Game of Thrones is a show that’s famous for a lot of things, but one of them is its huge stable of characters. There are a ton of them and it was hard whittling them down enough to make a top ten list. My criteria for this list isn’t just who I personally like the most (because if it was, Walder Frey would slither his way into the mix), it’s also who I feel has the most depth, who’s most entertaining, and who is consistently compelling. That last part is important because if the show has any problems, it’s that it has a ton of storylines for a lot of the characters and much of the time, these characters spend a season or two being super boring. The very best characters on this show are interesting more often than they’re not, and when each of the principle characters are often doing wildly different things, that’s hard to maintain.
10. Arya Stark
A girl is Arya Stark, and she’s a super frustrating character. At her core, she represents an incredibly compelling sort of storyline to follow. She’s a lost child that gets her life torn apart by events outside her control, she sees death and destruction everywhere, and that trauma shapes her into a mass murderer bent on revenge. She’s one of the purest reflections of what all the violence on the show does to the world and the people in it, and when it comes to that she’s often a great character. Unfortunately, she has two fatal flaws. One issue with the character is her role in an annoying trend this show (and popculture in general) possesses. It brings in this idea that women who do traditionally feminine things are somehow inferior to tomboys like Arya and women who possess masculine traits. Arya claims “most girls” are stupid, Brienne’s rejection of feminine ideals is depicted as a good thing, and Lyanna Mormont (who is just the worst) is a walking, talking tough girl who sees “girly” things as stupid. On their own it isn’t a big deal, but the way the show has a trend of denigrating femininity as a whole seems counterproductive to its feminist messaging. Another issue is how her character went from being a reflection on trauma, to being this badass ninja assassin we’re always supposed to root for. With the exception of the amazing actor subplot, nothing Arya has done past season 4 has felt particularly engaging, and a big part of this list is about a character being consistently good rather than just occasionally good.
9. Ned Stark
Ned Stark is probably most famous for his shocking death and the fact that Sean Bean played him, but the character meant so much more to the show. He almost acted as Game of Thrones‘ thesis statement. He is what would happen if an honourable and decent man found himself wrapped up in the political intrigue and battle against corruption in a world that actually held consequences for mistakes. Ned Stark lived an honourable and decent life, yet he was humiliated, disgraced, and executed in front of a large crowd of people. Was the show saying that living a decent, unselfish life is a bad thing? Not exactly, because Ned’s legacy, the way he touched the lives of everyone who cared about him, lives on in a profound way. Even in the show’s seventh season, it’s clear that it’s impossible to escape his shadow, as his legacy resides within his friends, family, and even his enemies. With Ned, the show was saying it was different, that in the real world not all heroes get what’s coming to them, but it was also saying it’s worth living that sort of life anyways, even if you yourself don’t receive a happy ending.
8. Oberyn Martell
Oberyn is pure charisma in character form. He’s fun, flashy, and has shards of depth hidden in every one of his highly entertaining scenes. Like many characters on Game of Thrones, he owes much of his success to the talent of the actor that portrays him (Pedro Pascal), but there’s something beautiful about his short stint on the show. He’s a man who lives his life doing whatever he wants, and he almost has the skills, grace, and intelligence to pull it off, but in the end he is crushed in a humiliating fashion by an opponent he had many chances to defeat. He was an amazing person with very real pain brought on by the world he lived in, but his single-minded pursuit of revenge and his general devil-may care attitude cost him. Oberyn is always the coolest person in every room he’s in, and all of us wanted to be him a little, but his arc reminds us why that may not be the wisest thing.
7. Davos Seaworth
I love Davos. His unwavering loyalty and his wisdom make him one of the show’s most purely good characters. He starts the series working for Stannis (a character who honestly wasn’t half the man Davos is), and is now currently under the command of Jon Snow, yet in both roles he manages to bring humanity and relatability that is often absent with these characters. Unlike basically every major character (besides Littlefinger), Davos is of lowbirth, and he’s possibly the only main character of lowbirth that is treated as a force of good on the show. All other characters of his kind are either secretly sons of Kings or utter scum. The common people in Game of Thrones are not exactly shown in a positive light, but Davos thankfully breaks the mold. There is something about Davos’ presence that just relaxes you as a viewer, and I’m sure it’s that very quality that makes him so instantly trustworthy to the characters that surround him. He’s on this list because he’s another in a long line of well cast and well realized characters.
6. Sansa Stark
Sansa Stark is to femininity what Davos is to being poor on Game of Thrones. She knits, she cares about looking good, she’s talented at being a proper lady, and the show doesn’t denigrate these skills or treat them as dumb distractions. Sansa is allowed to be a lot of the things she was hated for in the early seasons while still having the show on her side. She’s a character that isn’t traditionally strong in the way a lot of other characters are, which makes for an interesting dynamic with much of the cast (her scenes with Cersei being particularly good). Sansa’s only misstep as a character is in her arc in the fifth season of the show (a total disaster). She basically goes through more unnecessary suffering for no reason and then suddenly gains “leadership” skills, which is a confusing trajectory for a character whose main strength is her evolution. She has this fascinating and disturbing dynamic with her mentor/creepy uncle Littlefinger, but the series completely sidelines it in the fifth season for no particular reason, and the pay off is both insignificant and illogical. Still, there’s something refreshing about a Stark that sees all the death and misery that has befallen her family and actually learns from it, and for that reason it’s always worth being invested in what Sansa Stark ends up doing next.
5. Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish
There is something deeply amusing about a character like Littlefinger. If there was a singular character that represented Game of Thrones at its best and worst, it would be him. He’s a schemer who finds his heart in conflict between a lust for power and a lust for a the daughter of a girl who rejected him when he was a kid (both of these desires being deeply connected). He’s a person whose journey began with a traumatic event involving said girl, and ended in a way that brought it all full circle. He’s the mirror image of Ned Stark, a man with no honour and no integrity, literally prospering off the backs of good-natured people. But there are so many different elements to his identity that swirl around the show’s universe in bits and pieces. He’s a self-made man who started from the bottom and dreams of one day slaughtering everyone who looked down on him growing up (he despises his nickname, “Littlefinger”). He’s a brothel owner who likes to randomly exposit his character motivations while ordering his prostitutes to “practice” in front of him. He’s a Master of Coin who lets the Crown fall into massive debt on his watch, a schemer who no one trusts, and a pimp who can’t get any of the girls he actually likes to love him. He’s full of contradictions, and not a lot of him makes sense, but that’s part of what makes him so perfect. He may be calm and composed, but he’s chaos personified and he knows it. He’s almost like a power fantasy for nerds who can’t get the girls they like to like them back, but that’s part of what makes his end so perfect because fantasies never last forever. He orchestrates the War of the Five Kings that the first three seasons of the show are about, but what I’m always going to remember him for is his rapacious and transparent social climbing, his shifting accents, his pretentious advice, and his hilarious reputation as the village schemer. Everyone knows he’s an untrustworthy worm, he will even tell you that to your face, and people still fall for his scheming. That will never not be funny to me. Lord Baelish may be gone, but his presence will never be forgotten.
4. Jaime Lannister
The guiding principle to every major character in Game of Thrones is a heart in conflict with itself. Characters usually want one thing very badly, but a more primal and overpowering urge is keeping them away from said goal. Arya wants to retain her identity as a Stark, but her murderous rage leads her on a path to becoming “no one”, Littlefinger wants power, but is sidetracked with his obsession with Catelyn Stark and her daughter, and Jaime Lannister wants all the nobility and glory of being a knight, but is held back by his duty to his family and his love of his sister. Jaime is already disillusioned with the world and knighthood by the start of the series due to the events that earned him the title “Kingslayer”, but a tiny part of him still wants to be known as a hero. He saved a million lives, but the world sees him as an opportunistic scoundrel. As a result, he spends a lot of his time as something of a scourge in the world, under his sister’s thrall. He was humbled with the loss of his hand, but he’s still someone we know who’s a noble person deep down doing a lot of horrible things. He’s the dark knight of Westoros, a fallen hero who reflects back at the world what it already sees of him. With the ending of the show’s seventh season, he finally takes a step into the realm of honour and duty, and it feels like a hard fought victory after a long battle. Jaime’s this high on my list because he’s the most interesting traditional hero on the show, even as he spent most of his time being the villain.
3. Tyrion Lannister
Remember how I said my list would also incorporate consistency? Well I’ll give an exception to that with Tyrion. The truth is, Tyrion was an amazing character for the first four seasons of the show but fell off dramatically after he left Kings Landing and joined Daenerys’ subplot. What makes Tyrion worthy of this spot though is how much of a popcultural sensation he was in his prime. He was an unconventionally compelling protagonist in our media, and he was so, so good at what he did. Maneuvering the political landscape of Kings Landing, battling his sister, saving the city, and his angst with his father was what was so great about Game of Thrones encapsulated in one character’s stunning arc. So many of the best lines and dramatic performances happened because of Tyrion Lannister. Also, no one has a network of connections quite like him, with relationships with virtually every other major castmember that are strong enough to carry several scenes on their own. Tyrion with Cersei (the best pairing on the show), Tyrion with Jon Snow, Tyrion with Sansa, Tyrion with Littlefinger, Tyrion with Daenerys… Tyrion with literally any character is compelling if you give him enough time. Again, it’s a real shame what happened to his arc after season four, but for the seasons where he was good, he WAS the show.
2. Tywin Lannister
At the heart of the disease of corruption and evil in Westoros is the Man Who Owns the World, Tywin Lannister. In fiction, it’s generally hard to create a believable ultimate mastermind character, but Game of Thrones somehow did with Tywin. He’s not a mustache twirling, sinister bad guy, but a powerful man in cold pursuit of a singular goal. The scariest thing about Tywin is that he almost seems like a respectable person on the surface level. He does everything for his family, his brutal actions are necessary to not prolong any more conflicts, and he generally rewards allies in his schemes. He’s also portrayed by the incomparable Charles Dance, who gives Tywin the necessary charisma and grace to win over audiences everywhere. Tywin however, was one of the show’s greatest monsters. He controlled the Seven Kingdoms for half a century with an iron fist, he cruelly ordered the extermination of more than one house, he was the mastermind behind the infamous Red Wedding, and he did this all from the shadows. He used proxies to carry out his will, and he won not from any particular military brilliance, but through a cold understanding of human desire and a complete lack of morality. Even his one redeeming quality, his love for his family, is a lie. He doesn’t love his family, he loves the idea of family, his entire being was dedicated to increasing position and status of the Lannister name, not the well-being of the Lannister children. His children are deeply damaged individuals, and that’s largely because of the way he treated them. Some of the show’s most enjoyable scenes involved this twisted dynamic between him and his family play out on screen. A great irony to his character is that he knew everything there was to know about the world he controlled, but he didn’t know a thing about the family he claimed to care about. One of the show’s most beautiful arcs played out between him and his dwarf son Tyrion, a person who he sees as a punishment from the Gods rather than his own flesh and blood. Out of all his children, Tyrion was the one most like him, but he couldn’t see past himself. If he had only been capable of the one thing a father should be able to do, to love his children, he wouldn’t have died as he did. For a man so obsessed with his legacy to be killed by his own son while on sitting on toilet, a more perfectly tragic ending to this amazing villain couldn’t be imagined. From beginning to end, Tywin’s arc was perfectly executed, and while he may not have appreciated the way he died, his usage in the show was certainly worthy of his approval.
1. Cersei Lannister
It could only have been Cersei, as no character is as consistently dynamic and entertaining as she is. There is never a dull moment with her, no false notes, no pointless story arcs; just everything that is good and fun about the series in one character. The moment she uttered the series’ most iconic line (and title drop), I knew she would be something special. Despite being an unambiguous villain, there’s enough humanity in her that you can understand her actions and perhaps even root for her. Her arc is the direct opposite of her twin brother, where he struggled to find honour and grows to be a more decent person, Cersei falls deeper and deeper into darkness and grows more and more twisted as the things that anchor her humanity start to leave one by one. Lena Headey (who for my money gives the strongest performance of the cast), pulls this arc off with style, which allows the character to be simultaneously funny, frightening, and endearing at different intervals (often within the same scene). There is also something weirdly relatable about Cersei, at least in comparison to her peers. While other schemers on the show prefer their conspiracies, their intricate plans and long term plots, it’s refreshing to see Cersei engage in these short-term cathartic coups that centre on extreme violence. She’s someone that’s always been on the edges of power, due to her gender she always had to scrape and scrounge for every little bit that she could get, so when she does get to wield it, it always makes for explosive moments. Another refreshing aspect about her character is the way she bluntly derides her enemies, the way her posh accent contrasts with the boorish and cruel words on her enemies is almost lyrical in how well they compliment each other. Cersei as a whole is a boiling container of rage and resentment, created by a society that didn’t let her be who she wanted to be. She’s aware of this and laments it, and that drives her to do all these horrible things, and that’s tragic in a way. Despite her deep cruelty, you can always feel a twinge of sympathy and understanding for her, but she never sacrifices what makes her a villain at her core. She truly cares about her family, and the show makes a point of showing that these feelings are far more genuine than her father’s were, but her love of her family comes in direct conflict with her love of power, and the more she vies for the latter, the more the former suffers. Fittingly, she’s the last major character that is still actively playing the game of thrones, even in the face of a zombie apocalypse, and I respect the hell out of her for it. The show writers actually crafted a character who would rather see the human race end than see her enemies on her throne, and they did so in a believable and engaging way. She’s the Evil Queen archtype perfected. Much like Sansa, even though you have every reason not to, you can’t help but admire Cersei Lannister, the best character on Game of Thrones.
Honourable Mentions: I’d be remiss not to mention Jon Snow. Although I don’t particularly like him, and his dire warnings on the threat of the Wight Walkers can be a bit repetitive (“I’VE LOOKED INTO THE NIGHT KING’S EYES”), he’s a stalwart character that never truly becomes dull. He veers too closely to being a traditional fantasy hero for my liking, but for as much screen time as he has, it’s genuinely impressive that he hasn’t truly bored me to the extent of a lot of the other characters have.
Quote of the Day:
“If anything goes wrong, kill the silver-haired bitch first, then our brother, then the bastard who calls himself king… The rest of them you can kill in any order you see fit.”
– Cersei summing up why I love her in one exchange with her bodyguard, the Mountain. Game of Thrones.