After we finishing watching an episode of Game of Thrones the other night, my wife turned to me and asked "Why do you like this? Everyone in this show is a dick!" I knew this wasn't just a moment of Princess Bride-style exasperation ("Jesus, Grandpa, why'd you read me this thing?"), that she actually wanted to know. And I was at a loss to tell her. GoT has interesting characters, but other shows have that. It has well-plotted stories, but other shows have that as well. Ditto a well-crafted world with fascinating cultures. But nothing I could think of that was only in GoT.
So I tried a different mental tack. Maybe the reason that she wasn't loving it as much as I was, was that I had read the books and she hadn't. Elements of back-story that were explained in the book were omitted from the movie. Things were simplified. The characters became, in some respects, caricatures of themselves, with a trait that manifested in a dozen small events in the books being shown by one larger event in the show. But none of these are things that are unique to GoT.
Then yesterday when I was reading A Storm of Swords, I had a realization. What makes GoT different from so many other fantasy novels is George R.R. Martin's use of point of view. We don't just see the events with different characters' eyes, we think about them with different characters' brains, so a character who's one of the "good guys" when we're reading from one character's POV is a "bad guy" when viewed from another and a nonentity when viewed from yet another. Rather than black and white, we're presented with dozens of constantly shifting shades of grey. And consequently no one is really a "bad guy" except from a certain point of view*.
It's kind of a shame that the Serious Literary Critics will dismiss GoT as "just fantasy," because I think serious study of the books would do them good. Martin has produced a truly postmodern novel. Things happen. People even cause things to happen. And while there are stories, there's no one "story." Each character is their own protagonist, facing their own challenges, confronting their own opponents. And so we find ourselves in one chapter rooting for a character who we villify in another chapter. Nobody thinks that they're the bad guy, and at least for a while we're forced to believe them. That is what makes this series so fascinating to me.
* This also means that no one is really a "good guy" except from a certain point of view.