Nice to meet you, Harwin—or is it Hullen?
A few years ago, I wrote a blog post in which I tried to use Metcalfe’s Law to explain why ensemble casts on television can be so useful. It’s a formula that states that the value of a social network, such as a telephone exchange, is proportional to the square of the number of connected individuals (or, more precisely, n(n-1)/2). Any network, whether it consists of users linked by computers or characters on a show like Mad Men, gains its power less from the individual units than through their interactions, and with every additional member, the number of potential connections grows exponentially. That’s why television relies so much on ensembles: once you’ve run for a season or two, you’re constantly in search of interesting pairings that haven’t yet been explored in stories. A show with three major cast members has only three possible combinations, but with six characters, the number rises to fifteen, and while some of these pairings can be more fruitful than others—Monica and Chandler are more fun than, say, Ross and Phoebe—the odds of finding something that works increase with the number of theoretical interactions. Or so you’d hope.
In practice, of course, that level of connective density can pose problems of its own, especially in written form. When you’re reading a novel for the first time, you’re engaging in a complicated set of mental adjustments, which aren’t any less impressive for being so routine. You’re learning the rules of the world that you’re entering, making decisions about how fully to commit to the logic of the story, and figuring out who the hell everybody is. And the more names you’re asked to process at once, the harder it can be to surrender. In the first couple of pages of the opening chapter of A Game of Thrones, for instance, we’re introduced in quick succession to Bran, Robb, Eddard, Theon, Jon Snow, Jory Cassel, Harwin, and Hullen, all without a lot of handholding. This can be part of the fun of epic fiction, but I don’t think I’m alone in saying that my head started to hurt a little with every new name. Reading ought to be a left-brained process, and it can be exhausting when the right hemisphere is tasked immediately with keeping track of a dozen characters and their various relationships. It starts to feel less like entertainment than bookkeeping, or like being whisked through a series of introductions at a party at which you forget each name as soon as you hear it.
And we’re talking about George R.R. Martin, an old pro who is consciously testing the limits of how much information a reader can handle. In the hands of lesser writers, the chore of keeping the players straight can sap all the pleasure from the opening pages. (I sometimes feel this way when reading a story in Analog, in which I’m thrown a bunch of new names at once while trying to figure out what planet I’m on.) And it’s good for a writer to develop the habit of easing the transition into the story’s world as much as possible, especially in those crucial early stages when the costs of putting a book down are much lower than those of continuing. It helps, for instance, to introduce one major character at a time; to include short descriptive tags whenever convenient (“Bran’s bastard brother Jon Snow”); to omit names for minor figures, like the innkeeper we see once and never meet again; to keep the names you do use distinctive; and to make sure, above all, that each relationship is relatively clear before moving on to the next. There are times, obviously, when a writer will want to withhold this kind of information for a legitimate reason. In general, though, the cost to narrative momentum is so great that the situations where this makes sense are rare.
It’s also worth noting how much easier it is to keep track of the characters I’ve listed above on the television version of Game of Thrones. On television, in film, or on the stage, handling a large cast is a easier, both because we can rely on an actor’s physical presence to distinguish him from others and because our eyes are better at processing material like this than our brains are alone. (It’s a little like the difference between playing mental chess and looking at the pieces on the board: it’s harder to play a reasonable game when you’re preoccupied with remembering where everything is.) In Which Lie Did I Tell?, William Goldman advises writers to never open a script with a courtroom scene, since the stage directions can quickly degenerate into a list of names—the judge, the defense team, the prosecuting attorney, the client, the witnesses. He goes on to say that it’s fine to open a movie this way, since we’ve got the faces of the actors to help keep it all straight, and finally concludes: “I guess what I’m trying to say is don’t ask the screenplay to do what it has trouble with. Information overload is one of those trouble spots.” And this applies as much to fiction as to screenwriting. Your characters may be vivid in your own imagination, but to the reader, they’re just names on the page. And you’ve got to proceed with care and consideration if you want to turn those names into people.