In the face of political tension, intrigue, and injustice, Ned struggles to remain virtuous, and by the end of the book he must reconsider what virtue means to him. He starts to see the importance of moral and practical compromises, though perhaps too late. His name, Stark, is an indication of his incompatibility with such compromises. Something stark is simple, severe, and rigid, like Ned’s initial boundaries between right and wrong. When the book starts he considers duty and justice to be one and the same. But as the story progresses, Ned finds himself in situations where loyalty and duty are at odds with his own sense of virtue, as when Robert’s demand that Ned consent to having Daenerys Targaryen and her unborn child assassinated. Ned is disgusted with these moral compromises, but by the end of the story he recognizes that politics demands sometimes dishonest acts to achieve a just end, as when he asks Littlefinger to bribe the Gold Cloaks to obtain their backing against the Lannisters.
Over the course of her story, Daenerys grows from a girl into a woman, and in the process becomes more of a true Targaryen as she becomes increasingly ambitious and vengeful. At the outset Daenerys is motivated only by a desire to go home to the house where she has spent most of her life in exile from Westeros, which she left as an infant. But her experiences as a khalisi (queen) among the Dothrakis give her confidence and make her more commanding and self-assured. At the end of the story, she no longer wishes to return and instead is ready to move on, literally repeating to herself that if she looks back she is lost. She prepares to leave the east and return to Westeros with an army, much as the ancient Targaryens left the Doom of Valyria to conquer Westeros. Daenerys also becomes vengeful. Initially, she fears Viserys and other people who would harm her. At the end of the story, Daenerys swears by every god she can think of that her enemies will die screaming. In the final chapter, Daenerys even embodies the words of House Targaryen, “Fire and Blood.”
Tyrion is perhaps most notable for being a little person, but though his height does not give him the best physical vantage point, Tyrion’s mismatched black and green eyes do not miss much. He is, perhaps, the smartest character in the novel (and is certainly at least the wittiest). He devises a way to escape the Eyrie, for instance, though it seemed impossible to do so. Tyrion also sees hard truths, and he is bluntly honest with himself, acknowledging how others see him because of his physical appearance, and with others as well, whether he is confessing his petty crimes before Lysa or giving Joff, Jon, or Tywin his advice. He has a gift for determining other people’s motives, and he may have more in common with the legendary Lannister family progenitor, Lann the Clever, than any of the rest of his family. Tyrion knows when someone can be bought, as with the mountain clans, and when someone cannot be bargained with, as with the Starks after Joff kills Ned. Moreover, Tyrion’s dual-colored eyes are something of a metaphor for the book’s multiple perspectives, since Tyrion can see things both ways. As such, he is somewhat morally ambiguous to the reader, and though Tyrion always proclaims his love for his family, he doesn’t forgive their flaws either. Consequently, even Jaime wonders whose side Tyrion is on.
Jon begins as something of a permanent outsider, but over the course of the story he finds his place in the Night’s Watch. Because he is not a legitimate son of Ned Stark, he is not fully part of the Stark family. Moreover, because he grew up relatively wealthy and educated, he is considered privileged and different by the other new recruits of the Night’s Watch. As a result, however, Jon is very independent and knows how to fend for himself, traits that ultimately allow him to feel assured enough to differ from his peers when he feels they are in the wrong. Much like Ned and Robb, Jon is surprised to find responsibilities thrust upon him as he becomes a leader among the new recruits at the Wall. Unlike his family, Jon has earned these responsibilities rather than received them as a result of his noble heritage. Jon leads without pride and without thought for himself, and he proves a wise and natural leader from the start of the novel. His argument and self-deprecation persuade Ned to spare the direwolf pups, for example. Later, he persuades his friends and Maester Aemon to be easier on Sam and to see what value he does have rather than focusing on Sam’s shortcomings. His skills with a sword earn him promotion, and his wisdom and devotion to others earns him a place as Commander Mormont’s successor-in-training. Even when Jon considers desertion, it is only for the good of Robb and others, and not for personal gain.