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Writing about a Group

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Anonymous asked: “I want to write about a large group of people, how do I do it? Any advice?”

Really the only concern that comes up in my mind is how many characters would be too many characters? There isn’t really an answer to that. 

I’ve read books with tons of characters – like Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. Every chapter is like a fresh start there, yet somehow you eventually get to know almost everyone fairly well. People crisscross into each other’s stories and lives. It’s a crazy web of characters and how they know each other, but while I was reading it, it really didn’t struggle to remember people or names even. I’m terrible with names and I felt like I remembered these characters pretty easily which is just insane, because there’s so many. But let’s talk about some ways this example worked. 

For one thing, there are never too many characters introduced at once. In each chapter, pretty much right away you aren’t searching for the protagonist or the main character or anything like that, you’re taking in the scene and getting to know each person. Sometimes you might be trying to piece together who is related to who or how each person ties back to the previous chapters, but that’s always for the most part explained at some point in time. With lots of characters, often the big issue is trying to introduce them all in a way that they can be remembered. While the protagonist might already know everyone, there still needs to be some kind of introduction to the reader, whether it’s the first scene they’re in or some relevant time to talk more expressly about who they are – doesn’t need to be revealed right away, just early enough that the reader isn’t left wondering for too too long. 

Another big thing that I hear a lot is that sometimes new writer want all characters included in the conversation. Imagine you’ve got six friends sitting around a table with you. Does every person talk? Maybe? If they all do, they might not all take turns. A few might talk broadly to everyone, but generally, not everyone is fighting for a chance to speak. One person might hop in once or twice with a joke while two other people talk over everyone else. Someone at the end of the table might start up their own semi-private conversation and it’s a bit of a mess. Trying to translate that kind of thing into writing isn’t easy, but also, it means you don’t have to have every character talk. Imagine who’s there and who’s talking and don’t force quiet characters to assert an opinion just to have one in there. What are the characters who are not talking doing instead? That’s just as telling and perhaps even a bit more memorable than an off-handed comment. 

Last thing I’ll talk briefly on is group dynamics. Know what everyone’s relationship is like with each other. Who tend to be closer? Who don’t get along? Who have the same sense of humor? Showing what the characters relationships are like will shed some light on the group dynamic, but also who the characters are on their own – things you might not necessarily see in them without having the other as a foil or at least a point of reference. One novel that is great about showing group dynamics among friends is The Secret History by Donna Tartt. I love this book. It’s about six-close knit classics majors at a liberal arts college and it might be a bit on the long side, but every bit of it is about exploring the depths and lengths of friendships between the six central characters. 

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