Remember the days when we were all obsessed with Game of Thrones? Put aside your thoughts on the finale for now. For years we gasped, cried and cheered over Game of Thrones as we waited to see who would sit on that very uncomfortable-looking sword chair. And now some scientists have figured out why.
A research team made up of mathematicians, physicists and psychologists from five universities across the UK and Ireland teamed up to understand exactly what makes the Game of Thrones books so compelling. The paper is titled Narrative structure of A Song of Ice and Fire creates a fictional world with realistic measures of social complexity.
It uses data science and network theory to examine how a complex narrative of such a massive scale was able to achieve success without giving in to reductionist simplifications. In other words, how did we all stick with a narrative as damn complicated as Game of Thrones?
The researchers uncovered that there are over 2000 named characters and over 41,000 interactions between them all. This sounds complicated but may just have been George R.R. Martin’s secret. At a chapter-by-chapter level, these numbers average out to match what a person can handle in real life. Even the main POV characters only have to keep track of around 150 others at any time. Which is also what the human brain has evolved to deal with.
You may be thinking ‘but George R.R. Martin kills off most of those 150 characters.’ But it seems that may also be by design.
Dr Padraig MacCarron, of the University of Limerick, explained in a statement: “These books are known for unexpected twists, often in terms of the death of a major character. It is interesting to see how the author arranges the chapters in an order that makes this appear even more random than it would be if told chronologically.”
Deaths in Game of Thrones may seem random but they actually reflect how common events are spread out for non-violent human activities in the real world. Professor Robin Dunbar, from the University of Oxford, commented that the paper “offers convincing evidence that good writers work very carefully within the psychological limits of the reader.” See? George R.R. Martin does have a plan.
The research team constructed an impressive neural map that charts the network of social interactions between characters in the first book. When you look at it this way, no one could blame you for forgetting that one guy’s name.
The paper sums up Martin’s formula like this:
1. The reader’s attention is maintained by the unexpected sequencing of significant events to encourage page-turning to find out why something happened or what happens next.
2. The reader’s sense of what is natural is not overtaxed (i.e. seemingly random events make sense).
Scientists are hoping this paper will continue to help to understand what makes complex narratives relatable and comprehensible to audiences.
This research just proves that Martin has been playing the long game since the beginning, and it’s paid off. Although hopefully his long game does have an endgame and we see those last two books sometime soon.