Transmedia Characters, Story Design, and Concept Mapping

CmapTools was used to create a relationship map of the characters in James Lee Burke's novel Jolie Blon's Bounce. (Click image for larger view.)
CmapTools was used to create a relationship map of the characters in James Lee Burke’s novel Jolie Blon’s Bounce. (Click image for larger view.) (Image: Peter von Stackelberg. Characters are copyright James Lee Burke)

A rich web of interrelationships between characters is a key ingredient in satisfying storytelling. With transmedia storytelling, creating a character relationship map is particularly important as an author tries to juggle all the characters across multiple media. The traditional way of mapping out those relationships was for an author to pin index cards for all of the characters on a cork board and draw lines or string thread between the them. While it may be an effective approach in an author’s office, it doesn’t work well if you need to refer to the character map while you are writing somewhere else.

James Lee Burke, one of my favorite authors, does an incredible job of writing complex yet highly realistic crime stories that have a rich cast of characters. Most of Burke’s novels are set in Louisiana or Montana and occasionally in Texas. In my various travels over the years I’ve been to many of the places that Burke uses as his settings and I must say his use of detail to describe those settings is phenomenal.

To understand how Burke wove his complex network of characters into a a coherent story I turned to relationship mapping.  A number of years ago I used CmapTools to map out the relationships between the characters is James Lee Burke’s novel Jolie Blon’s Bounce.

I’ve been using a variety of software tools — everything from mindmapping software to Microsoft Visio — to map out systems diagrams and process flows for years. Along the way I discovered CmapTools from the Florida Institute of Human Machine Cognition (IHMC). (You can download CmapTools for free.) It quickly became one of my favorite tools because of its flexibility and ease of use (and being free didn’t hurt either).

In-progress relationship map of the novella Heart of Darkness
This in-progress relationship map of the novella Heart of Darkness includes settings, significant objects, and events in addition to characters. (Image: Peter von Stackelberg)

When I started mapping out character relationships I found CmapTools was perfect. It lets you create nodes (the characters) and links (the relationships) that can be labeled, providing plenty of detail for the map. You can also color code individual nodes, which can give you an additional level of information. An in-progress diagram of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness includes not just the beginnings of a character relationship map, but other aspects of the story like settings, significant objects, and events that are color coded so they can be recognized at a glance.

Nodes can be dragged anywhere on the screen and connected with arrows to show relationships. The “????” on the lines can be edited to describe the relationship(s) between characters, settings, significant objects, and events.

Other information — for example, type of media — can also be added to these maps to add even more depth.

I also used CmapTools a couple of years ago to map out many of the diagrams in my thesis on the structure and design of transmedia narratives (you can see that elsewhere on this blog). The plot diagram shown here is just one of almost two dozen concept maps that lay out the a proposed structure for designing and developing transmedia narratives.

So far I’ve only used the basis capabilities of CmapTools. It can allow multi-user access to concept maps via the web and other capabilities that I haven’t had the time to explore. As transmedia story design and development grows more complex, a new generation of tools to assist authors is needed. For me, CmapTools is one of them.

A concept map of the plot structure for transmedia narratives.
A concept map of the plot structure for transmedia narratives developed using CmapTools. (Image: Peter von Stackelberg)


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