Brain overload: Are Dramas guilty of too many characters & storylines?


It’s a very reasonable question: just how many storylines and characters can viewers be expected to keep track of when it comes to television dramas.

Labyrinthine plots, over-populated casts, subplots suspended for weeks on end -how can we possibly be expected to keep up?

Sometimes I struggle to stay on track with all the characters in Game of Thrones: Lannisters, Starks, Targaryens, Tyrells and Baratheons, it can be a cluster just trying to recall who’s who and where we last saw them. Those recaps before the theme song are crucial to knowing what’s going on -and sometimes web recaps and Wikipedia are still needed.

But Game of Thrones is only one show. When you add a myriad of shows that are crowding our heads with a roll-call of storylines and characters, it can be a real problem. US casts, more so then Australian dramas on limited budgets, seem to have no problem with multiple character arcs.

Orange is the New Black is back with its abundant cast of about 16 principals and another 30 or so recurring characters. No wonder the credits go on forever. The characters are all so wonderfully nuanced and, unlike Game of Thrones, at least they are all in one location. Remarkably, our own Wentworth manages to uphold a standard as good (if not better) with about 12 principals.

Lost and True Blood also had extensive casts that meant subplots would be seemingly suspended in time. And then Orphan Black even goes there with the same actress in multiple roles.

Sense8 on Netflix is currently doing the Heroes trick of different characters across the globe that leave me wanting them to meet up so my brain can stop doing so much hard work. Sure I like to be challenged, but there’s only so many hours in a week.

According to this Wall Street Journal article on the topic, scientists say there’s actually no limit to the number of narratives, that the human mind can accommodate.

Richard Gerrig,  professor of cognitive science at Stony Brook University, says, “Being able to keep track of plots and characters is the same thing as keeping track of our friends’ lives.

“When you have to get re-established with a character, it’s the same as meeting a colleague or cousin you don’t see very often. Sometimes there are some awkward moments until you get to the right place in your memory.”

I guess it’s a bit like seeing someone out and not being able to place them (I’m pretty bad at this!).

Here’s my list of essentials for writers contemplating convoluted storytelling:

1) Give us a central character. Our guide into the world, their viewpoint and what it is they want.
2) Bring us back to a central location. There’s no place like home, whatever ‘home’ may be.
3) Make your hierarchy very clear. Who is important?
4) Make recaps mandatory at the top of each episode.
5) Don’t suspend subplots for too long.
6) Ensure a show’s website has plenty of helpful extras.
7) Cast distinctly. If you must have a cast of thousands the last thing we need is actors who look similar.
8) Consider flashbacks to fill in the gaps. Preferable to voice-overs.
9) Edit. A red pen is your best friend.

But if there is one show that has more characters than any of these, it has to be The Simpsons.

Funnily enough, I have no problem working out who is who there.



  1. This feature actually ties in with the one about “triple screening”. Networks are actively encouraging viewers to watch TV far more passively, and perhaps that is actually why shows like Game of Thrones and some of the higher brow drama where viewers actually do have to concentrate has been doing well in recent years. Viewers like having to use their brains, rather than barely paying attention to a show they’re watching as they’re too busy seeing what everyone else thinks about it to form an opinion of their own.

  2. With the exception of 4 & 6 on your list, GOT would be totally ruined if the other ideas were adopted. It keeps the viewer in constant suspense over ‘the game’ by having so many different factions, in different locations and each character in those factions fighting for their own agenda and then speculating on how that is going to affect the rest of the realm. Having Ned as the central character in S1 was terrific because when they pulled the rug under us by beheading him it was truly a shock. It changed the rules for the viewers by not giving us an obvious ‘good guy’ to cheer on and I like that you have to really think about what ties together and the repercussions of every action. I often refer to the family trees, maps and recaps online but that’s half the fun, watching all the scheming and plotting and wondering what’s going to happen next. And hoping like hell that your…

  3. When I watched S1E1 of GoT I couldn’t follow it at all and was very disappointed as every one told me it was great. I read the books and got hooked. Binged S1 to S4 and now wished I’d waited for another four years until it finished as now I have to wait a year between each season. I don’t have a problem with the massive cast in GoT as they are all well defined by terrific actors. Where I have a problem is when even a small cast can’t differentiate characters enough to make me care about them.

  4. Game of Thrones is fine for me – they usually kill off characters before adding new ones!

    I’m in two minds re. large casts of characters. I like complex drama but some shows add lots and lots of characters in a lazy, trend-driven way. A bigger cast doesn’t *automatically* make your show deeper or more complex! Ditto for length. 12 hours isn’t necessarily better than 8 hours. Quite a few shows need to learn that lesson. Overall, as others have said, a lot of TV nowadays is geared towards binge watching rather than week-by-week viewing, where it’s easier to keep track of multiple storylines and large numbers of characters.

  5. I was just thinking this last night whilst watching Agents of Sheild. It has become far too convoluted to watch. It’s funny but shows these days with their large casts could surley benifit from having an opening that features the cast with their names attached, like they used to do prior to 2005, but unfortuantely its probably considered uncool now. I’ve only seen the first two seasons of Game of Thrones. I enjoyed the first season, but with the second season having most all of the principle cast in different locations with no reunion in sight, I have been less inclined to see the 3rd season.

  6. I always hear this as a common problem, but I’ve never had a problem, I binged watched s1 and s2 of GoT and that was the only time I didn’t know who these people were. But now I’m fine, I don’t even need a recap, but my memory IRL is shocking but for tv I seem solid, I think u can never have enough cast,
    lost and got are the two best shows ever made and having a big cast really helps. If the main guy is unlikable to me in a show I won’t watch it, but shows with big cast there is bound to be someone likeable, like GoT first two seasons only ned and snow I liked the rest I hated, now I like jamie, mother of dragons, ayra and the imp.

  7. My solution is to record the whole season of some particular programs, and then bingewatch the lot over 2-3 weeks. A bonus is to remove ads from those programs that have them when copying them to the DVD, so viewing is not interrupted at all later on. Sometimes hard to avoid spoilers though.
    GoT I have to watch at the earliest opportunity! Watching that dreadful Thronecast helps with reminders of the identity of some of the characters from previous seasons.
    DIG on SBS features lots of dark thin guys with beards and I’m having a bit of trouble there with who’s who!
    Wish I’d left it til I had the lot.

    • U should really check out emergency awesome on YouTube. I go there after every GoT and flash, the man is really smart when it comes to GoT and comic book stuff, so his great help giving me lore and such. And his getting bigger and bigger he has something like 700 thousands subs now, and his getting respect from the shows creators. Go check him out

  8. The recaps can be useful, but if it’s obvious why something is in there it can spoil what the writers intended.

    There used to be repeats of important eps on TV and recaps and detailed fan discussion of plots and characters online. So I could remember what happened in the main shows I watched. These days for many episodes there only is the TV guide description because whole eps are available for streaming.

    As I get older, and there are more shows referencing stuff that happened in previous seasons, I often have to stop watching and Google stuff to figure out WTF is going on. Sometimes I haven’t forgotten, and they have just introduced a new character with a backstory implying a past role.

  9. I agree with many of your concerns (and Sense8’s themes of ‘everything in the universe is connected’ is just typical of everything the Wachowski’s do) but as I said in the comments to your “Multi-screening” post, the trick is not to be distracted with second screens etc to follow these dramas. If the show already has your undivided attention, then yeah, it needs to be under tighter reins.

  10. Interesting points, David. I’m a person who has trouble following characters & tracking plots, yet I have no real trouble with GoT. It helps that I create my own amusing character & place nicknames based on catchphrases, resemblance to people I’ve known, etc. 😉

    Arguably, I think they hit all of your list except 1 & 9, & have carefully broken the rules on those. Enough characters are tied into the storyline & featured frequently enough to choose your own ‘central’ one & coast over the other bits, & epic fantasy like that is typically a mess of multiple storylines that come & go – there’s only so much you can edit before it becomes a mess.

    And I don’t know if True Blood was ever complex enough to have true subplots. Yes, they had plots that just stopped randomly – & if you were lucky, started up again just as randomly – but ‘subplots’ implies a bit of thought went into the…

  11. Oh thank goodness its not just me. I struggle with large ensemble casts. I prefer nice simple storylines so I can remember what’s going on.

  12. I think it’s a reflection of how we watch television these days. Usually binged, when stories and characters are still fresh in your mind before watching the next episode. It’s also a tactic for viewer retention, if less happens to your favourite character in 1 episode the more likely you are to keep watching more episodes.

  13. I agree that recaps should be mandatory, unless the show is airing as a marathon. Especially when our networks leave weeks or months between episodes of some shows.

    I’m going to need a 3-series recap of Once Upon A Time if Seven ever bother to premiere a new season.

  14. I dislike when they say “Previously on….” and show scenes from episodes that occurred months ago, not last week. And sometimes I’ve never actually seen that scene (maybe it was shown in a different rated episode that the FTA station didn’t show, or not the episode offered to Australia?).

    • South Park did a fake “previously on” recap for Chef’s final episode. Left a few people confused at first wondering why they hadn’t seen those episodes!

      Arrested Development also did fake “next time on” sequences, showing scenes that never end up happening.

  15. If the show is well written I don’t think it matters how many characters are in the show within reason. A show does need a main plotline though. Sometimes when they have too many plotlines or the plotlines are too unrelated it can make the show quite confusing to follow. I would add a 10th point to your list. Don’t ruin your show with promos the are full of spoilers for future episodes.

      • I wasn’t thinking that the promos situation was necessarily in the writers control. It was more that regardless of how well a show is written if the promos spoil it then the good work of the writers is undone.

      • Just along the theme of what’s in the writers control from the above points. Are episode recaps at the start and website extra’s be totally in the domain of the writers?

    • After 30 we lose about 7000 brain cells every day. I’d be lost without re-caps.
      However, “regular consumption of beer eliminates the weaker brain cells, making the brain a faster and more efficient machine. That’s why, Norm, you always feel smarter after a few beers.” (Cheers, Buffalo theory)
      With 257 actors in the cast I’ll need lots of mead.

  16. It’s good when you have to concentrate – Game of Thrones has the balance just about right. A huge cast but actually fairly few principle characters who are actually in all someway interlinked, and splitting the cast into a handful of key locations actually makes it easier to follow rather than more complex.

    Jumping back and forth in time is the thing which throws me – that’s why I ultimately bailed on Heroes after a couple of seasons, and the constant announcements of new or returning cast members in it’s comeback season just puts me off completely.

    • I agree with u on got, but I disagree with heroes, for me heroes was great and I loved the big cast, and I’m so happy so many are back for reborn, even chuck in it makes it my most psyched new show. I’m sure they’ll do a better job this season and I’m sure most of the old cast will die

    • Yes, I think Game of Thrones is perfect the way it is. I like having to concentrate on what is happening and how all the storylines interweave.

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