Game of Thrones is considered the most successful fantasy series of all time, and that’s in part because the characters actually interact in a similar way to real people, academics suggest.
And while important characters are famously killed off at random as the story is told, the underlying chronology is not really unpredictable – as stories go.
These are the not-so-fantasy findings of a team of physicists, mathematicians and psychologists from five universities in the UK and Ireland who took a scientific look at the structure of A Song of Ice and Fire, the series of books that inspired the TV series.
The first of the five was published in 1996, and to date over 70 million units have been sold in more than 45 languages.
The irony – as the authors note in their paper in the journal PNAS – is that author George RR Martin, who is also a screenwriter, “conceived the sprawling epic as an antithesis to the constraints of film and television budgets”. But TV got interested, and the rest – as they say – is history.
The team from Coventry, Warwick, Limerick, Cambridge and Oxford universities used data science and network theory to analyse the narrative structure of the sprawling saga.
They found that while more than 2000 named characters have over 41,000 interactions, at a chapter-by-chapter level these numbers average out to match what we can handle in real life.
Even the main characters who tell the story have on average only 150 others to keep track of. This is the same number that the average human brain has evolved to deal with.
“The narrative network matches evolved cognitive abilities to enable complex messages to be conveyed in accessible ways while story time and discourse time are carefully distinguished in ways matching theories of narratology,” the authors write in their paper.
While the many deaths may seem random to the viewer, when their chronological sequence is reconstructed they are not random at all, they suggest. Rather, they reflect how common events are spread out for non-violent human activities in the real world.
The trick in Game of Thrones, it seems, is to mix realism and unpredictability in a cognitively engaging manner.
“This study offers convincing evidence that good writers work very carefully within the psychological limits of the reader,” says Oxford’s Robin Dunbar.
The series has invited various comparisons to history and myth, and the marriage of science and humanities in the recent study opens new avenues to comparative literary studies, the researchers suggest.
“People largely make sense of the world through narratives, but we have no scientific understanding of what makes complex narratives relatable and comprehensible,” says Warwick’s Colm Connaughton.
Nick Carne is the editor of Cosmos Online and editorial manager for The Royal Institution of Australia.
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