From The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America:
We use mathematical and statistical methods to probe how a sprawling, dynamic, complex narrative of massive scale achieved broad accessibility and acclaim without surrendering to the need for reductionist simplifications. Subtle narrational tricks such as how natural social networks are mirrored and how significant events are scheduled are unveiled. The narrative network matches evolved cognitive abilities to enable complex messages be conveyed in accessible ways while story time and discourse time are carefully distinguished in ways matching theories of narratology. This marriage of science and humanities opens avenues to comparative literary studies. It provides quantitative support, for example, for the widespread view that deaths appear to be randomly distributed throughout the narrative even though, in fact, they are not.
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Network science and data analytics are used to quantify static and dynamic structures in George R. R. Martin’s epic novels, A Song of Ice and Fire, works noted for their scale and complexity. By tracking the network of character interactions as the story unfolds, it is found that structural properties remain approximately stable and comparable to real-world social networks. Furthermore, the degrees of the most connected characters reflect a cognitive limit on the number of concurrent social connections that humans tend to maintain. We also analyze the distribution of time intervals between significant deaths measured with respect to the in-story timeline. These are consistent with power-law distributions commonly found in interevent times for a range of nonviolent human activities in the real world. We propose that structural features in the narrative that are reflected in our actual social world help readers to follow and to relate to the story, despite its sprawling extent. It is also found that the distribution of intervals between significant deaths in chapters is different to that for the in-story timeline; it is geometric rather than power law. Geometric distributions are memoryless in that the time since the last death does not inform as to the time to the next. This provides measurable support for the widely held view that significant deaths in A Song of Ice and Fire are unpredictable chapter by chapter.
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The series A Song of Ice and Fire (hereinafter referred to as Ice and Fire) is a series of fantasy books written by George R. R. Martin. The first five books are A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows, and A Dance with Dragons. Since publication of the first book in 1996, the series has sold over 70 million units and has been translated into more than 45 languages. Martin, a novelist and experienced screenwriter, conceived the sprawling epic as an antithesis to the constraints of film and television budgets. Ironically, the success of his books attracted interest from film-makers and television executives worldwide, eventually leading to the television show Game of Thrones, which first aired in 2011.
Storytelling is an ancient art form which plays an important mechanism in social bonding. It is recognized that the social worlds created in narratives often adhere to a principle of minimal difference whereby social relationships reflect those in real life—even if set in a fantastical or improbable world. By implication, a social world in a narrative should be constructed in such a way that it can be followed cognitively. However, the role of the modern storyteller extends beyond the creation of a believable social network. As well as an engaging discourse, the manner in which the story is told is important, over and above a simple narration of a sequence of events. This distinction is rooted in theories of narratology advocated by coworkers Schklovsky and Propp and developed by Metz, Chatman, Genette, and others.
Graph theory has been used to compare character networks to real social networks in mythological, Shakespearean, and fictional literature. To investigate the success of Ice and Fire, we go beyond graph theory to explore cognitive accessibility as well as differences between how significant events are presented and how they unfold. A distinguishing feature of Ice and Fire is that character deaths are perceived by many readers as random and unpredictable. Whether you are ruler of the Seven Kingdoms, heir to an ancient dynasty, or Warden of the North, your end may be nearer than you think. Robert Baratheon met his while boar hunting, Viserys Targaryen while feasting, and Eddard Stark when confessing a crime in an attempt to protect his children. Indeed, “Much of the anticipation leading up to the final season (of the TV series) was about who would live or die, and whether the show would return to its signature habit of taking out major characters in shocking fashion”. Inspired by this feature, we are particularly interested in deaths as signature events in Ice and Fire, and therefore, we study intervals between them. To do this, we recognize an important distinction between story time and discourse time. Story time refers to the order and pace of events as they occurred in the fictional world. It is measured in days and months, albeit using the fictional Westerosi calendar in the case of Ice and Fire. Discourse time, on the other hand, refers to the order and pacing of events as experienced by the reader; it is measured in chapters and pages.
We find the social network portrayed is indeed similar to those of other social networks and remains, as presented, within our cognitive limit at any given stage. We also find that the order and pacing of deaths differ greatly between discourse time and story time. The discourse is presented in a way that appears more unpredictable than the underlying story; had it been told following Westerosi chronology, the perception of random and unpredictable deaths may be much less shocking. We suggest that the remarkable juxtaposition of realism (verisimilitude), cognitive balance, and unpredictability is key to the success of the series.
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Ice and Fire is presented from the personal perspectives of 24 point of view (POV) characters. A full list of them, ranked by the numbers of chapters from their perspectives, is provided in SI Appendix. Of these, we consider 14 to be major: eight or more chapters, mostly titled with their names, are relayed from their perspectives. Tyrion Lannister is major in this sense because the 47 chapters from his perspective are titled “Tyrion I,” “Tyrion II,” etc. Arys Oakheart does not meet this criterion as the only chapter related from his perspective is titled “The Soiled Knight.” We open this section by reporting how network measures reflect the POV structure. We then examine the network itself—how it evolves over discourse time, its verisimilitude, and the extent to which it is cognitively accessible. Finally, we analyze the distributions of time intervals between significant deaths and contrast these as measured in story time versus discourse time.
PG notes that he has removed many footnote references in the OP from the excerpt above.