How To Write People On Large Scales


By nature, people aren't very good at visualizing and plotting out the complex dynamics and variability that one will find in any large group - whether it's a small cult with few hundred members, a business with thousands of employees, a city with a population of millions, or a planet filled with billions. Even people who are capable of writing incredibly believable individuals often don't succeed in believably portraying the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of large groups. As a result, they end up writing out scenarios that don't actually line up with how real people behave, making them feel forced and contrived. Fortunately, avoiding these problems is actually pretty simple - so here's how you can do it!

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Understand that the masses aren't actually mindless.

People often perceive people outside of their own social circles, interest groups, and suchlike as members of a mindless herd to some degree. They just suppose that they follow whatever their crowd is doing without thinking about it too much. Here's an example of how it works:

One day, Tabitha looks at a crowd of people awaiting the opening of a clothing store she isn't interested in and thinks, "What a bunch of mindless sheep!" A few weeks later, Tabitha attends a midnight book release in costume. Despite the fact that her own behavior is little different from the behavior of the people at the clothing store, Tabitha doesn't think of herself as a "mindless sheep." She sees herself as a fan expressing her passion and enjoying something she finds interesting and engaging. Likewise, she doesn't think of her fellow fans as mindless sheep, either. She recognizes them as individuals who happen to enjoy the same thing.

Meanwhile, Emily, a person who was at opening of the clothing store the other day, happens to be in the area. Emily is not especially fond of Tabitha's favorite book series. When she sees the book fans waiting in line, she thinks, "Look how many kids these days have been brainwashed into loving trash." Naturally, Emily never thought of herself and the other clothing store shoppers as brainwashed. She thought of them as being here to see what this new store had and to hopefully find something nice to wear.

And just for good measure we'll add in a third party, Jason. Jason believes that Tabitha and Emily are both mindless and brainwashed puppets of consumerism. Jason believes that the only reason they like or want to do anything is because "the media" or "someone else" told them to. Meanwhile, Jason believes that the likes of Tabitha and Emily are brainwashed because he found a website that told him that this is how things work. But naturally, Jason doesn't think of himself as brainwashed or as believing whatever he's told. He thinks of himself as informed and enlightened.

Odds are, you've been guilty of this type of thinking at some point. You see yourself as educated, opinionated, and individualistic. You see your group as a collection of individuals who like or believe the same thing. At some point you've probably looked at another group and didn't see a similar collection of individuals, but instead, saw a collective or a hive mind. And it's quite possible that they looked at you and your group and likewise saw a collective or hive mind. Both of you were equally wrong about each other, of course.

So the first thing to do when writing large groups is to make sure you don't slip into this kind of thinking yourself, because it's impossible to capture authentic human behavior this way. Whoever they are are, whatever they believe, they aren't a hive mind. They are a collection of individuals who happen to share certain tastes, beliefs, or values. With a few exceptions (EG, cults and cult-like mileaus), none of them are especially more "brainwashed" or "mindless" than anyone else.


Remember that cultural values and norms =/= personality.

People commonly mistake the cultural values and norms of others for their inherent, inborn personalities. For example, when seeing a culture where stoicism is the norm, one might assume that the people are just biologically predisposed to dour dispositions. Upon seeing a culture that considers war as the go-to solution for most of their problems, one might suppose that they're just born violent. When seeing a people who have figured out how to get high crop yields for very little effort and take full advantage of that so they have more free time to do what they want, some might assume that they are genetically inclined to be lazy and goof off.

Writers often project this assumption onto large groups. Thus you end up with odd situations such as an entire town's population having no sense of humor and being completely obsessed with work, or an entire culture obsessed with war and glory, . (This type of assumption is also known as the fundamental attribution error.)

Think back to various social environments you've been involved in throughout your life - work, school, message boards, chat rooms, etc. Consider how many personalities you encountered in each one. You probably had people who kind and considerate, people who were rude, people who were manipulative and self-centered, people who were loud and talkative, people who mostly kept to themselves, etc. Some were probably pretty aggressive, while others avoided confrontation. Some were playful and silly, others more serious. You may have noticed that some groups attracted some types of personalities while repelling others, but that even so, there was still a fair amount of variation among those who stuck around.

Here's an exercise: Imagine a small group of people, maybe five or six. These people might be palace guards, suited agents, members of a monastery, or anything else you like. Now, assign a personality to each one based on somebody you've seen. Maybe the one on the left is the cinnamon roll. Maybe the next one is the person who takes offense at everything. Maybe the one after that is the mom friend who tries to keep the peace between everybody. And so on and so forth.

Now imagine another row of people. Assign various personalities to them. Maybe this bunch includes the person who has something mean to say about everyone, the person who loves surreal humor memes, and the person who doesn't know when to stop talking about a personal project. Keep on visualizing more small groups, and keep assigning a variety of personalities to them.

Once you've done that, visualize all of these people standing in a large room. Now visualize a second bunch of people standing next to them, with about the same number of people in it. Now assume that this second bunch has a wide variety of personalities just like the first. Once you've done that, imagine a third bunch, and a fourth, and so on until the room is filled.

You are now visualizing a reasonable approximation of a collection of individuals. Yes, some of the people in this room are very similar to each other, but many of them are wildly different. Some are brave, some aren't. Some are kind and loving, some are cold and cruel. Some love cooking, some are ambivalent about it, and some hate it. And so on and so forth.

Now let's add a little culture to the mix. Let's imagine that this group of people are the residents of a small village. In this village, everyone grows up hearing tales of a monstrous beast that will come and devour anyone who laughs too loudly. As a result, those with energetic, boisterous personalities usually learn to repress themselves (and are probably pretty miserable for it). At the same time, they also learn that kindness and generosity are important to keeping the community and together, so most of them are more likely to see charity as important. Those who might have been less giving if they'd grown up in a culture that taught them to be penny pinchers are more likely to be generous here.

Thus it goes for any large group. They have about the same variety of personalities as anywhere else, but local values and norms affect how they act by encouraging some forms of behavior while discouraging others. Sometimes they'll drive certain personality types away - for example, highly empathetic people will not thrive well in an environment dominated by predatory personalities (for example, a corporate office environment), and such people might end up leaving for the sake of their own wellbeing. Conversely, control freaks won't find themselves very happy in cultures that encourage individualism and discourage authoritarian behavior. But by and large, ending up with exactly one type of personality in a group is pretty much impossible. (This goes even if they aren't human. Mother Nature favors diverse personalities.)

So keep all of this in mind when trying to visualize or write any large group, whether it's the inhabitants of an alien planet, a race of magical beings, the employees of a large company, or the citizens of a spooky town out in the woods. Remember that while values and norms can affect how people express their personalities, they are not themselves personality traits.


Remember that the bigger the scale, the more cultural diversity there ought to be.

Take a moment to stop and think about the local culture where you live. What are the predominant political views? Which religious groups are more common? How do people dress and talk? What kind of foods do you have that you don't often see elsewhere? What's considered polite behavior? What's considered rude? Now stop and think about how things are in places that are adjacent to your home location, and how there are differences. Now think about the differences you start seeing when you go out even further. Go out far enough, and eventually things are very different from home.

Unless cultural variation is being artificially inhibited or something, things should work approximately the same way in your own setting. If you're writing about someplace the approximate size of the European continent or the US, you should most probably see similar amounts of cultural variation. If you're writing about someplace the approximate size of the entire Earth, it should probably have about as much diversity as Earth does. If you're going even bigger, it should have even more - for example, it wouldn't be amiss for an area approximately twice the size of Earth to have twice as many cultures.


Also, bigger scales mean more conflict and disagreement.

Tying in with the "people who don't belong to my group are a monolith" misconception, people tend to assume that other groups don't have as many squabbles and disagreements among themselves and with other outsider groups as they have in their own groups. Thus they imagine that other religious groups get along with each other just fine when in reality they barely tolerate each other, or that other countries have tight alliances with each other and work together in perfect harmony when in reality none of them trust each other any further than they can throw each other, or that the citizens of other countries never have substantially differing opinions and are always in harmony with each other when in reality they squabble and bicker as much as one else.

Stop and think for a moment just how much disagreement and conflict you've seen among people over the years, whether it's in your own hometown, your country, or in any of the numerous online groups and movements you've observed or been a part of. Consider how many people you have seen who have essentially the same goal, but have such different ideas of how to reach it that they end up at odds with each other. Consider how many new communities and groups formed because some people decided that the best thing to do was just go and start their own.

Think about how you and your people view various outside groups. There are some you like just fine. There are some you think are mostly okay, but really need to get their act together on a few things. There are some groups that you think have a few good ideas once in awhile, but are mostly just bad. And then there are some that you think are completely appalling.

You can expect to find similar things going on pretty much anywhere you go. Some environmental factors can exacerbate conflict (scarcity, unfair treatment of the people, etc.) and some cultures value avoiding it moreso than others, but no matter where you go there's always going to be some form of conflict and disagreement going on between people. You'll never find an environment or system where everybody always gets along and nobody ever complains (or sometimes even outright rebels!) - whether it's a secret organization, the government, or an underground movement.


They should also be reasonably good at avoiding conflict, and at making up when it does happen.

And just as people have a natural instinct to fight for what they really want or believe in, they also have a natural instinct to make peace and settle conflicts. There's good reason for this: conflict is costly. Interpersonal conflict can tear apart friends, families, and even entire communities and in some cases turn into bitter rivalries that last for years and cause severe harm to the community. Conflict between co-workers lowers productivity. Killing and stealing from members of other groups can lead to war with them - and not only does war lead to your own people getting killed, but armies also have to be fed, equipped, paid, and given medical care.

What this means is that we shouldn't see entire societies where duels to the death are the default method for settling every conflict, or where being cruel and ruthless is ubiquitously rewarded while diplomacy and leniency is universally punished, or where murdering people for fun is seen as normal and acceptable by the majority. A group like this would be highly unstable and would either crumble apart or be torn to shreds by its enemies.

While some might scoff at the idea that avoiding and discouraging pointless conflict would be a universal trait, we find that such behaviors pop up in numerous animal species. Monkeys do it. Chickens do it. Turkeys do it. Dogs do it. Elephants do it. Gorillas do it. Cichlids do it. When you see behaviors like these pop up in numerous species time and time again, you know it's an important survival strategy. (So if anyone has ever wondered if a brutal kill-or-be-killed society would be particularly strong and fit, the answer seems to be a resounding no.)

So stop and think about all the ways you've seen that people have to keep conflict from getting out of hand. Many groups have people who just naturally fall into the role of diplomat or group parent. Some people encourage others to talk out their differences. Some impose penalties for fighting. Likewise, notice how people have certain customs or protocols for making up after a conflict - for example, apologizing, doing acts of good faith, or paying fines of some kind are common. These help mend the wounds created by conflicts that do arise and keep society running smoothly.

The thing is, what makes a society truly work is a healthy balance of conflict and peace. (In fact, those who will do and say anything to keep the peace tend to become minions and apologists for predators and bullies.)


A few more things

Points To Remember When Worldbuilding and Tips To Create Richer & More Realistic Fantasy & Science Fiction Cultures & Civilizations have a lot of things that should be taken into consideration and accounted for when writing about large numbers of people.

How To Make The Nameless, Faceless, & Minor Characters In Your Story Feel Human To You has some exercises and techniques to help you see the crowds and masses as a collection of diverse individuals with needs and feelings that matter, rather than a herd of mindless meat puppets.

Where & How Writers Need To Do The Math will help you work out reasonable population sizes for your large groups and the demographics within them, which is pretty important if you're trying to establish solid, consistent worldbuilding and work out what kinds of behaviors are appropriate for a group their size.


In summary!

No matter where you go, people are fundamentally the same. They might have different beliefs and values, but deep down inside they have the same wants and feelings. They aren't never simply mindless herds, but are collections of individuals. You can assume that any large group is made up of as many personalties as you can think of, and possibly even more. Perfect compliance and unity is unnatural and basically never happens. But on the other hand, groups do tend to have conflict-reduction habits to keep itself from weakening and splintering apart - even though conflict is natural and even healthy in certain amounts, it has to be kept in balance.

Go here and here for more things to consider and account for, learn how to humanize the faceless masses, and of course, do your math.


These might also be relevant to you:

Creating & Writing Fictional Organizations
Things To Know When Creating & Developing Fictional Governments
Tips To Build Better Post-Apocalyptic And/Or Dystopian Settings
Things Writers Should Know About Big Businesses

Tips To Create Fictional Philosophies & Value Systems
Moral & Ethical System Development Questions
Country & Culture-Development Questions
Things About Brainwashing Writers Need To Know



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