Mapping Social Situations

One of the biggest weaknesses many writers and GMs have is dealing with a large number of characters active at the same time. This isn’t a mass of mooks in a fight, mind you, nor a large crowd of extras randomly milling about; it doesn’t matter if they disappear. No, this is when you’ve got half a dozen or more named characters, no initiative order, and a need to keep track of everyone as they mill about the scene. How do you map it all out so nobody gets lost?

Relationship maps can, and often will help, since that gives you a pretty good idea who’s reacting how to whom, but they’re not entirely necessary. In situations like these, you mainly want to know the currents—who’s likely to want to interact with whom, who’s probably avoiding whom, and what sorts of things the people who are talking are discussing. I find that it’s best just to be able to name two or three dyads or larger groups that each character might gravitate towards, for good or ill, so if the patterns shift they can slip into them.

Sometimes, it’s even useful to have a physical map, if people are favoring or even rooted to one spot. I once heard a story about this sort of mapping from Lois McMaster Bujold: in A Civil Campaign, she’d written a scene in which most of the primary and immediate secondary characters were sitting down for a dinner party. To prepare for it, she’d apparently taken a mess of pink and blue Post-Its, written the characters’ names on them, and shuffled them around until she found the seating arrangement “where everyone could do the most damage”. This isn’t necessarily going to work if everyone’s milling and shifting, but if a couple of characters claim a spot and stay there, it might make it possible to move representations of the others around to keep track of who’s where.

If dealing with one or more players, or writing in first person or third person limited, take advantage of the limited perceptions of the viewpoint character(s). Unless someone’s eavesdropping, the only way you’re going to get full conversations from much of anyone is if they’re being interacted with, or very very close, to a PC/viewpoint character; the rest is likely to be brief snatches, as per writing crowd-noise, so at most you’d need the subject and an idea how the voices of the characters involved sound.

All of the above should let you build narrative links to try to keep the characters together and responding to each other.

How big gatherings do you tend to run or write, and what do you do to keep them under control?


  1. UZ says:

    As Kirk said, there are always… possibilities. I find that in standing public gatherings of more than a few people, they tend to break up into groups of 1d6+1 and discuss amongst themselves, occasionally gaining or losing one member as they see someone else they want to talk to or need snacks.

    So, there are a number of ways of getting them together.

    Moving POV: We follow a single person as they go from one group to another. We establish a plot point or some character development, exchange some pleasantries, they go by the finger sandwiches and seek out another group for same.

    Eavesdropping: We follow the plot point or character development in the group from the POV of someone who’s not participating, but rather just listening in. Similar to Moving POV.

    Distant Cue: Like eavesdropping, but rather than having the situation directly narrated to us we get their distant observation – they are talking, this one is angry, he throws his gloves on the ground and leaves, the other one laughs.

    Renarrative: Like distant cue, we remain in the context of one group, but we have a catty wig type to tell us what’s going on in another, so nuance can be added that wouldn’t necessarily be available to the POV character.

    Catty Wig Type: And here we have My Lord Emrich and His Grace the Duke of Lespade, who are *not in love*. Perfunctory bow, handshake that goes on a little too long. A bit of impersonal praise, small talk, looking manfully into one another’s eyes. (imitating) M’lord’s looking fine today I must say! (slightly different voice) Your Grace! The warm weather has been most agreeable to your complexion. Ah, Milady Trey has realized that she’s intruding on something private, she’s heading for the cakes. Wise choice, they are delicious.

  2. Shinali says:

    For the sake of my amusement and hopefully someone’s edification, I’m going to analyze what is probably my biggest and least formally organized social situation I’ve written (the formal dinner party with dignitaries was a lot more organized, the business meeting definitely was).
    My first Nanovel opened with a casual party and the cast was enormous – all the named major and minor characters pretty much plus random patrons of the restaurant. The POV is 3rd person Limited, in the viewpoint of my MC.
    Initially at least, we are following her in, as she greets the hostess and makes small talk (and basic key facts for later are dropped here). Next, rather than have her mill through more people, she overhears them singing karaoke. More characters are mentioned in passing, but nothing vital is revealed – it’s crowd noise. We see the hostess again, hostessing.
    Now, my MC isn’t moving or eavesdropping, so the party comes to her – sibling banter she is barely listening to (except when spoken to directly), instead we see her watching other people she knows and the downstairs crowd.
    Next Plot Happens (involving yelling and attempted mitigation). Clearly this takes the focus. Now she’s eavesdropping but not by choice.
    Now some of the people we saw earlier talk about the action, and then there’s more karaoke.
    Physically she just went into the restaurant and upstairs and had dinner, but in the process social situations mill around her at different volumes and of different natures, rather like dynamic crowd noise as scenery. Admittedly, the “crowd noise” I don’t write out much of, instead using continuances of conversations she was in and karaoke.

    After the end of that part she actually goes and starts talking to people she knows, and it takes on a different pace for a bit, with important facts being shared, and characterization being developed.

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