Confused By All Those Game of Thrones Characters? Here’s One Reason Why

gameofthrones-names-hard

Recently, a good friend of mine in Florida started watching Game of Thrones. During episode one, he sent me a text bemoaning the fact I wasn’t there with him to explain what was going on. Game of Thrones can be really hard to follow – especially for the new or casual viewer.

In fact, when Conan O’Brien interviewed George RR Martin, Conan admitted to using a cheat sheet, which is completely understandable. A cast of thousands of characters (hundreds on the show), characters with similar and overlapping names – what’s there not to be confused about?

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© Paste Magazine © WinterisComing.net

When Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss adapted the novels for television,  they renamed Theon Greyjoy’s sister. In the A Song of Fire and Ice novels, her name is Asha. Bennioff and Weiss changed her name to Yara. The reason being there was already another secondary character named Osha.

Osha-S3 Yara-face
Osha — Bran and Rickon’s
servant, friend, and then ally. © HBO.
The Ironborn warrior, captain,
and princess —Yara Greyjoy
(“Asha” in the books). © HBO.

Asha/Osha sound a little too similar — especially if the actors say them quickly or with an unfamiliar accent.

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Bran Stark, son of Ned. © HBO.

George RR Martin also has characters with the same name. For example, Brandon Stark – the deceased brother of Ned Stark – and Bran Stark – the son whom Ned named after him.

George RR Martin is an experienced writer. One of the first rules of writing fiction is not to give characters similar names: it will confuse readers. Why did Martin create such confusion?

In this undated interview from Reader’s Lane, George RR Martin explained why he uses similar sounding character names.

Reader’s Lane: “How did you come up with the names for Song of Ice and Fire ?”

 Martin: “I picked names from a baby book.

Actually, the names in Song of Ice and Fire were something I devoted a fair amount of thought to. I violated a fair amount of rules that they teach you when you are a young writer. When I was younger, I tried not to violate them: Never have two characters in a story whose names start with the same letter; people will get confused. Certainly never have two characters with the same name because people will get really confused.

I knew the first rule wasn’t going to work because after the first chapter I had more than 26 characters and you don’t want a lot of X and Q names running around. I read a lot of medieval history in preparation for this series. I encountered English histories and the names are all Henrys and Edwards. In French history it is all Louies and Philips. Even the secondary families are using the same names over and over again. There were particular names associated with particular houses. I decided to do that-to hell with the rules. The readers can pay attention. I even have characters occasionally get confused about which Brandon is being talked about.

I felt this gave the world more verisimilitude. Our world-even our modern world-is filled with Davids, Stevens, and Brians. How do you keep them straight? You can use the same techniques for the book.”

This is a fair response. When I began learning French history in university, I struggled to keep the monarchs named Louis and Philip straight. I don’t know the rationale behind the naming of the French kings, but, in general, medieval people tended to be named after family members, godparents, or those the family wished to honor.

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A screen capture of the kings of France (Capetian dynasty) from Wikipedia.

At certain points in late medieval English history, it feels like there are only five or six names in circulation: Edward, Richard, Katherine, Anne, Elizabeth, and, sometimes, George. Case in point: Henry VIII had three wives named Katherine and two named Anne – a feat that would be astounding to see replicated in today’s world.

Was it good idea for George RR Martin to create similar names and re-use names? It’s hard to say. This aspect of history he is replicating is one that confuses us in the present day, but it does feel realistic.

Jamie Adair is the editor of History Behind Game of Thrones, a website about the history behind George RR Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" novels and the hit TV show, "Game of Thrones."

13 Comments

  • Reply April 24, 2014

    Olga Hughes

    You know I seriously think it depends on how you invest in the show. I have two friends who have just started watching (and are up to season three in only a week or so) and they keep complaining they can’t follow it easily. I sat and watched an episode with them and they spend the whole time chatting, answering the phone and moving around and missing things.
    My in-laws, who are both in their seventies never had any trouble following it. They have both also read the books. My father-in-law never reads books, and my mother-in-law made him read one so he would stop asking her what was going to happen next. He managed to read all five in less than a month.

    • Reply April 25, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      That’s a great story Olga. It’s like BBC’s Sherlock and even Law & Order (back in the day) – you really have to pay attention. It has fast-paced dialog, etc. I sometimes think people aren’t “trained” or used to watching TV that is that densely written. (I wasn’t when I started watching Law & Order years ago.) Soaps like the Young & the Restless with its glacial pace and many of the American network TV shows with their lack of dramatic economy and content-free dialog have trained people not to pay attention. However, with that said, it doesn’t mean that if you are paying attention and you don’t get it, your an idiot. It *can* be a very confusing show with lots of names, backstory, details, etc.

      • Reply April 25, 2014

        Olga Hughes

        No I will give a pass to anyone who really pays attention and still gets confused 🙂 It’s not a show you can watch in the background.
        I find keeping track of the minor characters in the books difficult (hooray for appendices).

  • Reply April 24, 2014

    Jim Hayden

    Nothing wrong with using (or repeating) similar names – anybody who’s ever done genealogy research has had the thrill if his or her ancestors (especially in the Medieval era) reusing the same names over-and-over – and the resulting confusion, so I find Martin’s doing so to be both realistic and accurate.

    • Reply April 25, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      Well, it does give the books/show a realistic feeling – I have to admit. You’re absolutely right, Jim. I think I learn slightly towards agreeing with Martin – that it does make the world feel realistic. You see the family relationships through the names. But, this is a tentative feeling I have about it… 🙂

  • Reply April 25, 2014

    M.E. Lawrence

    I don’t have trouble with the names of most characters, although I do have to consult the appendices from time to time to keep story lines and generations straight. What puzzles me is the spelling: Martin, of course, plays around with standard Brit spellings and pronunciations, such as Ser Jaime for Sir Jamie, Eddard for Edward, etc. (I find the “Ser” business particularly distracting.) However, the place names are always spelled “straight”: no Kyng’s Landyng or Irern Illands. Does anyone know if GRRM has already tackled this question?

    Anyway, nice site, J.A.; I always find something informative or entertaining, or both, here.

    • Reply April 25, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      Hey M.E. Lawrence,
      Thanks for the kind words — that is exactly the combination I’m going for so it makes me happy to read it. 🙂 I too find the “Ser” distracting – although I get it may be part of GRRM’s world building?? Has anyone read any interviews from him on this subject? Any thoughts in general?

      • Reply April 26, 2014

        Olga Hughes

        You know I see a lot of people commenting on this. The alternative spelling of people’s names is a common device in high fantasy. It is basically to differentiate names in the author’s world from our world.
        Unless the author has devised a different language or alphabet I don’t think there is much need to alternate the English spelling for place names. Even Tolkien had a “common tongue” for places – Orodruin is Mount Doom in the common tongue etc.
        Some authors actually make it a bit complicated with the spelling of names, George’s are all fairly easy.
        As for “Ser” that is a specific title for knights.

  • Reply April 28, 2014

    Jun

    I think the naming scheme also provides a hint to characters’ mindset. For example, Ned Stark named his first born Robb, after his best friend Robert Baratheon, and only his second son after his older (first-born) brother. It says something about his relationship with Robert as they grew up together under Jon Arryn’s roof. And he named his (alleged) bastard son after his foster father Jon Arryn, suggesting that he was by no means indifferent to Jon Snow.

    • Reply April 29, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      You know I hadn’t even noticed that before – that Jon was named after Jon Arryn. (If the books say it, it escaped my notice.) But it makes perfect sense. Do you think his other children are named after anyone?

      • Reply April 30, 2014

        Jun

        It was never explained explicitly why Ned named his sons Robb, Bran, and Jon. However, the hint is there. In the Dunk and Egg stories (set about 100 years before A Game of Thrones), Aegon V named his first-born son Duncan, obviously (but not explicitly) after his best friend and his Commander of the Kingsguards, Duncan the Tall. Hence the crown prince is known as Duncan the Small. (All three of them perished in the Tragedy at Summerhall.)

  • Reply May 1, 2014

    Grant

    I consider it probable that Eddard’s relationships played a role in the naming of the children, but there’s also the fact that there are probably a limited number of noble names that he could name them. Seems that there’s been more than a few Brandon’s after the famous ancestor after all. And yes, there are plenty of other names, but we tend to either see those on commoner characters, who are clearly out of the question, or in other kingdoms. I suspect that names don’t really move across borders in Westeros without a lot of migration to spark cultural intermingling.

    Wonder if any of the names are also religious and tied to one of the ASOIAF religions. John, for instance, is very popular from its associations with Christianity in real life.

  • Reply December 23, 2016

    Dawn

    Well, the characters, also, reference the dead people on that show, as if the deceased person is already familiar to the viewer and is going to reappear all of a sudden with the explanation attached to whom they were/are. Finally, you’ll “meet” that deceased person a few shows later and this adds to the convoluted nature of this confusing – yet somehow, still riveting – show.

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