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I've decided to experiment with mystery novels and went for the type I most like: Miss Marple kind of tale.

I set the story in a small town (about 2000 people) and gave my main character family, close friends, regular friends and general acquaintances, mapping the places she goes to (cafés, supermarkets, beauty salon, etc) and whom she interacts with where.

Then, obviously, I had to give her family (husband and one child) their own close friends and regular friends, and I also did the same to the secondary characters.

Once that was done, I started mapping out dislikes, pet hates, enemies and rivals. Soon, I found myself with a realistic 'town' where crime could thrive, given the right conditions.

Of course most characters are nothing more than 'male, John Smith, security at X' or 'female, Jane Doe, middle-aged, works at X, MC has noticed her hands are often scratched, concluded she's got a cat - is it really a cat or is she up to something? keep in mind for later use'.

The first story flowed very well, with the MC learning essential clues through casual (and not so casual) conversations with her friends and acquaintances. There were also a few seeds for possible new crimes. Perfect!

As I now move on to the third crime, I've found that the town has escaped my control. I need to find threads that connect the next victim to the MC so she can discover the criminal, but the now ~300 named characters (developed to greater or lesser extent), whose connections were so clear in my head at the time of their creation, have become strangers.

I need a quick, visual way to identify connections between the characters, because I keep forgetting that D goes to school with C but is also a neighbour to F, so D is the perfect character to see the criminal and pass on some specific clue. This is especially important when the characters are apparent strangers: A does not know B, but her son goes to school with C who is B's miece. That kind of thing. The up-coming stories cannot contradict the connections previously created, quite the opposite, they should use those connections. The more 'old' connections are used, the less need I have to create more characters! I've got more than enough for a dozen crimes; I don't need anymore.

Can anyone suggest some software that can be used to map a large number of connections/relationships? I've seen those maps for mapping social media connections and something similar would be just perfect. I could select character A and not only see how many nodes separate her from B, but also which different paths can A use to get to B (if B goes to the same shops, have friends in common, etc).

I've tried to use YEd to make the connections, but it's not the best thing when a single node has multiple different relationships with a second node (A is friends with B, C, D; A is also C's cousin; A is also a school coleague of C and D; A goes to swimming classes with B and D) and, on top, add places (all the named kids in A's class, plus the ones in B's class, which is a year ahead and includes E, who used to bully A and C).

However, if someone has an 'advised approach' to YEd that I'm failing to discover, feel free to point out the obvious.

I know, I'm going for a really complex thing here, but it worked briliantly for the first two tales... I just have to find a way to quickly recall all the connections in between the characters.

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    Have you considered just getting a file cabinet and a bunch of manila folders? Write the name of each known character on a folder tab and then alphabetize them and put them in the cabinet. Then reread your first three books and every time character is mentioned, pull out the mentioner's folder and the folder for the person who is mentioned. Write notes on the inside of each folder (adding sheets of paper if needed). Use a different color pen for each book. This will quickly become a complete record of what your readers know. Then just consult and update the folders as you move forward. – Henry Taylor Sep 9 '18 at 19:17
  • Thanks for the suggestion but I already have that kind of database on a software. I write it all down religiously the moment I start creating the characters, and adjust it every time something changes. It automaticaly links every character so I can easily go from one to the next. It works great when I'm seeing first level connections (person A: cousin of ..., friend of ..., work colleague of ...), the problem is when I need to find deeper connections. In some cases, I need to have three and four nodes between character A and B. The famous 'he's the ex-husband of the cousin of your neighbour'. – SC for reinstatement of Monica Sep 9 '18 at 22:11
  • I find myself centering on character A then following connections blindly until I find two or three so I can then choose the one that works best. It takes a long time and it's very frustrating. I need to be able to pick two characters and see ALL the possible connections so I can quickly choose the best one. – SC for reinstatement of Monica Sep 9 '18 at 22:11
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    It's possible that Scapple could help, although I'm not sure how well it scales to something really complex. – Jason Bassford Supports Monica Sep 10 '18 at 6:27
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    It is an ontology problem. For every single character, you need to identify all the potentially useful attributes you need to describe them. Once attributes are set up, you infer all the relationships. For instance: son of X -> sibling of Y and Z. Goes to school X -> therefore classmate of A, B, C, D and pupil of teacher H. Lives in Street Z -> therefore neighbour with M and N. And so on. Keep in mind that you don't need all of this: if you see even a very complex story such as Twin Peaks, you will find that many characters are just lifeless extras, and that's fine. – FraEnrico Sep 10 '18 at 8:31
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For the genre you are focusing on, 300 characters are too much! That said, you can have a network of diminishing priorities. For example. MC-> Related to 10 fairly important characters(suspects). These 10 can further meet many people, and you needn't provide backstory for each. Just remember the connections you establish, so you don't violate them later on.

Now coming to your question, excel can be a really great tool, if you organise it properly. Maintain tags for each character in a column. later for reference just use filters to see which characters are related that way.

"The lord of the rings" and "A song of ice and fire" both are high fantasy, but the number of characters in much, much more in ASOIAF. If you really want to write with 300+ characters go ahead, all rules can be broken, as long as it doesn't pain the reader to read your book.

  • I have almost no backstory for background characters. But I need them to be in the background. If the 3rd story involves the hairdresser, then I'd rather she and her son were mentioned in a previous story. Otherwise, the first time any character is mentioned the reader immediately knows they're either the victim or the criminal, or someone directly involved, and I've always found that annoying in mysteries. – SC for reinstatement of Monica Sep 10 '18 at 10:09
  • I'll take a look at the possibilities excel offers. Thanks for the suggestion. – SC for reinstatement of Monica Sep 10 '18 at 10:10
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I've actually installed a mediawiki on my private server for my sci-fi book.

Since it's a book covering multiple POVs and involves political and military structures, remembering who the captain of what ship was, became fairly tedious. Since characters could have multiple affiliations (e.g. Bob is engineer on a ship from one government, but also works for the hostile government as a spy), it became almost impossible to lay out in a mindmap.

With the mediawiki and with using proper category trees, it became much easier.

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I did this with about 500 people (men, women and children) for a mystery RPG scenario build, it was a massive headache until I realised you don't have to track the individuals individually. By creating sub-groupings like "the Randell family", "Tuesday night book club", "the bank staff", and "Saturday night poker game" and then noting where they interact you can build up a small town very quickly and with a minimum of effort. Since everyone belongs to a number of groups you can track, and somewhat define, them by membership and have a small bio for the "important" characters where necessary.

A word of warning, no matter how you arrange things, I used an A3 sheet of paper and drew circles for the various groupings, the whole thing ends up resembling nothing so much as a giant mess if you can't differentiate the really important relationships. I had to colour code heavily to eventually make sense of the web I had created, even though all the individual steps in that web made sense when I was putting the links together. In the end I learned that there weren't actually that many people or groups that were really important, partly that was deliberate, largely that was due to the fact that any numerically confined group of people actually share a relatively small pool of points of interaction.

I'll be interested to see what software solutions people come up with, I had a quick look and found Draw.io which is free and should be effective. Just remember to keep your eye on what's important about how your network functions or you'll get lost in the details and you run the risk of losing sight of what you were trying to work out in the first place.

  • Thanks for the input. I started with the groupings too, but the characters who are vital to the plots ended up belonging to different groups (eg.: C has a group of people he interacts with at work, a group he goes out with for drinks, and the group of old schoolmates, or bullies, he stopped hanging out with when he grew a conscience). It was at this time I started despairing. I'll add your suggestion to my list of options to check out. – SC for reinstatement of Monica Sep 10 '18 at 21:23
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You probably need Mind Mapping Tools or Network mapping softwares, or Topology, or Ontologies. Anything that lets you create elements (in the shape of boxes, clouds, cards or whatever) and define connections between them.

I found myself well with Lucidchart, used for flux diagrams, because it's simple and easy to use. There are thousands of programs like that, just do a quick web search.

My only advice is to keep the tool as simple as you can: you need something to simplify your work, but additional softwares always end up adding layers of complexity to your writing process, so don't rely too much on them.

EDIT: I forgot to mention, sometimes pen and paper does the trick. Build a cork-board full of post-its, and you'll have the map you need.

  • I don't think I could fit in a cork-board for ~300 characters in my house. ;) I'll check up the software you suggest. – SC for reinstatement of Monica Sep 10 '18 at 10:16
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Well if you wanna play with social networks, I would just do as the social network analysts do and use a graph query language. Do you have a background in programming? It sounds that you may.

These graph databases are just a nice way to store data which consists of connections like "married to" and "murderer of" between people. After the data goes in, you'll have an easier time when trying to learn about the network.

  • I feel flattered that 'I sound I may have' a background in programming. Unfortunately, I don't. I did learn to use excel in advanced ways by myself and I do use an auto-cad like software for mapping, so I'll take a look at graph query language. Maybe I can get on with it. – SC for reinstatement of Monica Sep 11 '18 at 10:29

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