Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

Tyrion Lannister and the Ugly Stick


I mentioned in my post last week that Ned Stark was probably my favorite character in Game of Thrones, but it was neck-and-neck with a character that I was pre-conditioned to dislike: The Imp, Tyrion Lannister. For those of you not familiar with the story, Tyrion is a dwarf, and this is how he was introduced:

“…the youngest of Lord Tywin’s breed and by far the ugliest. All that the gods had given Cersei and Jaime, they had denied Tyrion. He was a dwarf, half his brother’s height, struggling to keep up on stunted legs. His head was too large for his body, with a brute’s squashed-in face beneath a swollen shelf of brow.”

Now, at this point, about 50 pages into the Bantam paperback copy, I was already predisposed to disliking the Lannisters in general, and I now expected the worst of Tyrion. When he speaks for the first time, he’s perched above a door like a gargoyle, dispensing ‘advice’ to the bastard, John Snow (I felt obliged to call him a bastard, because there is a major fascination with bastards in GoT). By the end of the scene with Snow, I wasn’t sure what to make of Tyrion—he was a Lannister, and ugly,so he must be a bad guy, right? And there was something vaguely threatening and unsettling about his appearance in the scene, even though the words he shared with Jon were wise. As the book unfolded and we got into Tyrion’s head, I found him to be one of the most interesting characters in the book. Tyrion was extremely smart and resourceful, witty, even charming, in his own way—a far cry from what I expected. He was also desperate for his father’s approval and love, and hardened by the scorn of others.
I hate to admit that I allowed myself to assume Tyrion was bad because of his physical appearance. So many ugly characters in books and movies are also ugly in thought and deed, and I let that influence my expectations. We are preconditioned to dislike ugly characters. Sadly, art is a reflection of life and society, and our society places a high value on physically attractive people—too high a value, in fact. It’s that judging a book by its cover thing. Martin did a terrific job in Game of Thrones in turning this trope on its head—Tyrion was not pure as the new-driven snow by any means, but he turned out to be a far more interesting, likeable and sympathetic character than his beautiful sister and brother (though, mild spoiler, his brother redeemed himself later on in the series, to a certain extent).
In her post yesterday, Angela Ackerman warned againstwriting cardboard villains. One of her admonitions was to not fall into the trap of making them ugly. I agree, and would point out we should make sure we carry this into life beyond our writing as well. Have a pleasant weekend, all.

11 Responses

  1. Excellent post, Jeff. Yes, they've done studies and found that attractive people are liked and trusted more than ugly ones, even if they've done nothing to earn it.

  2. Tyrion is a bad guy – he does murder after all.

    But he is also my absolute favourite character in the whole series. He has so much depth, and his wit is second to none. I'm now reading book five and he's still on sparkling form.

  3. I've never made it a point to push ugliness on any of my characters. Some of the meanest people in my books are quite attractive. In my MG Monster City two characters actually took on transformations that scared even me. And again, not ugly people. I think writers need to remember to let a character's true personality unfold for the reader instead of just flinging it in their face but like you said, sometimes writers use it and it works.

  4. Yeah, I've seen those. While I don't think I'm ugly, I'm no Dash Riprock, either–and I've got a mustache!–double whammy!

  5. You are correct, Donna. When almost everybody is killing somebody, it's easy to lose sight of that! Glad to hear he's in good form–I missed him in book 4.

  6. Isn't it great when you can scare yourself, or make yourself cry, or angry? I find I don't really describe my characters all that much, unless it seems important.

  7. I think most people automatically assumed Tyrion a bad guy for being a Lannister, though I had a feeling when he was first introduced, both in book and tv series, that he was somewhat an outcast to the rest of the family and maybe not as bad as the others. But I have to say, I loved him as soon as he gave his advice to Jon Snow in the scene you mentioned above.

    I feel inclined to make my bad-guys attractive, at least to some extent, but in an off sort of way. Sometimes the people who are most beautiful on the outside are really ugly on the inside and as a writer I have the ability to teach whoever is reading what I've written about that.

    Thanks for this post, Jeff 🙂

  8. I enjoyed the post. Interestingly enough, all my characters are attractive in their own way, especially villains because they need to be the tempting and crafty spider in the middle of the web.

  9. Good-looking bad guys–you trope buster, you! I re-read that scene for this post, and it is terrific, isn't it? Thanks for stopping by.

  10. Thanks, Lexa. It's funny, I don't spend too much time describing characters in terms of how they look. I might give them some general descriptors–tall, short, wide, lanky–but I don't usually say if they're ugly or gorgeous unless it's something the POV character would think of. Thanks for coming by!

  11. Again, haven't read the books yet, but in the show, after Ned dies, the only reason I kept watching was because I loved Tyrion's character so much. I note that they had to make him attractive for television. *sigh* I tried making a character in one of my books less than attractive and it did not go over with betas, CPs or editors. LOL.

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