Another rant that I simply wanted to write.

1) Remember that each person added to the group changes the dynamic.

A conversation between a pair of people changes when a third arrives, and not only in the obvious ways, such as the first two keeping quiet about things they don’t want the third to know. Their reactions to each other change. Their concentration splits; now they’re probably keeping an eye on the third as well as speaking to each other. The person any one of the three is with the other two is different, most of the time, from the person they are with their first conversational partner or their second alone. And things get more complicated yet if a fourth person comes and joins the party, or if a character suspects they’re being observed.

Are you going to do justice to the whole group dynamic? Probably not. And there may be things that have to be included in the conversation that mean sacrificing realism of group dynamic to another consideration. (See point 2). But keeping these things in mind can help:

  • The characters’ newness to one another/how well they know each other.
  • Status relative to one another, by whichever mechanisms are relevant.
  • What their last interaction was like.
  • How much they know about the subject of the conversation.
  • How confident they are around these people/people like this.
  • Where everyone is sitting/standing/lounging/walking.
  • What they’re doing.
  • The impression they want to give to the others, regardless of whether they really feel that way.
  • The formality of the situation.
  • How perceptive each character is. Some will notice slips of the tongue, some won’t, and some will and will pretend not to have.
  • How alert to hidden nuances of the conversation they have a reason to be. (See point 2 again).
  • Aspects of individual worldview that will determine how they react to certain turns of phrase, other people’s actions and reactions, and provocations.

So, yes, it does get quite complicated, and I’ve read few group scenes that I would say functioned well on every possible level. But taking these things into consideration can help avoid the extremes of either talking heads or one character going on a monologue and turning the others into furniture.

2) Balance plot necessity, character necessity, and physical necessity.

Just a quick definition of all three of these, though I think they may be obvious (in which case, skip down to the next paragraph). Plot necessity: what has to happen in this conversation to drive the plot forward. Character necessity: what has to happen in this conversation because of what characters will think, believe, say, and notice. Physical necessity: what has to happen because of laws of nature, such as a loud voice being heard over a whisper or a listening character being unable to make sense of a person mumbling to himself on the other side of the room.

Plot necessity often rules all of these, because the author knows that at this point the heroine absolutely must find out that her loyal adviser is really a traitor, or one character must blurt out the secret that will unlock the rest of the story. However, it can rule the others to a ridiculous extent. When a character who’s never let a loose word slip from his lips in his life is the one to blurt the secret, it doesn’t work so well. When the heroine is sitting in a chair that faces the hearth, her back to her adviser, and somehow manages to notice the traitorous character coming at her with a sword even though he’s walking silently and she can’t physically see him…yeah, not so much. And no matter how important it is, I still find myself annoyed when the dull and unperceptive character who doesn’t even notice when someone flirts with him suddenly recognizes danger from a half-second expression on someone else’s face. I usually feel authors should have spent more time on the characterization in that case, rather than just assuming that because the plot needs it to happen, it’s justified.

One thing character necessity and physical necessity can do that plot necessity all by its lonesome can’t is add suspense to a group scene. Perhaps the heroine would have discovered her adviser was a traitor, but due to the nervousness and tension of another person in the room with an entirely unrelated secret, she pins the blame on him instead, and allows the adviser to escape. But that person would not have been so nervous and tense if his lover had actually given him an answer about whether she wanted to marry him last night, or if he was a different kind of person, more stoic and calm. Altering one little thing can alter many, and while it’s often impossible to trace all the consequences from one tiny ripple in real life, you can have great fun doing it in fiction.

3) False perceptions and reactions are just as much fun as true ones.

Why assume that no one in the room is lying? Or that if two characters have opposite perceptions of a third, one must be right while the other is wrong? It’s more fun to muddy the waters.

Of course, the answer may be, “Because it makes things more complicated.” But complicated is fun, too. It can certainly add some spice to what would be a boringly linear plot if every suspicion bore fruit and every time someone made a guess, they were unfailingly right.

It can also give people legitimate reasons to be angry, which is a minor but very needed bonus in some fantasy and romance fiction, where characters will hate each other forever based on stupid misunderstandings. Why not have them hate another person for what that person actually said? It doesn’t mean that the speaker is 100% hateful. She might have been having a bad day and wanted to spread the misery, or she might not be very good with words and have stuck her foot in her mouth, but any explanation just makes it worse. Then she gets angry in turn, because the other person should have paused and listened to her explanations instead of assuming she meant he was stupid and ugly. Two people with volatile tempers, which a good many lead characters have, will make it worse, and soon you have a nice, brewing conflict without the need for an authorial blame game. The characters will play the game quite happily by themselves.

4) Group dynamics give more room to display variations in individual personalities.

At least, if you move characters from group to group, they do. Someone who’s a mouse in the background in one group might very well be the leader in another. Someone who has no competition in one situation might have an equal and a rival in another. And someone who’s obnoxious or hurtful in private could put up a very good public front, or vice versa.

A version of this, more common, is to move the character you want to develop into a different time or place and then have the protagonist confront them, but I don’t think it works as well. For one thing, there are usually only two people there, without the interesting dynamic a large group provides, and possible interactions are limited. For a second, the protagonist herself isn’t necessarily going to change her mind about this other person if she’s stubborn and tends to have her beliefs set in stone (another common trait of lead characters in many fantasy novels), which makes the different setting less effective. And for the third, well, if the protagonist changes her mind, it’s another case of developing the lead character while treating the secondary ones like props, in this case an epiphany prompt. And I’m all for showing that other characters have lives of their own outside the protagonist—that they can interact with people who are not her, that they can care for or fall in love with people who are not her—and that the protagonist can be changed and molded by her connections with other people, instead of being an island.

Group dynamics do all of that well.

5) There’s no need to explain everything.

In established groups, there will be in-jokes that a spy or newcomer won’t get, undercurrents of amusement or animosity or irritation or long-suffering that they’ll notice but not know the reason for, differing levels of dedication to the group that may be explained by recent events that no one has laid out for the viewpoint character. And that’s okay.

Group scenes are a great place for “shadows,” those details added to deepen the story and intrigue the reader without necessitating a three-page flashback or becoming the clue on which the whole mystery plot hangs. There are all these people who know each other, and whose dynamic alters, as I mentioned in the first point, with the addition of every person, whether or not they’re new. Their lives are intersecting, briefly, with the protagonist’s, but that doesn’t mean their entire life history needs to be encapsulated in that scene (and I think authors are usually making a mistake when they try that). They’ll have scenes that are redolent of their pasts, but the past doesn’t need to be brought fully into the present. Such a tactic often makes the characters thus explained seem like cardboard cutouts—or words on a page—and that is precisely the kind of thing that good characterization usually tries to avoid.