The answers were pretty standard, too: Tyrion, Arya, Arya, Jon… and then I opened my mouth and I said it. My favourite character is Sansa Stark.
In my memory the room drew back with a collective hiss, but I know it wasn’t that bad. A couple did, definitely, but a few others nodded. I wasn’t surprised. Sansa’s not enormously popular and, at the time, only the first series had aired in the UK; although Sansa had evolved into a much more nuanced and interesting character in the books, many people still only knew her as stuck-up Series 1 Sansa. (And Sansa in the first book/series is awful; that’s part of what makes her interesting. But we’ll get back to that.)
Things took a turn for the worse later, when we were discussing why we like the characters we’d chosen. I argued that Sansa is strong, interesting and well-characterized. The rest of the panel, and some of the audience, took issue with my claim. ‘She’s bitchy! She’s spoiled! She just sits around and waits for stuff to happen! She’s scared! She’s a coward!’, came the responses.
‘She’s thirteen years old,’ I said. ‘What would you have been like in her situation, when you were thirteen?’
Someone in the audience bit back. ‘Arya’s only eight and she doesn’t act like that.’
And there it is. Fiery independent Arya does the right thing, the heroic thing, the expected thing (for a main character in a fantasy series): she escapes, she vows revenge, she fights back. She does the thing we like to think we’d do, in the same situation. We want to be Arya.
But we aren’t Arya.
We are Sansa.
In a way, that audience member proved one of my points for me: the difference in Arya’s and Sansa’s responses to everything that happens to them is huge, and significant. It’s primarily significant of good writing and good characterization. Sansa and Arya two different people who respond to their situations in different ways. And they respond in ways that are consistent with their characters as previously established.
To begin with, we can never forget that both characters are the indulged daughters of an incredibly powerful nobleman. Sansa is more or less fine with the system because it’s set up to benefit her in a way it doesn’t and can’t benefit 98% of Westeros. Arya may rail against the status quo, but she has the privilege of doing so without serious repercussions. The system, as such, benefits both characters, in ways they do and do not immediately appreciate.
Arya, from the beginning of the series, is constantly fighting against that status quo. She doesn’t care about pretty dresses and doesn't want to spend her free time learning to embroider. She hasn’t got the patience for such activities, much less the desire. She also doesn’t want her future to be defined by her role as wife and mother, which are the only viable options she’s presented with. And she’s eight when the book opens; it is entirely believable that an eight-year-old girl wouldn’t care about dresses or embroidery, about marriage and family.
Sansa begins the series at age 13, an age when lots – by no means all, but many – young women do begin to care about boys and clothes, and start thinking seriously about the future. Importantly, Sansa has no real issue with the status quo. She – being the elder daughter of one of, again, one of the most powerful noblemen in her country – is a beneficiary of the status quo, and she more or less recognizes that fact, and she’s content with it.
And Sansa in the first book really is difficult. She’s established as having an uneasy relationship with Arya to begin with; her decision to side with Joffery following the fight with Mycah drives a wedge between the two that might never be repaired. But she’s punished for her decision with Lady’s death (which is in itself a significant act) and paid in full for it by the end of A Game of Thrones. If indeed one were even tempted to blame her for what she did. Which, of course, any reader might be; Arya is so clearly in the right and Sansa so clearly in the wrong that it’s easy to forget that a) they’re both very young, and b) Sansa is doing what she believes is right. But it’s also worth noting that Sansa’s trying to find a safe middle ground between Arya’s position and Joffrey’s; to say she can’t remember what happened is not an unreasonable effort at compromise.
Sansa takes the side of the man she’s going to marry – the future king of Westeros – at her sister’s expense, without understanding that Joffrey’s behavior during the incident is significant of a deep-seated and dangerous sadism and without knowing that the consequences of her decision will impact her directly. And how could she? How could she know that, by trying to negotiate a middle ground between Joffrey and Arya, her prospective future mother-in-law would demand the death of her own, well-behaved wolf? The incident isn’t just the first indication of the danger that Joffrey (and Cersei) pose for Sansa, because they – unlike Sansa – are willing to use the system in which they’ve been raised to further their own ends. It’s significant of the shifting of the balance of power that will follow in further books.
A Song of Ice and Fire is, in part, a series of books devoted to examining what happens when systems break down. Arya, who was never comfortable with the Westeros status quo to begin with, is slightly better set up to deal with immediate consequences of Ned’s execution and everything that follows. Sansa, on the other hand, becomes a prisoner of the chaos that develops around her. She has no coping mechanisms and no fallback position because she’s been raised to trust the system that is failing her.
Sansa is regularly told through the first book (and which she tells herself in later books) that ‘courtesy is a lady’s armor’. The significance of this single line is enormous; she, as introduced in A Game of Thrones, has been trained to operate within a system that encourages and rewards certain behaviour by women. Over the course of the novels, her defences are stripped away – beginning with her dire wolf protector, Lady – (get it? Get it?) and moving deeper and deeper through her family and friends and into her psyche until only a calamitous ruin remains.
A girl who expected to marry a handsome prince, rule a gentle court and be beloved as a kind and generous queen is reduced to a prisoner in a tower, beaten and tormented by her husband-to-be, used as a pawn by everyone else. No prince comes to save her, her eventual husband – to whom she is unwilling married – is the damaged dwarf uncle of her father’s murderer. Her knightly protectors are a psychotic monster and a mercenary drunk. The man who masterminds her rescue from King’s Landing is a scheming murderer with disturbingly unpaternal feelings for her. Her mother’s sister is consumed with irrational jealousy of her. Her parents and one brother are dead, her sister and two brothers have vanished (and are apparently dead), her last brother is stationed an impossible distance from her, her childhood home has been razed to the ground. She’s engaged to marry a murderous narcissist, the child of another murderous narcissist, who are between them responsible for the death of everything she’s ever known and loved. She is trapped by her circumstances as surely as if she’d been locked in a dungeon. Until she learns to use her history and her knowledge of the system that constrains her, she can have no hope of escaping it.
Arya is well suited to manipulate the system from without, considering her established character, her history and her status as outsider. Sansa is exceptionally well-suited to do the same from within, again considering her character, her history and her status. Every time the system seems to fail Sansa, Sansa survives and adapts. Her survival is passive, especially at the beginning of her story, but her adaptation becomes conscious.
What’s fascinating about Sansa’s character is how easy she is to underestimate. Although most (if not all) of the characters – and most of the audience – write Sansa off as a victim of circumstances, a not- particularly-clever girl with little agency and no power, she has the potential to become one of the series’ more significant characters. Sansa is in the unique position of being completely familiar with the system and therefore has the perspective to operate within – and succeed within – its confines. Only a handful of other characters in the series have a similar perspective and agency; they include Cersei, Tyrion and Littlefinger. All of whom Sansa has spent a significant amount of time with, and all of whom are themselves powerful players in the competition for control of the iron throne because they themselves have been consistently underestimated, and because they themselves consciously manipulate a society that underestimates them
Sansa is in a precarious, vulnerable position throughout most of the series, both books and television. The tv show emphasizes her vulnerability through the careful manipulation of symbols – her jewellery depicts insects, her clothing is covered in flowers. And not Margaery Tyrell’s golden rose belt; no, Sansa’s flowers are cloth roses sewn to her neckline, flowers and leaves embroidered on her dresses. Martin employs a different device in the novels to emphasize Sansa’s vulnerability; he attaches a number of recognizable fairytale tropes to her, from the princess in the tower to the wicked stepmother to the unnatural father. And then, over the course of the series, he carefully subverts each and every one. In both the television show and the novels, Sansa eventually takes control of her identity and her agency; in the books the process is largely internal as she constructs a new identity for herself, while in the show she finally learns to lie – and does so very effectively – and trades in her delicate fabrics and insect jewellry for a new, more confident and mature personhood.
All of which brings me back to my original point. Arya’s journey throughout the series – both books and television – is fascinating, and well worth its own explorative essay. But her character is more traditional, and more traditionally escapist, than Sansa’s. From the beginning Arya has a strong sense of self, and rails against the same social injustices we’d like to believe we would, in her situation. She rebels against a status quo that doesn’t offer her the same opportunities it offers her brothers, despite her desire and her worthiness. When the system breaks down she abandons it entirely. She is the character upon which thousands of epic fantasies have been built. She is the character we want to be.
But Sansa’s journey is no less fascinating. She’s changing herself from the inside-out, and evolving into a character with the ability and opportunity to effect change from her position within the system. It’s unfair of us to compare her to Arya, because they’ve been very ably developed from the very beginning as entirely different characters, who want different things and respond to their situations in very different ways. Where Arya’s impulse is to abandon the system that mistreats her, Sansa’s is to hide within it, to take what protection from it she can. As Arya begins to understand the power she has as an outsider, Sansa develops an appreciation for the kind of power she has on the inside. Eventually, both will come to learn how to use the system for their own ends.
One of the great fascinations of the series (both iterations) is its years-long tracking of a number of characters who are trying to reform themselves following a calamitous and ongoing breakdown of the social order. The noble children of Ned and Catlyn Stark are the nearest analogues to our comfortable middle-class selves in the series, which is why they’re so important as point-of-view characters: they’re the most like us. Their responses track most closely to how we’d like to respond, should our own society begin to fail. If our father was killed by a cruel king, we’d vow revenge, wouldn’t we? We’d teach ourselves to fight, wouldn’t we? We’d start a war, wouldn’t we?
Honestly, probably not. Because we are not Arya.
We are Sansa.
And that’s no bad thing.