Have you ever read the credits on a movie and find a long list of “Bartender”, “Soldier A”, “Drug Addict,” “Man with Hilariously Large Penis” etc? Characters who appear only for brief moments with few, if any speaking lines and whose names remain unknown because the script writer never bothered to give them a name?
This is not a thing that happens in George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series. With few exceptions, almost everyone who speaks has a name. And many more who say nothing and then die without having done anything of importance. Yet the names do provide information on the complex political and familial relationships that permeate the plot and are tied to the recent (and distant) history of the world which they inhabit. And it is, very much, an inhabited world.
But it’s not just every person—it’s every place that has a name. Every place has a history, often an ancient and lofty one. Everything feels very lived in—sometimes excessively so. There is an air of historicity around it all—though still in use, their places are as old to people of Westeros as castles and medieval heraldry are to us… but they don’t seem to move past it. Curiously, no one seems to be building any new castles—not even within the past 100 years. They talk a lot about ancient technology without having any new technology of their own. One is left with the impression that to a certain extent, Westeros is in a state of arrested development.
And in those instances where the history isn’t ancient, it is still present as a personal history. The roadside inn that Catelyn Stark takes Tyrion Lannister captive is a place she remembers from childhood. The memory of it speaks to the history of the place, but also of the character. Unlike the typical fantasy trope of sheltered youth going out into the world the first time, Catelyn (and Ned and Tyrion) are already adults with complex pasts and a well-developed knowledge of the world.
Unfortunately for the reader, this standing knowledge often requires a dump of expository information to allow the reader to keep up with the character’s frame of reference, rather than having it revealed at the same time as the character discovers it. This also involves hundreds of characters and places as offhand references familiar to the POV character, each of which end up getting names but little in the way of physical descriptions or even any significant interactions.
It’s like being someone’s plus one at a wedding where you don’t know anybody. . . you’re introduced to tons of people, but likely don’t remember most of their names by the end of the night. You distinguish them by appearance and words and actions. If you spend ten minutes chatting with someone you might remember that person, but not the others.
But you don’t even speak to most of the people at the wedding beyond the initial greeting. And many of them are related and look alike so you get them mixed up, Todd looks like Thomas—or was it Tyler? Taggart? Tyrone?. Who are these people?
And then on top of that, (because this is a wedding in Westeros) half of them are dead before you even have a chance to try and figure out who they are. So what even was the point in learning their names in the first place?
These hundreds of named but largely unimportant characters and places honestly made it difficult for me to get through the first half of the novel. If I hadn’t watched the TV adaptation first, which at least gave faces to some of the names mentioned in the book I’m not sure I would have bothered getting to the second half (where all the interesting stuff happens).
It doesn’t seem like the greatest idea to bore or overwhelm your readers with specific but inconsequential details for that much of the story—and keep in mind this is not a short book. The first half of Game of Thrones is long enough to be a novel on its own.
I’m not alone in this dissatisfaction either. A quick look over some of the low-rated reviews of the novel on Goodreads reveals that many of them stopped reading around the mid-point (which is too bad, once all of the exposition is established, the second half does get better). But that is the problem with this structure—it doesn’t provide enough emotional footholds in a sea of characters to maintain the interest of many readers.
Personally, I was so busy trying to keep track of who was who, where they were, and what the heck was going on with all these tiny, granular details that I couldn’t really grasp onto any of the characters in an emotional sense. There was nothing for me to hold on to—all those details fell through my fingertips like grains of sand leaving my hand empty. It was unsatisfying—for me.
But that doesn’t mean it’s bad.
In fact, as it turns out, a lot of people really like playing in the sand.
More on why this structure works (for some readers) in Lessons from GoT Part 2: Building the Sandbox.
What about you? Do you have trouble keeping track of who’s who in Game of Thrones (book or TV series)?