Narrative structure of A Song of Ice and Fire creates a fictional world with realistic measures of social complexity

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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.

. . . .

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.

. . . .

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.

. . . .

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.

Link to the rest at The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

PG notes that he has removed many footnote references in the OP from the excerpt above.

7 thoughts on “Narrative structure of A Song of Ice and Fire creates a fictional world with realistic measures of social complexity”

  1. All right, so GRR Martin has created a fantasy world with some of the aspects of reality, such as gritty but realistic death counts. I’ll buy that.

    But it does beg the question — is that a better thing or a worse thing than fantasy worlds which are less grimdark? Just because one has done a thing doesn’t necessarily make that thing worth doing.

    • Martin’s approach may be lionized but it is hardly representative of the full range of the genre. The best feature of fantasy is it *doesn’t* require “realistic”. All it requires is internal consistency. Tastes will vary of course.

      Personally, these days I prefer my fantasy to be on the droll, amusing side.
      John Moore has a whole bunch of them, typically deconstructing the tropes of “high fantasy”. My favorite of his is “Heroics for Beginners”:

      Although his BAD PRINCE CHARLEY comes close.
      (“We set our scene in Damask: A kingdom that couldn’t get ransacked if it tried . . .
      But now that the king is dead, that’s exactly what his brothers have in mind. All they need is a bad king to take his place. The population will rebel, the neighboring kingdom will be “invited” to restore order, and they’ll be in business . . .

      Bad Prince Charlie will do. His reputation for “badness” precedes him, and everyone knows he wouldn’t spit on Damask to save it from Drought. At the mention of Lady Catherine (va-va-voom) Durace, he’s in on the scheme.

      But his father’s ghost has been skulking around the castle, and we all know that means trouble. If Charlie ever gets around to hearing the old man out, he may learn that his uncles’ mildly sinister scheme is actually a bonafide evil plot. Ransacking Damask is just a cover for the real game: Weapons of Magical Destruction. “)

      It’s not just less acclaimed authors or just modern ones; L. Sprague De Camp had a string of them, alone and in collaborations. Fredric Brown, and even Asimov played there.

      I cut my teeth on Tolkien (two read-throughs in one week) but my tastes have evolved to embrace both older and newer approaches. All different. Things like McKillip’s RIDDLEMASTER TRILOGY or ALPHABET OF THORNS. Pratt’s BLUE STAR, Leiber’s CONJURE WIFE and Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series. None of which are vaguely like anything Martin (or Tolkien) might put out.

      Piers Anthony’s XANTH started out ages ago in a similar vein of witty light fiction until it became a trilogy of trilogy trilogies…

      Rick Cook’s WIZ BIZ series is also a joy albeit one where the best gags require a passing familiarity with software development circa 1990 with a focus on UNIX. Even without it, it still works because it turns heroic fantasy on its head, while still adhering to some of the most common tropes of Portal Fantasies.

      Anybody who thinks Martin, Donaldson, and even Tolkien are the full scope of the field is missing out on some of the most enjoyable fantasies out there.

      (And I just talked myself into rereading HEROICS… Fortunately it’s a fast read.) 😉

  2. A world where everyone is plotting against everyone else and most people end up murdered does not have ‘realistic measures of social complexity’. A more apt description would be ‘treachery porn’.

    • Actually, that is an accurate description of the world of top level Federal Employees and it has been for decades. Note the source of the OP.

        • More than you might think.
          Stabbed in the back? Pretty much all.
          Where do you think all those media leaks and rumors come from?
          Backstab central.

          I have personal experience of a high level exec who was doing his job well and working to secure the future of the organization but his efficiency threatened the empire of a politically connected underlying. A call to a Congressman and he got promoted out of the way.

          His replacement had applied for a lower-ranking job and been beaten by (a much more capable) lady and after getting handed tbe top job at the facility, spent all his time undercutting the lady in question and her slice of the org instead of paying attention to the full scope of his granted empire, to everybody’s detriment.

          The surprising thing about government agencies isn’t how poorly they function but that they work at all despite the top level apparatchicks, both appointed and career, constantly jerking around the rank and file and middle managers.

          There is this not-so-invisible line separating the federal employees dedicated to doing their job and those playing power games; the SES. Martin may not have been one but his reported experiences in tradpub and Hollywood seem to be similar to the world of the SES.

          The murders may not be common but the ruined careers and lives are.
          Very Westeros.

  3. What was that previous post about using short words? It would have improved this immeasurably.

    My brain refused to parse, and when it parsed, to retain what it had so laboriously figured out.

    And I write complex novels and used to program supercomputers.

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