Relationship Mapping

One of the things I’ve noticed in my discussions on keeping track of large casts and on use of narrative anchors was that inter-character connections can get a lot more difficult to keep track of when there are large numbers involved. This is particularly a problem, I think, for the visually oriented; it’s easy for the eyes to just slip over long lists of names, and a few to get lost in the process. Being able to reinforce the lists with a more tangible display of the links between characters, something that allows you to see how they all fit together, provides an added advantage.

What sorts of things can you map? The question is more what kinds of things you’d want to map; you probably could map just about anything—and you can map a lot at once, if you’re willing to play a bit with a key. A simple character map might trace relationships between characters in terms of like/hate/neutral, show the relative ranks of a different group, or just trace narrative anchors. A more complicated one might combine the two, or add in other kinds of relations (family vs. acquaintances vs. introduced through a third party), or maybe start tracking how long people have known each other or the unevenness of certain connections.

Of course, the biggest catch to this is coming up with a key. If you’re only mapping anchors, all you’ll really need are lines, but if you’re looking at less binary concepts, you’re going to need a way to tell apart different kinds of connections. With rank, this can be done by arrow-points, or by the relative placement of the names. But if you’ve got how people relate, or how their relationships came about, there’s a lot more gradation—the latter topic seems to work better with colors, the former with different varieties of line or with symbols on the line.

So how might we do this? Let’s start with a simple group: Alice, Bob, Carl and Dara, as satellites around main character Mae. This diagram shows their general relative ranks (Dara is Alice, Bob and Mae’s boss), and who’s got narrative anchors to whom (everyone’s anchored to Mae, since she’s the main character; Carl, not being part of the workplace, is anchored to Alice as well).

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Now, let’s look at how these people relate to each other. Alice is married to Carl (hence the X in their line), and they both love each other dearly. Mae and Alice are close friends. Mae and Carl can tolerate each other’s company when they pass in the hallway. Dara approves Mae as an employee, but Mae mildly dislikes Dara. Bob has an unrequited crush on Dara and is pretty good friends with Mae. Alice and Dara can’t stand each other. Note the colors being explained in the diagram, as this is starting to get complicated enough to require a key, with hue corresponding to emotion and shade corresponding to intensity; note also that I kept our narrative anchor lines, using a different thickness to get the relationships across, and that when feelings are uneven, you read the half of the line closest to each character for that character’s feelings. (Note also that I had a little trouble with Alice and Carl, over there; I don’t consider love and friendship to automatically correspond, so I was trying to fit two colors into one line.)

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Once you know the code, and when you’re dealing with a lot of people, these sorts of diagrams can speed up keeping track of who’s who and how they relate. What do you think?

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