with the hat and glasses), thank you very much.

9 Responses

  1. I completely agree. Foreshadowing is essential before a plot twist or big character reveal. You need the audience/readers going "Ah-ha" and nodding their heads, not going "Say whaaaa??" It's like leaving breadcrumbs in the forest to find your way back — readers and viewers need hints to find the path, too.

  2. It's a fine line a writer has to walk–you can't make it so obvious that people are saying, "Yeah, yeah" the whole time, but it does have to be evident in hindsight. I think a lot also of 'The Sixth Sense', which did this really well. I would much prefer to have seen enough hints earlier in 'Frozen' so that I would have been questioning his motives all along–it actually ups the tension earlier, but can still give you that "No way!" moment.

  3. Yes, Rowling is really good at it–and she was able to foreshadow multiple novels ahead!

    Ned was awesome, I thought. And as much as I hated him taking the blame, I hated Joffrey even more–it was the double-gut punch. Now I know better than to trust Martin (in a good way).

  4. Haven't read/watched either of those yet but I totally agree. When the action is out of absolutely nowhere and out of character it drives me nuts! Agatha Christie was an author who often had me rereading and enjoying all those hints I missed the first time! 🙂

  5. Well, then, I hope they're not spoiled for you! I haven't read Agatha Christie in ages, I may have to take a look.

  6. Great post! I'm behind in blog reading obviously. I'm struggling with changes I need to make in Hold Still right now and this post kind of confirmed for me what I was thinking! I didn't read the book but we watch the series, Game of Thrones and Ned was my favorite character exactly because of how honorable he was–I was devastated when he died but you're right, it was still in character. Frozen was completely shocking.

  7. Re: "Frozen" – in interviews, the screenwriter and co-director, Jennifer Lee, pointed out that she fought the producers and story artists over including any overt indications of Hans being evil before his reveal. She wanted him to be a complete psychopath, and the best kind – the one everyone believes, and to hang a lampshade on the Disney trope of "love at first sight".

    There are teeny, tiny hints of who Hans really is buried deep into "Love is an Open Door" and the fact that, when he confronts Queen Elsa about to kill the two marksmen from Weselton, he clearly looks up and purposefully (not accidentally) brings down that chancelier over Elsa's head with one of their crossbows.

    I actually like the idea that we were given practically nothing to go on – it made the turn that much of a shock. If we'd known, the entire second half of the second act would have been revealed to be in vain far too early. And plus, often in life, you never find out who's truly evil until it's too late.

  8. Hello, b. Touch, and thanks for stopping by and sharing that. I see your point, and that of the director. Many films and books (and especially Disney ones) telegraph those twists so much that an adult audience, at any rate, can see the heel turn come a mile away. Frozen definitely did some things right, and definitely turned some things on its head. I still feel, however, based on my one and only viewing, that it was too much out of left field. Thanks for commenting!

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