As the title indicates, this article will attempt to address the way characters interact with their friends and acquaintances—specifically, groups of them.

Note: The number I’m thinking when I say “large group” is anywhere from five to 12 or so people. I’ll be doing a separate article on interactions at parties with much larger groups.

When you get a large group of acquaintances together, the opportunities for subtlety and character development abound. You can tell a lot about a person by the company they keep and how they interact with them. The subtle details that arise in these situations can be very powerful in giving us a deeper look into who the people involved really are and how they feel about those around them. The entire interaction is made up of several different layers, a few of which I will try to address here.

Groups and the people that are in them tend to affect the way people act, for better or worse. This depends largely on your characters and their distinct personalities, but chances are you will have one who shifts his or her behavior slightly. For example, a character that prides himself on his intellectual superiority (and perhaps feels the need to nurture his ego) may become more assertive or even outright aggressive in establishing his scholarly dominance—nothing raises the stakes like an audience. Or, a shy character may close up completely and fall out of the interaction altogether if enough people are present. The fact that the character might be friends with all of these people might not necessarily eliminate this shift, or even mitigate it, depending on who your character is.

Personalities, too, will play off of each other. A more reserved character, for example, might be coaxed out of her shell by the other members of the group and loosen up. Or, two morally upstanding characters that are less than pleased with the bawdy jokes they hear might find courage to reprimand the rest of the group as a team. Again, the degree of behavioral shift depends almost entirely on who your characters are and the people that make up the group, but this sort of detail can provide a much deeper look into the workings of your character’s personality.

Another very insightful aspect of group interactions is the body language used, both by your character and the other members of the group. A complex net of relationships between the people present will always be there, just under the surface. This network has a profound effect on the group interaction as a whole. Some characters like each other more than others, and nothing shows this subtle shift like the body language. Generally, people sit close to the people they want to engage with, lean forward, and react animatedly to the conversation. If another, less welcome person attempts to join in the conversation, the sentiment of the group can be shown powerfully with the way their bodies react. They can turn away, speak without making eye contact, or refuse to acknowledge the unwitting character’s statements. The effect becomes even stronger if it’s simply one or two people that do this, rather than the entire group. Such small details can be very powerful illustrators of the group’s less obvious dynamic and the varying relationships within said group.

Another crucial (and often harrowing) aspect of group interactions is the conversations that take place. With a large group, this can be very, very difficult to write and maintain, and often leads to what I like to call ICS, or Invisible Character Syndrome (not the Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers). This is where less talkative characters get dropped from the scene altogether because two or three chattier characters dominate the conversation. So much work is spent writing their dialogue and reactions that the other characters fade into the background. Fortunately, the solution to this is natural and simple.

Large groups will almost always, at some point or another, break into smaller ones. This can happen due to position (i.e., characters sitting closest to each other will form their own small conversation) or due to whatever personality interactions happen to be at play. Sometimes the small formations will stay the same the entire time, or they’ll shift as other characters break off or enter the conversation. The same basic details apply—body language, personalities playing off of each other, etc.—but it’s far easier to give the characters proper attention and detail when there are less of them. Plus, if there’s a certain dynamic you want to emphasize or a relationship you want to develop between two or three people, you can have the other characters go talk amongst themselves while you focus on your small group. This is much more natural than having five of your eight characters watch in silence as three of them talk (unless, of course, you have characters who simply tend to listen quietly—but even they might be engaged in conversation and drawn in by a different character).

Speaking of conversations, this is another detail that can tell a lot about your characters and the dynamic of the group. I’m not necessarily referring to the exact words that are exchanged between characters—dialogue and its many wonderful uses are hardly strangers. What adds another layer of intricacy on top of the dialogue itself is how it’s affected by the characters present in the group.

The conversations will shift depending, first and foremost, on which characters are present. Your characters’ personalities will dictate what is discussed and how. But, there are other factors that will influence conversation. The number of people participating affects it, for example. Generally, the more people there are, the less personal and intimate the conversation tends to be. It’s far easier to discuss personal matters and more intimate aspects of yourself with one person than with three. With three, the subject is more likely to be more broad and innocuous.

That web of relationships within the group will come into play here as well—when two characters who don’t like each other terribly much are put together in the conversation, it will change drastically compared to when three very close characters are talking. Needless to say, characters will probably not gossip about each other when they’re sitting three feet away from one another, but if they leave the group, the conversations (big or small) might settle on them.

Another detail that can make these interactions more interesting and varied—in big groups of friends, not everyone is friends with everybody else. Sometimes people share a mutual friend and have to tolerate each other’s company, though they may not like each other (or might secretly resent each other, or one person might really hate the other one, or… you get the idea). This will drastically affect the dynamics of the group as a whole.

What will affect the interactions the most, though, are your characters themselves. These are just some broad tips and details to keep in mind when writing interactions like this. Though they might seem small, these details can show with incredible depth the dynamics present in the group and can reveal more about your character(s). They will also serve to make the interactions between your characters more believable and realistic.

I hope at least some of you will find this article helpful, or at least interesting. Feedback and suggestions are always welcome. Happy writing!

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  1. Puppet on 21 December 2009, 22:52 said:

    Another great article, Kaikaikat.

  2. swenson on 21 December 2009, 22:59 said:

    Oh, a very interesting article topic! I like articles that aren’t the usual humdrum writing advice thing. This brings up some great points about how to write groups… something I recognize I struggle with at times. I definitely fall into the “focus on two people while everyone else stares silently” category!

    Anyway, another great article (like Puppet already said! :)) that really draws my attention to an aspect of writing that I might not have otherwise considered. Nice job!

  3. Romantic Vampire Lover on 22 December 2009, 05:22 said:

    Thanks a lot for writing this! I found it to be quite helpful and a good reference. Bravo!

  4. Steph on 11 January 2010, 01:54 said:

    Great article! One thing I want to point out is that you’ve focussed a lot on the subtleties of body language—which are probably a lot more effective on the screen rather than the page because you don’t tend to analyse every single character’s body language when writing something. So that could get clunky, or waste too much space or just draw unwanted emphasis to somebody’s actions. Because the thing about subtleties is that when you give space to them, they are no longer subtle.

    It’s like in Ice Age 1 where the sabre-tooth tiger Diego goes, “So, you can give the baby to me or let him die with you two losers (or something like that). It’s your choice.” His eyes do this little shifty thing on the last sentence, and it’s just one of those things that make the experience that much richer, but by writing it down, you would just come across as an inexperienced writer desperate to cram everything in.

    I don’t know, maybe I’m just nitpicking.

  5. kaikaikat on 11 January 2010, 02:04 said:

    Steph: That’s definitely the key—being very selective about what to point out, and doing it only when necessary (best when a supplement to whatever was said in the dialogue). You’re right; if it’s overdone, it reads more like blocking for a screenplay, which is definitely not an effect you want to have.

  6. alvin on 24 January 2012, 14:34 said:

    Suppose you have a group environment of more than 4 people e.g friends, thugs or residents. How do actually write each characters in the dialogue or narrative e.g

    “…..” said the first friend

    “……” said the fifth friend

    “……” said the tenth friend

    The first friend stopped in his tracks. The fifth friend bolted at the attack. The tenth friend cowered. etc etc

    Please advise.