The only survivors of the Targaryen dynasty after the Sack of King's Landing, Daenerys Targaryen and her brother Viserys are hidden away on the continent of Essos. To regain the Iron Throne, Viserys arranges for his sister to wed the Dothraki warlord Khal Drogo in return for the use of his bloodriders. The rash Viserys is eventually killed by Drogo, but Daenerys, also known as Dany, blossoms in the role of Khaleesi. After her husband's death and the birth of her three dragons from eggs she places on Drogo's funeral pyre, Daenerys begins marching her khalasar across Slaver's Bay in central Essos, liberating slaves, building her army, and marshaling the resources she will need to take back the Iron Throne for herself. By the end of Book 5, A Dance with Dragons, Daenerys has become queen in Meereen, though her rule has become troubled.
A key character throughout the series, Tyrion Lannister is the youngest of the three children of Lord Tywin Lannister. He is also a dwarf, mockingly called the Imp, and although he is loved by his brother, Jaime, he is despised by his father and his sister, Cersei. Tyrion is intelligent and clever, although he hides his pain by drinking and sleeping around. He is also compassionate and a careful observer of human nature. As the series progresses, Tyrion tries to win the respect of his father by serving as Hand to young King Joffrey and defending King's Landing during the Battle of the Blackwater, but he continues to be an outcast. He is finally accused of young King Joffrey's murder, murders his father after a final betrayal by Tywin, and flees to Essos with the hope of finding and serving Daenerys Targaryen.
As a baby, Jon Snow was brought to Winterfell by Ned Stark, who told his wife, Catelyn, that the child was his blood. Jon has been raised as one of Ned's own sons, but Catelyn has never accepted him. Eventually, Jon decides to leave Winterfell and join the Night's Watch, a brotherhood that mans the great ice Wall to the north and defends Westeros from the Others. Jon's intelligence, skills, and compassion make him popular with other young recruits. These qualities are also noticed by the Lord Commander, who begins grooming the young man for leadership. After the Commander's death, Jon is elected to take his place and begins to try to arrange a peace with the wildlings, Free Folk who live beyond the Wall and have long been enemies of the Watch. With the Others approaching, they now want only to gain the safety of being south of the Wall. Jon's compassion, and his uneasy relationship with Stannis Baratheon, prove unpopular with his men, and several of them rebel at the end of Book 5, stabbing Jon repeatedly. His fate is unknown.
Cersei is an ambitious, unhappy woman, frustrated by the fact that her gender prevents her from having any true power. Wed by her father to King Robert Baratheon, Cersei finds comfort from her cold, empty marriage in the arms of her twin brother, Jaime. Together, they have three children that Robert assumes are his. Eventually, Cersei arranges Robert's death and attempts to gain the power she has always craved by serving as Queen Regent for her son Joffrey. Her schemes are continually undermined by her father and other powerful men and are further threatened by Margaery Tyrell, who first weds Joffrey and then his brother, Tommen, after Joffrey dies. Cersei frames Margaery for treason, but her own crimes catch up with her, and in A Dance with Dragons she is imprisoned by the High Sparrow of the Faith to await judgment.
Arya Stark is a tomboy, described by her mother as "half a boy and half a wolf pup." The only point-of-view character in all five books, Arya despises the "feminine arts," preferring to spend her time in mock swordplay with boys. She tends to be headstrong and somewhat disobedient, constantly getting in trouble, both at home and in King's Landing, where she moves with her sister, Sansa, and her father, Ned. After Ned is executed, Arya becomes a fugitive and proves to be a tough survivor, able to fight her way out of even the most dire of situations. She also learns to kill when the situation demands it, even creating a death list of those she thinks deserve the ultimate punishment for their actions. In Books 4 and 5, Arya makes her way to Essos and the House of Black and White, where she becomes a novice with the Faceless Men, a holy order of paid assassins who can shift identities at will, and learns all she can from them.
Catelyn Tully Stark is intelligent, politically astute, and a force to be reckoned with. In love with, and loved by, her husband, Ned, she is also his equal partner and has great influence over him. Her key strength, which is also her weakness, is her fierce devotion to her children and her obsessive need to keep them safe. These traits lead Catelyn to make ill-fated decisions, the most dangerous of which is her abduction of Tyrion Lannister, whom she thought had been behind an attempt on her son Bran's life. This action begins a siege by House Lannister against Riverrun, the Tully family home. She also had urged Ned to take on the role of Hand of the King in a court known for its treachery, a decision that eventually leads to his death. Desperately attempting to protect what's left of her family, Catelyn continues to try to influence events, primarily through her son Robb, who has become King in the North. Eventually, though, she and Robb are murdered by Walder Frey at the Red Wedding in A Storm of Swords. But her ravaged body is resurrected by Beric Dondarrion, and she makes an appearance at the end of Book 4 as the fearsome Lady Stoneheart.
Appearing in all five books, Jaime Lannister is a tall, handsome man, the first-born son of Tywin Lannister, and Cersei's twin. A member of King Aerys II Targaryen's Kingsguard, Jaime was the youngest person ever to achieve the honor, but he later murdered the increasingly unstable king in what was considered the ultimate betrayal of his duties and thereafter became known as the Kingslayer. Jaime found comfort in his sister's arms, and the two of them bore three children, all thought to be the offspring of King Robert. But when the relationship is discovered by young Bran Stark, Jaime pushes him out a window. In later books Jaime becomes a key point-of-view character, and readers see another side of him. He is capable of compassion, love, and even honor, and he finds himself struggling for a chance at redemption.
The eldest son of Ned and Catelyn Stark, Robb is one of the few key characters not revealed through point-of-view chapters. He is seen primarily through the eyes of his mother and other family members and is shown to be very similar to his father, with a strong sense of justice and a devotion to honor. After his father's arrest for treason and the Lannister attack on Riverrun, Robb unites the Stark bannermen behind him and goes to war. Wisely taking the advice of experienced counselors, Robb is successful and is named King in the North by his followers. But he is still a young man, makes some poor decisions, and experiences several setbacks. His fatal decision occurs in Book 3, A Storm of Swords, when he breaks an oath to marry one of Walder Frey's daughters. Walder, a proud, treacherous man who ironically prizes loyalty above all, arranges a marriage between Robb's uncle and one of the Frey daughters. He lures Robb, Catelyn, and their supporters to a celebration that becomes the slaughter known as the Red Wedding.
Sansa is the eldest daughter of Ned and Catelyn Stark and appears in the first four books. She is a "lady" and thrives on tales of courtly romance and chivalrous knights. Her dreams appear to be coming true when she is betrothed to Prince Joffrey Baratheon and moves to King's Landing. However, Sansa soon discovers that Joffrey is spoiled, irrational, and sadistic. After he becomes king, he has her father beheaded as a traitor and forces Sansa to view the head on a spike. Sansa still attempts to cling to her romantic notions, but they are literally beaten out of her by Joffrey. Once the marriage is called off, Sansa is wed for strategic purposes to Tyrion Lannister, against both their wishes. When Joffrey is poisoned and Sansa is suspected of aiding Tyrion in the murder, she is rescued by Petyr Baelish and begins to learn the harsh realities of the game of thrones under his tutelage.
Bran, a key point-of-view character throughout most of the series, is the second son of Ned and Catelyn Stark. His favorite pastime is climbing the walls of Winterfell. On one of his adventures, he peers through a window and sees Cersei Lannister and her brother Jaime making love. Jaime shoves Bran from the window, hoping to kill him but crippling him instead, putting the boy in a coma. As he lies unconscious, Bran begins having visions. When he awakens, he has no memory of the accident, but the visions continue. Bran eventually meets Jojen and Meera Reed. Jojen has prophetic visions himself and wants to help Bran learn to use his gifts and find the "three-eyed crow" he has been seeing in his mind. After barely escaping when Winterfell is attacked and burned, Bran, the Reeds, and Bran's companion, Hodor, leave for the north, eventually finding the cave of the three-eyed crow, who turns out to be the last greenseer (one who is able to see the future through magical abilities). There, Bran will learn to hone his gifts and help save Westeros during the coming long winter.