Though A Game of Thrones is a book of fantasy, it lacks the clear moral boundaries between good and evil found in many classic stories of the genre. Who is the most morally virtuous character, and who is the most morally despicable?
Thanks to the story’s moral ambiguity, this question seems deliberately to be without a clear answer. Ned might be the obvious choice for the most virtuous character, but he makes several questionable decisions. He asks Littlefinger to bribe the City Guard, for instance, to win their support. He also condones lying if the goal of the lie is a moral one. Moreover, the story is filled with other unlikely heroes who vie for the title. Tyrion proves himself to be principled by helping Bran despite Robb’s hostility and by keeping his promise to pay the Eyrie’s jailer for delivering his message. Jon also proves himself a good friend and a loyal servant, even when he is tested by his desire to help his family.
Among the more morally dubious characters, Robert turns out to be surprisingly corrupt. He allows Lady to die, he seems to be responsible for the realm’s deteriorating financial situation and totally unconcerned about it, and finally he orders the assassination of Daenerys and her unborn child. But Robert is not alone. The novel is full of self-interested schemers, chief among them Varys, Littlefinger, and Cersei. Joff, meanwhile, proves undeniably cruel. Even so, there are strong counterarguments for any character’s vice or virtue. Cersei's motives are understandable at times, specifically regarding her dislike of Robert, who was never faithful to her or showed her any real love. Robert became king without fully understanding what the role meant and quickly found himself in a position he despised but felt he could not abandon. Even Varys claims he works for the good of the realm, and while it is hard to believe him, there is no clear evidence to disprove his claim either. The novel's characters are never entirely good or bad, but exist somewhere in between the two.
In Greek drama, a tragic hero is a virtuous protagonist who falls from prosperity to adversity as a result of undeserved misfortune and a tragic flaw. If viewed as a tragic hero, what is Ned Stark’s tragic flaw?
Ned's downfall turns out to be his trust that others are as honorable as he is. Ned is tested many times over, and his decisions are understandable given what he knows, or thinks he knows, about honor and duty. He begins his journey to King’s Landing thinking he can trust that Robert is still a good man. Ultimately, Robert abandons Ned without seeking justice against Jaime Lannister, and Ned’s capture is easily accomplished after Robert’s foolish death. Ned trusts that Littefinger will honor his word and help him dethrone Joff and Cersei, and, almost predictably, Littlefinger betrays him. Ned may even trust that Joff will spare him if he confesses. Ned’s misplaced trust in the honor of others is closely linked the common flaw of ignoring difficult truths. Ned refuses to see that Robert has changed before he leaves for King's Landing, that Littlefinger can't be trusted under any circumstances, and that Joff will not show him nor his daughter mercy no matter what he admits to.
Daenerys Targaryen undergoes a radical character transition over the course of the book. In her journey from a scared girl to a confident khaleesi, does she become more or less like her brother Viserys?
Though Daenerys never quite approaches her brother’s level of cruelty, with her increased authority she certainly acquires a few of his traits. She makes vicious threats against the men who betray Drogo, for instance. She does not hesitate to sentence Mirri to a brutal death. Her commands become increasingly authoritative and arrogant, like her brother's were. She first demands that the khalasar stop so that she can explore the Dothraki Sea, and eventually she demands loyalty from men who owe nothing to her. On the other hand, she transitions from Viserys’ naïve worldview to possess much greater wisdom and experience, and she maintains a sense of concern for the wellbeing of others that Viserys never possessed. This concern is what leads her to stop the rapes that take place when the Dothraki attack the Lamb Men. Though Daenerys starts to act a bit more like her brother, her actions have a level of authority, sympathy, and rationality that Viserys never displayed.