The Faceless Men

Imprinting and Satellite Characters

When we crack open a book, we’re baby birds, newly hatched into a bewildering world full of strange sights and sounds. We instinctively imprint on the first character we meet, in hopes that they’ll guide us. Inadvisable in AGOT: the first three characters get dead real quick. But the last of these deaths introduces us to the Starks, and soon after that we meet the Lannisters, and pretty soon we’ve got a whole roster of people we like reading about. The attrition rate is high, absolutely, but it’s offset by the size of the cast.

And the cast is growing all the time. Every new book adds more: one doomed prologue POV, a few new contenders for the throne, and a whole bevy of serjeants and lesser cousins. We’ll put numbers to that in just a minute; first, let’s talk about the wearing effect this influx of characters has on a reader.

In an abstract sense, a strong bond stays strong by precluding the formation of new bonds. It’d be a weird baby who didn’t prefer his mother to any other mother-shaped woman, and we carry that impulse into adulthood. We form new bonds, sure, but prefer our oldest investments. I have stronger feelings for Rodrik Cassel and Maester Luwin than I do Skahaz Shavepate, or Jon Connington. I even still care about Theon, mostly, despite the fact that he’s been trapped in a Saw film for two books. That’s how potent imprinting is.

So even if you believe ASOIAF’s newbies are as vital and interesting as the originals, they’ll probably still have a tough time winning you over.

On this front, ADWD is a trial. Tyrion’s river voyage, the doomed quest of Quentyn Martell, and the further entanglements of Dany’s Meereenese Knot introduce us to a batch of new characters. No offense to Gerris Drinkwater – I’m a Drinkwater myself, eight times a day when I remember – but I do not know you, buddy, and I do not care about you. As the series has continued, I’m reading more and more scenes featuring characters I don’t care about. I might be interested in the information they have to deliver, but my sympathies aren’t engaged.Here are the characters I used to make that graph. I included anyone who intrigues me, by being mysterious, sympathetic, outrageous, funny, evil, whatever: Tyrion Lannister, Jon Snow, Cersei Lannister, Dany Targaryen, Jaime Lannister, Catelyn Stark, Littlefinger, Stannis Baratheon, Ned Stark, Jorah Mormont, Varys, Robb Stark, Arya Stark, Theon Greyioy, Sansa Stark, Tywin Lannister, Brienne, Bran Stark, Sandor Clegane, Melisandre, Robert Baratheon, Doran Martell, Maester Luwin, A Kindly Man, Aemon Targaryen, Meera Reed, Lysa Arryn, Mance Rayder, Oberyn Martell, Joffrey Lannister, Qyburn, Brynden Tully, Renly Baratheon, Gendry, Bronn, Jojen Reed, Walder Frey, Dolorous Edd, Olenna Tyrell, Thoros, Rodrik Cassel, Qhorin Halfhand, Brown Ben Plumm, Genna Lannister, Loras Tyrell, Osha, Missandei, Lem Lemoncloak, Grenn, Viserys, Lancel Lannister, Beric Dondarrion, Pyp, Podrick Payne, Craster, Mirri Maz Duur, Aegon Targaryen, Bloodraven, Jaqen H’ghar, Syrio Forel, Mya Stone, Tycho Nestoris, Moqorro, Benjen Stark, Grey Worm, Khal Drogo, Rattleshirt, The Waif, Anguy, Coldhands, Ellaria Sand. You can see that I’m pretty interested in all the major characters. The possibly controversial exclusions are Selmy, Sam, and Asha.

To hammer this point home, let’s look at who talks the most in AGOT and ADWD.

                  AGOT   ADWD
 1.)         Ned Stark | Jon Snow
 2.)            Tyrion | Tyrion
 3.)     Catelyn Stark | Dany
 4.)  Robert Baratheon | Barristan Selmy
 5.)          Jon Snow | Illyrio
 6.)      Littlefinger | Roose Bolton
 7.)      Jeor Mormont | Wyman Manderly
 8.)             Varys | Stannis Baratheon
 9.)              Robb | Theon Greyjoy
10.)              Dany | Haldon Halfmaester
11.)     Jorah Mormont | Melisandre
12.)            Cersei | Tormund Giantsbane
13.)       Sansa Stark | Skahaz mo Kandaq
14.)           Pycelle | Hizdahr zo Loraq
15.)     Maester Luwin | Jon Connington
16.)        Arya Stark | Barbrey Dustin
17.)        Bran Stark | Bowen Marsh
18.)             Tywin | Gerris Drinkwater
19.)           Joffrey | Quentyn Martell
20.)           Viserys | Xaro Xhoan Daxos
21.)       Walder Frey | Penny
22.)     Brynden Tully | Cersei
23.)               Sam | Daario Naharis
24.)   Aemon Targaryen | Jorah Mormont
25.)    Mirri Maz Duur | Doran Martell

For a fancier look at this data, check out the “bump chart”, which I created by slapping some ASOIAF data into a Jim Vallandingham visualization.


Illyrio! Wyman Manderly! Bowen Marsh! Haldon Halfmaester! When Lady Barbrey Dustin is your 16th most talkative character, that is a bad sign.

The ADWD column is littered with what I’ll call satellite characters. Satellites take orders, bring tidings, offer advice, and listen to monologues. They may or may not have backstories. You may or may not love them. (Pod is a classic satellite, first for Tyrion and then Brienne.) Their defining characteristic is that their trajectories, just like a small moon, depend entirely upon the larger body they orbit.

Satellites are an unfortunate byproduct of this plot that scatters its protagonists so widely. Ideally, the only interactions we see are between important characters. But sometimes for good drama, you need the right characters at the right moments. Most of the protagonists in ASOIAF aren’t ready for showtime at the outset; Jon and Dany bumping into each other as 14-year-old nobodies isn’t that exciting. But the King of Winter and the Queen of Dragons?

Each character’s evolution requires different scenarios, which often can’t be satisfied with just your main characters. So your protagonists are scattered, and the satellites coalesce around them. You want these characters to make an impression without stealing too much focus or pagetime.

That’s my main charge against AFFC and ADWD. The satellites from the early books had more spark. Bronn was just Tyrion’s bodyman, but transcended that role by perfectly embodying the cutthroat spirit of the series. Jeor Mormont and Maester Luwin were satellites, yes, but Mormont was the leader of the Night’s Watch and father of the dynamic Jorah, while Luwin was embedded in Winterfell, and interacted with most of the Stark family (plus Theon). How about Syrio Forel, Viserys, and Walder Frey? Qhorin Halfhand and Dolorous Edd? The Queen of Thorns!

Then, with AFFC, you start getting into your Hyle Hunts, your Dick Crabbs, your Daven Lannisters, your Drinkwaters and Pennies and Borrells. And when the sixth book comes out, there’s going to be a whole new set of them. How many more? Let’s take a look at the new roles per book and speculate.


This chart show you how many new parts there are in each book. I divvied up the parts by the amount of dialogue they receive. The lines of separation between the tiers were made according to gut feeling.

The lead category is unambiguous. You’ll recognize these folks by their first names:

Tyrion Arya
Jon Theon
Cersei Jeor
Dany Sansa
Jaime Tywin
Catelyn Brienne
Littlefinger Bran
Stannis Sandor
Ned Roose
Jorah Davos
Varys Asha
Robb Melisandre
Barristan Robert

The only potential surprises in this group Commander Mormont and Roose Bolton.

The secondary leads have a few of the more recent POV characters, notable minor characters, and satellites that get a lot of work:

Grand Maester Pycelle Salladhor Saan
Kevan Lannister Septon Meribald
Doran Martell Qyburn
Maester Luwin Brynden Tully
Arianne Martell Renly Baratheon
Tormund Giantsbane Xaro Xhoan Daxos
Aemon Targaryen Gendry
Meera Reed Wyman Manderly
Lysa Arryn Bronn
Mance Rayder Edmure Tully
Illyrio Jojen Reed
Oberyn Martell Victarion Greyjoy
Joffrey Lannister Ygritte

This is where you’ll find a lot of characters who made strong impressions in a brief amount of time: Oberyn, Renly, and Ygritte.

Pycelle tops this tier because obviously he’s not a lead, but thanks to his longevity and ubiquity at council meetings he gets about as much work. Kevan and Luwin are much the same: steadily and inoffensively present. These are exactly the kinds of characters that can make a stronger impression on the HBO show, because you can put a face to the name: Pycelle, Bronn, Saan, Renly, Edmure.

Supports come in a few varieties. Some pop in for one or two big scenes, others are popular background players.

Walder Frey Dolorous Edd Ramsay Bolton
Haldon Halfmaester Olenna Tyrell Shae
Bowen Marsh Tom Sevenstrings Yoren
Thoros Daario Naharis Dontos
Janos Slynt Skahaz mo Kandaq Hizdahr zo Loraq
Rodrik Cassel Jon Connington Elder Brother
Barbrey Dustin Dick Crabb Hyle Hunt
Aeron Damphair Gerris Drinkwater Harwin
Quentyn Martell Qhorin Halfhand Daven Lannister
Brown Ben Plumm Genna Lannister Kraznys
Penny High Sparrow Loras Tyrell
Osha Taena Merryweather Gilly
The Tattered Prince Rodrik Harlaw Euron Greyjoy
Selyse Baratheon Godric Borrell Donal Noye
Margaery Tyrell Missandei Lem Lemoncloak
Arys Oakheart Alliser Thorne Randyll Tarly
Grenn Viserys Axell Florent
Lancel Lannister Beric Dondarrion Pyp
Reznak mo Reznak Podrick Payne Tristifer Botley
Vogarro’s Whore Galazza Galare Craster
Mirri Maz Duur Osmund Kettleblack Hot Pie
Aegon Targaryen Hallyne Archibald Yronwood
Maester Cressen Bloodraven Myranda Royce
Jaqen H’ghar Mace Tyrell Lothar Frey
Syrio Forel Alester Florent  

Once you get into the bit players and beyond, you’re entering trivia night territory. Here you’ll find Leo Tyrell, Rennifer Longwaters, Franklyn Flowers, and Clayton Suggs. That’s not to say they’re all faceless. There’s also Robert Arryn, Grey Worm, Khal Drogo, Rattleshirt, Myrcella, etc.

Now that we have a sense of these tiers, let me ask you: does this chart look right to you?

sidelining main characters

(That represents total words spoken. You can see here that 138 extras in ADWD isn’t significant, since these characters say very little.)

How should multi-book series bring on new characters? Of course the first book will have a ton of new characters – it’s a blank slate. We can also bet that we’ll meet all of the most important characters relatively early on (though the fate of Ned might warn against it).

As the story progresses, the rate of character introductions should slow. Not only does an author want to get their pieces into play early, they also try to economize. The marginal benefits of a new character have to outweigh the marginal cost of a new name and persona for the reader to remember.

Therefore the trend should be downward, and we see that through the first three books. Then come AFFC and ADWD, the latest and least popular entries. From where I stand, their popularity has everything to do with the above chart.

The minor characters are taking over. Why? Maybe the cynics are right, and ADWD was not King Kong on Martin’s back, but rather Bessie the cash cow, and he’s milking her for all she’s worth. I never bought that, and not just because the people who suggest this are usually people who haven’t written a letter longer than two pages, and therefore have no idea what kind of challenges a seven book series would present.

I always come back to the idea of Martin as a gardener.

I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows. And I’m much more a gardener than an architect.

Martin’s gardening has made him a celebrity. He’s the guest of honor at all kinds of conventions. He’s got an HBO series based on his work. He owns a movie theater. Far be it from me to question Martin’s methods; I’ll leave it to Anton Chigurh.

If the rule you followed brought you to this… of what use was the rule?

Who is the song of ice and fire about? Is it Godric Borrell? Why does his ilk get so much of the spotlight in ADWD?


It all can be traced back to the series’ original sin, the one that hooked so many: Ned’s death. It paid off hugely, but in fiction, if something’s unusual, there’s probably a reason why. Killing off your main character in book one of a seven book series is part genius, part moronic. It lets the reader know that all bets were off… but then again your protagonist is dead. Who picks up the slack?

When Ned (9.88%) and Robert (4.66%) die in AGOT, 14.54% of the available dialogue has opened back up. Who picks up the slack in ACOK? Well, Stannis (3.68%) steps in for Robert, which I’d consider an upgrade. Theon gets a big boost, going from 0.56% to 4.59%. And then Cersei and Tyrion get bigger slices, going from 7.66% to 11.65% and 2.33% to 4.07%, respectively. Toss in some more work for Jaime and you’re at 14.38%. There, we’ve made it up, and it wasn’t that painful at all.

The jump from ACOK to ASOS goes even more smoothly. Theon and Renly go away, but Jaime becomes a full-fledged main character, and Robb gets more spotlight. More Melisandre, more Hound, more Jon, more Littlefinger. All good news.

And then things combust in AFFC. Part of it’s attrition. Robb, Sandor, Tywin, and Jorah are absent, leaving Cersei to gobble up almost 13% of the dialogue in AFFC, which is delivered to the likes of the Kettleblacks and a bunch of faceless Septas.

And then of course there’s the benched POVs, which no one was happy about. Martin even had to put a note at the end of Feast defending the decision.

The simplest way to do that would have been to take what I had, chop it in half around the middle, and end with “To Be Continued.” The more I thought about that, however, the more I felt that the readers would be better served by a book that told all the story for half the characters, rather than half the story for all the characters. So that’s the route I chose to take.

ADWD brings the major characters back into the fold, but in doing so gives too much time to expendable characters. I won’t flog that point any further.

Now! Of course this story is not done yet, and these tiers are determined by who’s talked the most thus far. As the books continue, the dead will tumble down the ladder; Robert will cease to be a main character in the eyes of this database, and Arianne will ascend, etc. Maybe Barbrey Dustin vaults up to the upper tier as this “Great Northern Conspiracy” comes to fruition. But because of this imprinting effect I mentioned, that might not matter. It’s all stepmothers and stepfathers from here out – Ned and Catelyn are gone.

On the plus side, if Martin’s serious about seven books, things will tighten up going forward. POVs will die and not be replaced, Dany will flee Essos, hopefully with Tyrion in tow… it’s easy to imagine how these arcs will braid together as we go forward. Martin said as much to fans in Sweden:

As you say this story has been going further and further out, but it’s past time that the story turned and started coming back together and that’s certainly my overall plan, and that’s what I’m working on right now. (Watch)

Still I worry. Once TWOW comes out, we’ll know if these last two books started a trend: towards stories dominated by a few protagonists and a crop of fresh faces, faces that are a little more generic than the erstwhile satellites; towards stories less about the interpersonal and more about the intrapersonal. Martin often quotes William Faulkner:

The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.

Which is as good a piece of advice as you’ll get. But that ain’t what people like about ASOIAF. It’s a society drama – we want those conflicted hearts pitted against each other. When Tyrion wrestles with his inferiority complex, that results in a patricide that causes fallout for Cersei, Jaime, and the entirety of Westeros. The conflicted hearts in AFFC and ADWD beat in isolation, and their attempts to mend affect people we do not care as much about.

To quantify this, let’s take a look at the conversational networks of ASOS and ADWD.

If you aren’t familiar with network visualizations, this might look like a bit of a mess. This is called a radial axis layout. Each colored spoke is composed of affiliated characters, whose groupings you’ll recognize. The characters closer to the center speak more words than those at the margins. Thickness of the edges indicates how many exchanges these characters had.

(Note: this makes no reference to how many words are contained in each exchange, or direction. If Jaime talks, Tyrion responds, and then Jaime talks again, that counts as two exchanges between the brothers.)

For a cutoff I chose ~1750 words spoken within the book. In ADWD that includes 28 characters, in ASOS 34. ADWD is more top-heavy, while ASOS gives more time to the second tier.

Look at the center of the spirals. In ASOS, there are links crossing the center. Stannis at the Wall, Robb with Roose, Sansa and Tyrion. ADWD is much less connected. Doran and Wyman don’t talk to any of the other talkative characters.

Conversational links in ASOS. See full image. asos discussions

Conversational links in ADWD. See full image. adwd discussions

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