The tricky thing about relationships (and not the ones you’re thinking about)

I don’t know what your childhood was like, but when I was a kid, the world was divided into very few categories. The people I knew were either friends, family, that amorphous mass that comprises my extended family, and teachers.

That was it.

Fast forward twenty years.

Now I have online friends and local friends, I have my husband, my family, and my extended family. I have the small business owners whose services I use on a frequent basis. I have a boss, a business partner, an illustrator, and a whole bunch of clients.

With each of these comes a whole slew of behavioral codes.  Each group has its own hierarchies, its own set of taboos, its own set of social niceties to observe, its own set of rituals. Some of them are pretty universal: “Hey, how’s it going? Really? Cool. By the way, are you coming to the spoken word event on Friday? Awesome.”

Others are more personalized: random pictures of clouds at four in the morning, articles on serial killers sent to my inbox without further explanation, or hyper-focused questions out of the blue on pricing or contract work.

The more complicated a character’s life is, the more complicated his or her relationships will become. Soon you have to keep track of who knows who, who knows what, who sits where in each hierarchy, and what might be taboo in one circle or another.

This is how reality works. Unfortunately, it’s also tricky to pull off with writing. Every new character comes with their own list of things the reader will need to understand about that character and their relationship to the rest of the story, and it’s very easy to overload the reader on information. So here are some ideas for making that a little bit easier:

  • Combine characters. Especially the ones who only do one or two things, like getting the protagonist across town or delivering specific information– turn that handful of people into a single person who does all those jobs. Added bonus: that character becomes deeper and more interesting as you mash all the previous one-off characters together.
  • Introduce the characters slowly. Don’t front-load us with characters. Bring each person in as they become relevant. If you need to mention someone beforehand, consider referring to them by an identifier: “My boss called me in today,” or “My butcher got me a sweet deal on these deals.” You can properly introduce that person when they make their first significant appearance.
  • Prune your story. Does a given character assist the entire story, or only a single subplot? Subplots are fun, but at times they can suck attention and energy away from the big picture. Know when to whip out the garden shears and cut out inessential scenes, subplots, and characters.

Do you have other tricks for cutting down on extraneous characters? Do you have relationships now that you didn’t expect to have when you were a kid? Tell us about it in the comments!

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