SPOILER WARNING: The following post contains massive spoilers for the entire A Song of Ice and Fire series of Game of Thrones novels in the form of an analysis of the books’ content. As such, it also contains massive spoilers for future seasons of the television adaptation of Game of Thrones seen on HBO. Anyone who is not interested in learning about major plot points and the progression of the characters from the series should not read the post below. You have been warned.
You Know Nothing, Id DM
Numerous friends have encouraged me to read George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones novels for several years. After holding out, I picked up the first novel leading up to Season 1 of the show appearing on Netflix (we do not have HBO). I enjoyed the writing and some of the characters although I could not believe that Eddard was killed – off camera no less. I kept waiting for him to reappear later in the book – perhaps the execution blow was a literal feint (keep this sentence in mind later). But poor Ned did indeed die and I ventured on to the sequel, A Clash of Kings. The second novel followed the same basic template and culminated in the riveting Battle of Blackwater. However, by the time I got to the third novel, A Storm of Swords, I was in the midst of moving cities and changing jobs.
The following conversation actually transpired about one year ago:
Grant Gould: So did you finish the books yet?
Me: No, I’m on the third one. It just got really boring.
Grant: Boring? That is the best book in the series!
Me: I dunno. I stopped reading a while ago. They were at some wedding and it was just dragging on and on. I lost interest.
Grant: <private heart attack>
Me: Are you there?
Grant: … yeah, just trust me and start reading again. The second half of that book is insane.
Yes, I stopped reading A Storm of Swords for several months because I was bored about 66% through the Red Wedding chapter. When I finally did pick up the book again to read it, Robb was executed maybe a page or two from where I stopped reading. I find that hilarious, and I can only imagine Grant was secretly dying inside when I told him where I stopped reading. He was kind enough to allow permission for some of his artwork to be included in this post. Please check out his latest sketchbook featuring a terrific Game of Thrones mash-up cover, Djorah Unchained.
I devoted the last few months finishing the series and concluded A Dance with Dragons while vacationing in South Dakota last month. I was able to enjoy the books spoiler-free but I after I finished the series, I had numerous questions and challenges regarding commonly held assumptions about the series.
When in doubt, compile data! What follows is numerous charts breaking down the content featured in the Game of Thrones novels. The data demonstrate how the structure of the story has changed over time, and how George R. R. Martin’s reputation for killing major characters is completely inaccurate.
And seriously – if you want to avoid spoilers – STOP READING NOW!
Methodology for Game of Thrones Analysis
In order to code the novels, the first step was to create a spreadsheet and list the chapters written in each book. For example, the original Game of Thrones starts with a Prologue from the perspective of a character named Will. This character dies (the start of a trend), and then the first “real” chapter is from the perspective of Bran. Each chapter in the Game of Thrones series is told from the perspective of a single character, which is signified by the character’s name at the beginning of the chapter – until A Feast for Crows, where George R. R. Martin gets too cute by half and starts using more obscure character descriptions to start certain chapters.
In A Game of Thrones, the first five chapters appear in the following order – Bran, Catelyn, Daenerys, Eddard, Jon. I listed each chapter in the novel in a spreadsheet and then added the total number of chapters for each character. Including the Prologue, Game of Thrones contains 73 chapters told from the perspective of nine characters with the total number for each character presented in the bar chart below.
I then collated the chapters by the House or family of the character, and found that the Stark perspectives (53 chapters) form the vast majority of the novel while the Targaryen (10) and Lannister (9) perspectives are presented in near identical proportions. See the data represented below in the form of a pie chart.
From the above graph, it seems obvious to say A Game of Thrones is a story about House Stark. That story takes a drastic turn when Eddard, the head of the Stark family and character with the most chapters in the book (15), is killed. While the books are in no way equivalent, this would be like Dan Brown killing of Robert Langdon in Angels & Demons but continuing that story in later books through the perspectives of other characters. Martin’s motivation seems to force the reader to think of the story as “about Westeros” instead of “about the Starks.” His blossoming scope begins to be seen in the next novel.
A Clash of Kings
Following the same methodology above, the second novel in the series features 70 chapters told from the perspective of 10 characters. Martin begins the story with another Prologue featuring Cressen, who serves as an introduction to Stannis Baratheon and Melisandre. Cressen dies (sense a theme?) and then the next five chapters are told from the perspective of Arya, Sansa, Tyrion, Bran, and Arya.
If A Game of Thrones is Eddard Stark’s story, then A Clash of Kings is Tyrion Lannister’s tale. His perspective is detailed in 15 chapters and dominates the book. Second place is held by Arya Stark who has 10 chapters devoted to her perspective. In addition to Cressen’s Prologue, A Clash of Kings introduces two character perspectives – Davos (3 chapters) and Theon (6 chapters).
The addition of new characters also expands the Houses the tale revolves around. In addition to Stark, Targaryen, and Lannister, the story is told from the perspective by those serving House Baratheon and House Greyjoy. As seen below, the majority of the book is about the Starks but the percentage of Stark chapters has dropped from 73% to 57%. Just from glancing at the two pie charts presented, it is clear the second novel is more complex as each new House features a dizzying array of characters who often take up large segments of the book without much introduction.
Unlike the first novel, the “main character” does not die, although the Battle of Blackwater culminates in a scene where Tyrion might be on the verge of death. Given the events and structure of the first book, it is a perfectly sound interpretation at that point by the reader to think that Tyrion might be dead. However, The Imp survives with a new facial scar and a bit less of a nose.
A Storm of Swords
Often proclaimed the best book in the series, the third novel also boasts the most chapters (82), which are told from the perspective of 12 different characters including Chett (Prologue) and Merrett (Epilogue). And for those paying attention, you can likely guess the outcome for both Chett and Merrett – they die at the end of their respective chapters. Martin immediately changes the dynamic of the story by offering the first chapter to the up-until-now loathsome Jamie Lannister. This initial look into the mind of the Kingslayer is followed by Catelyn, Arya, Tyrion, and Davos.
If one familiar with the novels were to guess at the character featured most prominently in A Storm of Swords I doubt Arya Stark would be at the top of their list. However, the chart above demonstrates she indeed has the most chapters in the book (13) closely followed by Jon (12) and Tyrion (11). As in A Clash of Kings, the character with the most chapters does not die – but again Martin teases Arya’s death at the end of the Red Wedding with the following less-than-subtle sentence:
His axe took her in the back of the head.
I thought Arya was dead – and I was pissed because she is such a fantastic character. But lo and behold she appears once again in 13 chapters because The Hound just knocked her unconscious. Well played, Martin, I see what you did there! This is the second novel in a row that features a near-death for the character with the most chapters.
Outside of the characters introduced (and dispatched) in the Prologue and Epilogue, two new perspectives are introduced, the aforementioned Jamie Lannister (9 chapters) and the overwhelmed Samwell Tarly (5 chapters). The addition of Samwell adds a new House to the equation, although his tale is closely linked to the Stark storyline and all things related to The Wall. Stark is again the most common House perspective detailed in A Storm of Swords as 55% of the chapters (not counting Samwell’s) are from Stark family members. The Lannisters account for 25% of the novel with Targaryen, Baratheon, and Tarly sprinkled into the novel with 6% or 7%.
One interesting observation is through the first three novels Daenerys has only 21 total chapters. If you were to ask people to guess how many chapters she has in the first three books, I imagine the guesses would be much higher.
A Feast for Crows
I imagine some hardcore fans of the series are groaning about this installment of the series. I heard so many negative comments about this book that it actually increased my enjoyment. As seen below, Martin sheds many of the mechanisms that drove his previous novels in A Feast for Crows. Excluding the character introduced in the Prologue, Pate, who it should be no surprise dies at the end of the chapter, eight new character perspectives are introduced. In addition, the first chapter strays from Martin’s style of offering the title of the character at the beginning and instead uses a vague description. For example, the first two chapters in A Feast for Crows are titled The Prophet and The Captain of Guards. These characters turn out to be Aeron Greyjoy and Aero Hotah. And these descriptions are not only meant as an introduction as Aeron has another chapter later in the book titled The Drowned Man.
As shown above, Cersei, and Brienne of Tarth drive the novel with Samwell as the only other character with more than three chapters. I rather enjoyed Cersei’s rapid decent into an absolute-power-corrupts-absolutely madness, and her fate is in serious doubt by the end of the book. Again, the main character in the book has a significant flirtation with death without actually dying; this is a trend now in three consecutive novels.
The remaining assortment of characters are primarily new perspectives with limited chapters. These characters also dramatically alter the House composition in A Feast for Crows. It is the only installment in the series featuring a family other than Stark as the most prominent in a novel. One could argue that Brienne’s chapters are heavily related to the Stark storyline, but I believe she warrants her own category. Note that 9% of the book is devoted to perspectives from a House, Martell, that has never been featured in the series previously.
House Martell is described by new characters, Aero, Arianne, Arys while House Greyjoy is represented by Asha, Aeron and Victarion. A friendly suggestion to all novelists, when introducing a slew of characters not really known to the reader, try to shy away from starting almost all of their names with the same letter of the alphabet!
A Dance with Dragons
The most recent novel in the series features 73 chapters told from the perspective of 18 characters when including the Prologue (Varamyr) and Epilogue (Kevan Lannister). It should not come as a surprise at all that Varamyr and Kevan die at the end of their chapters. The graph below shows the most common characters featured in A Dance with Dragons are Jon (13 chapters), Tyrion (12 chapters), and Daenerys (10 chapters).
Following the trend established throughout the serious, the character with the most chapters either dies or has a serious close call with death. The fifth novel is no different as Jon’s final chapter concludes with these warm and fuzzy sentences:
When the third dagger took him between the shoulder blades, he gave a grunt and fell face-first into the snow. He never felt the fourth knife. Only the cold . . .
So the bastard Jon Snow is dead – or is he? The above description seems quite direct; however Martin has a documented history of creating “fake deaths” for the main character in each book – not to mention other characters throughout the novels including Bran, Asha, Catelyn and Brienne. Each of those characters have had their chapter’s end at some point in the series with death scenes. I still remain baffled how Asha and Brienne are still alive, and I find the undead Catelyn thing silly. Hell, even The Hound who was “confirmed” dead by several characters in the novel might still be alive!? So it would not surprise me at all if Jon Snow is still alive in some form. Perhaps he warged into Ghost, Melisandre intervened, or his loyal brothers stopped the attack and saved him from certain death; anything is possible with Martin.
A Dance with Dragons returns House Stark to the most prominent family featured in the novel, but just barely. Stark, Targaryen, and Lannister hold similar proportions of the book in terms of the perspective presented through character chapters. The Houses of Greyjoy (Theon, Asha, Victarion) and Martell (Quentyn, Aero) are once again prominently featured as both combine to form approximately 25% of the chapters.
Two final notes about A Dance with Dragons. First, Martin uses the device introduced in A Feast for Crows to start chapters with a description of a character rather than the character’s name. He actually does this for over 30% of the chapters; I’m not sure what necessitated the change in style. The weight of the weaving plotlines, multiple characters, and the introduction of new characters who are actually someone else the reader has not heard of before becomes a burden. By not using the character’s name to begin the chapter, Martin makes a cumbersome story that much more difficult to follow.
The second intriguing note is how Martin concludes the novel before the Epilogue with a chapter for Daenerys. The following set of dialogue is delivered by Jorah during a hallucination by Dany:
Lost, because you lingered, in a place that you were never meant to be… Save your spears and swords for the Seven Kingdoms, I told you. Leave Meereen to the Meereenese and go west… You are a queen, In Westeros… You are the blood of a dragon. Dragons plant no trees. Remember that. Remember who you are, what you were made to be. Remember your words.
I realize I’m a psychologist and my job is to over-analyze things, but I was dumbstruck by how much of Jorah’s thoughts mirror my own and I imagine a great number of fans of the series. The story for Daenerys grinds to a halt and she backtracks from one principle after another. I almost wonder if Martin got to the end of this last book and realized he had overstayed his welcome in lands outside of Westeros; Jorah’s words are almost a bone thrown to the audience by Martin, “I know, I know. Dany needs to get out of here. I hear you, and she’s going home soon.”
Game of Thrones Summary
The following graphs are intended to answer certain questions I developed while reading the entire series of novels. The first question was rather simple, who is the main character? Perhaps the brilliance of the novels is that there are multiple main characters. There are 335 individual chapters in the five novels (excluding Prologues and Epilogues). Thirteen characters have 10 or more chapters told from their perspective, including poor Eddard Stark who has not taken a breath since the first novel. So who does have the most chapters in the Game of Thrones series through five books?
The Imp has 47 chapters told from his perspective in the novels, with Jon Snow (42) taking second place. There is a significant drop-off to third place with Arya Stark (33) and Daenerys Targaryen (31) being the only other characters with over 25 chapters. The data suggest that the novels are Tyrion Lannister’s world – and it is great that Peter Dinklage has owned the HBO series as well. The graphs below presents the same data as above but without the black bar, which represents the total number of chapters in the series, to better demonstrate the fluctuations for each character between novels. It is easier to see in the graph below that Arya is the only character to have chapters in each book of the series. Have I mentioned my enjoyment of Arya Stark yet?!
Speaking of girl power, notice above that four of the top six characters in terms of overall chapters are female. It has certainly been enjoyable to read about Westeros from the point of view of male and female characters. I was curious about how prominent a female perspective is throughout the series thus far. The next chart below depicts the percentage of chapters for male and female characters in each novel.
Excluding Prologues and Epilogues (all featuring male characters), the story is told by a relatively even split between male and female characters throughout the first four novels as each novel has at least 40% of the chapters from the perspective of either gender. The gender gap increased substantially in Dance with Dragons as 75% of the chapters are from the viewpoint of males. It is my hope that the final novels return to the gender balance seen in the first four novels.
Returning to the proportion of House coverage, it should not come as a surprise that House Stark forms just under 50% of the chapters (160) in the five novels. The second most prominent House is Lannister (77) followed by Targaryen (33) in distant third. It is quite surprising that Daenery’s plot accounts for 10% of the chapters in the novel, and it’s only that high when you categorize the Barristan Selmy and Jon Connington chapters as Targaryen. It certainly seems more prominent than that. The remaining Houses combine for 20% of the chapters in the novels with Greyjoy having more chapters than Baratheon; interesting because Stannis seems to be more prominent in the plot. Perhaps my view of these things is colored by also watching the television series?
Another question I had, how complex are the novels as time progresses? The following graph lists the number of character chapters – excluding Prologues and Epilogues – for each book. The first novel unfolds the story through the eyes of eight characters, and the following two books in the series feature a gradual progression of complexity. A Clash of Kings features nine characters and A Storm of Swords features 10. A Feast for Crows adds two more characters to reach 12 and the final book leaps to 16, which is twice as many character perspectives than the original A Game of Thrones novel. Without a doubt, the story has become more complex and is a downright chore to follow at times.
It is another post for another day, but George R. R. Martin has an incredibly patient and loyal fanbase. The novels are challenging to grasp and his decisions to alter the flow of the story and presentation in the last two novels is a gamble. Not to mention his penchant for killing off major characters . . .
. . . Which is another commonly-held belief that is not demonstrated at all by the available data. It was detailed above that every character featured in a Prologue or Epilogue dies, and perhaps this creates a primacy and recency effect with the reader to recall death as a major calling card of the series, but data show that Martin is actually quite resistant to killing off major characters. How many prominent characters have been killed?
There are 22 characters in the novels who have two or more chapters told from his or her perspective. Of those characters, 20 are still alive – although in some cases not whole or well. If you remove Quentyn Martell, who has only four chapters in A Dance with Dragons, the numbers shift to 20 Alive and 1 Dead – less than 5% of the primary characters featured in the series are killed with the lone death being old Ned Stark back in the first novel.
Yes, Robb Stark dies – but he never has his own chapter – and thus I cannot consider him a major character in the story. Of all the Stark children including their ward, Theon, Robb was by far the most expendable given the structure of the story. Catelyn is still somewhat alive (or whatever) and while other characters have suffered serious wounds and traumas, they are all alive. Given the tendencies of Martin’s style, it’s more likely than not that Jon Snow is alive in some capacity. The notion that Martin “kills everyone you love” does not hold weight – especially when you factor in that he kills villainous characters (e.g., Viserys, Joffrey, Tywin) in a clear and satisfying way at a much higher rate (although I suspect a zombie version of The Mountain is Cersei’s new champion).
The Winds of Winter
What can we expect with the sixth novel in the series? If Martin’s trends detailed above hold steady, the novel will likely feature between 70 and 80 chapters told from the perspective of approximately 18 to 20 characters.
The novel will likely feature at least three new characters who get their own chapter perspectives and perhaps another House or two will be included in that mix. It would be great to see into the mind of Littlefinger or The Spider, but I imagine that is almost like pulling the curtain back on Oz; not knowing the internal working of those two is probably for the best.
Jon Snow is probably alive and the character with the most chapters in the next book will very-nearly die.
And whoever appears in the Prologue or Epilogue is royally screwed!