Tyrion Lannister has become a household name. Anyone who knows someone with an HBO subscription has heard of him. George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire has been making waves throughout the fantasy community for over a decade. Tyrion has become the face of it, along with Jon Snow and Dany.
What makes Tyrion such a compelling character are his differences from what’s considered standard by traditional fantasy. He’s a dwarf. He’s ugly. He has a weakness for whores. He isn’t strong or physically intimidating. He’s not gallant, and he’s completely ruthless.
Back in the day, Tyrion would’ve been a villain.
Yet, we’re made to like him. Like so many of Martin’s characters, Tyrion is made of layers. Is he a member of the “bad guy family?” Yes, but he’s an outcast among them. We feel empathy for Tyrion because of his terrible past, and because of how people treat him based on his appearance. We cheer for him when he succeeds, whether it’s repelling an invasion or getting in that last line against Cersei. Tyrion perseveres against everything, even his own side, and plays the Game of Thrones as well as anyone.
There are more than physical flaws to Tyrion though, and those paint a much fuller picture. Despite his every right to be jaded with the world, Tyrion cares about people. Namely, misfits, cripples, and outcasts. He doesn’t hurt people senselessly; he’ll only do it if he believes it’s necessary to protect something or someone he loves. And what’s more, he thinks about it.
Actions may speak louder than words, but part of what makes the Tyrion POV chapters so captivating are his internal thought processes. His self-deprecating humor, the times he holds his tongue, and the times he doesn’t, his mind during the books’ pivotal moments. The most telling, I think, are when Tyrion does something out of love, and chastises himself for it. That’s when he’s at his most human, and most interesting.
He plays the game against brutal opponents, and needs to outthink them on a daily basis. But then he’ll throw his plans aside, or jeopardize them, because he’s worried about someone he cares about. He knows it’s a mistake, but he’ll do it anyway. Who hasn’t done something they’ve known to be dumb, for someone they’ve cared about?
The Lannisters are not a well-loved family, but they are a compelling family. Tyrion’s only one branch of that tree, but he’s a fan favorite for a reason.
When you write someone who evokes sympathy based on their appearance, it can work, but rarely is the character backed up by anything substantial. It’s much more powerful to make the diseased, the crippled, and the outcast, flawed in their own right. Make their weaknesses their strength. Have them learn something from their faults that comes into play later. Make them press on, but make them human, not a mouthpiece.
Tyrion Lannister isn’t perfect. He may not even be a hero, or a good person, but he is a great character, and he’s one of the reasons why people love to read Song of Ice and Fire.