Warning: spoilers of A Song of Ice and Fire.

I was reading through this site that you should avoid telling what a character is by using other characters, example "Dan is the funniest person I know" - Jack, instead, you should show that Dan is funny, "show don't tell".

So I was wondering, is Jaime Lannister an example of this? through A Song of Ice and Fire we hear how good of a swordsman Jaime is, over and over, but he never actually does anything that would prove this, he is captured in one of the first fights we see him in (might actually be the first, and we don't even actually see/read the fight), and even here we read how many people he killed before being captured, and yet again we're being told, not shown, and then he's captive for a while and ends up getting his hand cut, in which point we can't see him doing any fighting anymore because now he lost his fighting hand...

Is Jaime Lannister a perfect example of telling not showing, or did I get the concept wrong?

  • 8
    Jaime Lannister is a perfect example that there are no universal laws in writing. It all depends on the book you are writing.
    – user5645
    Jun 22, 2014 at 8:31
  • 3
    Besides, you work with what you have. Sure showing is better than telling, but trying to shoehorn a lengthy scene that would show Jaime's swordfighting mastery only for the sake of showing it is a poorer practice than just telling he is good at it.
    – SF.
    Jun 23, 2014 at 10:37
  • 4
    I think the complete rule is "Show don't tell, except sometimes tell don't show." Dec 4, 2015 at 17:16
  • didn't he beat eddard stark in kingslanding? Jul 19, 2019 at 13:57

7 Answers 7


An author cannot demonstrate in action every trait of every character. It's all about separating the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. Jaime Lannister is probably not an example of telling instead of showing, and here's why:

  1. The problem with "telling" is that it alienates readers from the characters.
  2. Another problem is that it creates characters that are shallow and emotionally inauthentic, which inhibits their growth through the story.
  3. If a character has too many "virtues" piled on, readers will resent it on principle.

I doubt Jaime Lannister fulfils any of these points. Near as I can tell, he is a pretty popular character, which many readers find compelling -- ergo, emotionally authentic.

Why is this? If Jaime as a character is defined by his swordsmanship, why don't readers feel cheated out of seeing him perform as a master swordsman? This is where the chaff metaphor comes in. What's important about Jaime is his redemption arc. What would have made readers feel cheated, is if the narrative insisted that Jaime is a reformed/redeeming antagonist, but failed to demonstrate either: 1) his terrible actions at first, or 2) his good actions consequently.

But, bottom line, without getting too mired in the details of one specific character, the lesson is this: when you show, focus on the traits that are most critical to the character's growth arc. Generally, it's more important to demonstrate personality traits or habit behaviors, as opposed to rank skill. This is usually also the difference between character flaws that are successful versus ones that feel tacked on.


There is an element the other answers do not address. Jaime has a reputation as being a great swordsman. We are shown, not told, that he has this reputation. A character's reputation is as much an attribute of his, as any skill or trait he might possess.

Now, a reputation can be true, or false, or somewhere in between. In fact, G.R.R. Martin addresses this, with various characters, Jaime included. For example, Jaime's "nickname" 'The Kingslayer' is taken as a negative thing, when in truth, he should have done it sooner. But in the absence of evidence to the contrary, we tend to believe reputation. It's a form of crowdsourcing. Like wikipedia: if wikipedia says, for example, that David Garrett is a renowned violinist who is performing with the best orchestras around the world, I don't need to have heard him to "know" he's good. If a lot of people say the same thing, they're probably not all wrong, right?

An interesting thing happens with Jaime: he has the reputation of being a great swordsman, but having lost his sword hand, this reputation is no longer true. Only, it's still a new thing, his reputation hasn't yet adjusted to "having been" a great swordsman. Quite a bit of story tension is derived from this.

  • 1
    That's the most accurate answer. Whenever Jaime's skills are mentioned, is an example of building setting, character relationship and reputation rather than telling.
    – Liquid
    Jul 19, 2019 at 9:48

I would disagree on this. I believe that the showing and not telling rule is followed mostly on the facts that are directly relevant to the story. Indirect relevance of facts are given by the back story. Jamie's swordsmanship is important to A Song of Fire and Ice. But it's not directly relevant to A Game of Thrones. However, it is directly relevant to A Clash of Kings (where Jaime is shown taking active part in The War of The Five Kings which forms an important chunk of the novel), thus, it is shown and not told in that novel.

I believe, to build a character, certain necessities are required. The showing and telling rule can be relaxed for back stories which have a vast range to cover (The total span of years for A Song of Fire and Ice is 1000 years). The thumb rule is not to be followed blindly. No rule in writing is to be followed blindly. Again, no rule is to be discarded blindly. Understanding the underlying principles of why a set of rules are followed is always necessary.

  • 4
    Few rules for anything should be followed blindly and unwaveringly. Any instruction on how to do something will include all sorts of general rules and guidelines. If you're a beginning student, you should follow them until you understand them. Once you understand why the rules were made, you will know when it is better to break them. Some of the worst disasters come from people who don't understand the rules thinking they can just ignore them. But some of the greatest triumphs come from people who are creative enough to know when to break the rules.
    – Jay
    Jun 23, 2014 at 15:57

I haven't read the book you're referring to, so I can't comment directly. But in general, as @AminMohamedAjani says, this rule, like many rules, can be applied too slavishly.

Suppose in a story you want the reader to know that Jaime is the greatest swordsman in the country. You could say, "Jaime is the greatest swordsman in the country." Then the reader will immediately know. But how would you show this? You could write a scene where he wins a duel. But that just tells the reader that he is better than this one other swordsman, not that he is better than all other swordsmen. You would have to write a whole series of scenes of him winning duels, gradually building up to establishing that he is the greatest swordsmen.

If the whole point of the story is to trace how Jaime became the greatest swordsmen in the country, then just writing, "Jaime lived in such-and-such a place. He became the greatest swordsman in the country. The end." would make for a short and boring story. You would want to give all the details and build up the drama. But if this is a tiny piece of background to support what the story is really about -- maybe a minor contributing detail, or maybe an extremely important point, either way -- then just writing that one sentence tells the reader what he needs to know and you move on.

When you think about it, no one really applies the idea of "show, don't tell" 100%. Lots of stories mention "France" without giving the entire history of where the country came from and the origins of its name. Many stories begin at the interesting point of a person's life, without giving the details of where he was born and his childhood if these are not relevant to the story. You can write, "Bob was born to a poor family" without describing the entire process of conception, development in the womb, his parents' trip to the hospital, etc.

  • +1 Show not tell is actually a rule drawn from theater/cinema writing, where it makes more sense. Plenty of great books spend large amounts of time on "telling." Dec 4, 2015 at 14:12

I actually asked a similar question to this in a different SE site, and I think that GRRM actually provides enough evidence to prove that he is an incredibly accomplished swordsman.

However, you are correct, that he does the majority of building up Jaime's legendary skill with telling rather than showing, but after researching it I realized that this was entirely intentional.

Yes, he is an accomplished swordsman, and we see it on several occasions, and others who have seen him fight can vouch for that. However, he underwent a very unique set of circumstances to build up the renown around the world that he is the greatest swordsman alive.

If you read the linked question, I've provided all the reasons for how his natural skill, luck, and also politics contributed to his legend. And this legend surrounding him causes him to become one of the most arrogant and cocky characters in the book, assuming that he can do as he pleases and get away with it because no one can stop him.

This was all to build up to the pivotal moment when he lost his hand. As the author loves to kill off the main characters, this was simply another one of them. He killed the greatest swordsman alive.

Throughout the rest of the story, Jaime goes through a massive transformation in character, as he reevaluates exactly who he is now that he can no longer fight with a sword. He had pinned his entire identity onto his right hand, and now he has to find another identity.

All of this whilst everyone else in the world treats him like the exact same entitled scumbag that he used to be. He gets to see exactly what he had become through the eyes of someone else. This encourages all of the actions he takes later, as he tries to repent for the sins of his former life.

However, he is required to maintain a balancing act with his former persona, as it is shown that he can no longer fight at all, and manages to get by for a very long time using only the legend of his fighting prowess that had been built up around him for all of those years. He needs everyone to think that he is still the greatest swordsman alive so that no one will challenge him, as he will surely lose.

So in order to write the redemption story and allow Jaime's character arc to progress the way it did, the author was actually showing the readers that the character managed to get by on reputation alone, and could continue to do that whilst also attempting to correct all his former mistakes.


His swordsmanship is mentioned and talked about as part of the myth the realm has built around him. Some of these things are true, some are not. In reality is all about his place in the world as other sees it. This is to establish his place in relationship to those that look up to him, hate him, or simply envy him. We learn that he is a masterful sword fighter in the eyes of others. That and his other trait (Kingslayer) might or might not be true. We are shown that these are the traits upon which others judge him. So what happens when this is taken from him? This is, in my mind at least, where his "show, don't tell" starts. He is suddenly no longer that same master of martial arts as he once was. People fear him less or not at all. How will Jamie deal with that? Or something along those lines at least. My pointis, his actual skill with a sword is irrelevant really, as long as everyone else thinks he is one of the best.


Part of the point of ASOIAF is that no character, except maybe spoiler, knows everything. Some characters are eyewitnesses to some things, most people are working off of second or third hand information for most things.

A person's reputation for skill is one of those things that not everyone can witness first hand, but the rumor is out there, and the characters and the reader must decide for themselves what they believe, and act accordingly.

(Though I think in this case, I think there are people who saw Jaime win in tournaments and the like, just not at the points in time when we get the POV descriptions, so it's safe for the characters and reader to assume it's true, at least prior to Jaime's maiming)

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