- “Direwolves loose in the realm, after so many years,” muttered Hullen, the master of horse. “I like it not.”
- And later: “You cannot do that, boy,” said Harwin, who was Hullen’s son.
Couldn’t he have just given that second line to Hullen? Why does the horse master’s son, who we’ll never see again, have to be in this chapter?
Well, don’t worry, if you get confused as to who everybody is, you can simply turn to the appendix at the back, right? If you do, you’ll find yourself buried in hundreds of names. At times, the sprawling story resembles Gabriel Marcia Marquez, but at least Marquez kept his cheat-sheet down to one page. Like Marquez, Martin is already repeating names in the first chapter (Robert and Robb)
This breaks the rules. As I say here, you want to keep the character list down as low as possible: by limiting the number of characters, limiting the number of speakers, and using a naming convention that makes it clear who’s important (he could have just said, “said Ned’s master of horse” without giving a name.)
Does it get away with it? Yes and no. I’m notorious bad at keeping up with these sorts of things, and I suspect that the only reason I was able to follow the book was because I’d seen the TV show first. I’ll never know if this would have been a dealbreaker with me or not.
But I can see that Martin does everything in his power (short of, you know, telling a simpler story) to help us keep track of everybody. He does this through an old trick that goes all the way back to grey-eyed Athena: He uses consistent descriptive language over and over. Let’s look at Theon: He’s introduced with “Theon was a lean, dark youth of nineteen who found everything amusing.” That’s a great character description we haven’t heard a million times before. Then after that we get:
- He laughed, put his boot on the head, and kicked it away
- Greyjoy was laughing and joking as he rode
- …Theon Greyjoy said with wry amusement
Each character is strongly characterized. The important characters are well-distinguished from each other and come alive.
Once he’s done the gargantuan task of getting us to understand who everybody is, the number of characters becomes a strength, not a weakness. This world feels real and lived in. It sprawls, but that means that we enjoy sprawling out in it.