Django: Adding an intermediate model to a ManyToMany field without one

Adrienne Domingus
3 min readJun 29, 2017

Django’s Many to Many relationships allow you to have a many-to-many relationship without an intermediate model — this is great for when you don’t need anything except foreign keys on the through table, and gives you an easy API to work with to get related objects. But what about when business needs change, and now you do need additional fields on the intermediate model — and you need to make the change without any downtime or loss of data?

Let’s say we’ve got the following models:

class Course(models.Model):
tags = models.ManyToManyField(Tag, db_table='course_tag', related_name='courses', blank=True)

class Tag(models.Model):

There is a table in my database called course_tag, but I don’t have a CourseTag model, so I can’t add additional fields to it. Creating this model doesn’t actually require any changes to your database, but you need to let your Django app know that the model exists, so that future modifying migrations work as expected (and so that you can query CourseTag objects directly).

Django has a util called inspectdb that comes in handy here, since we want our first migration to change nothing about the database. I ran this and copied the intermediate model into my without changing anything about it other than removing managed = False from class Meta — that I want it to be managed is the whole point.

I also went ahead and changed the line that said tags = models.ManyToManyField(Tag, db_table='course_tag', related_name='courses', blank=True) to read tags = models.ManyToManyField('Tag', through='CourseTag'). This also doesn’t change anything about your database, but does impact the APIs that are available to you within the ORM.

At this point, run python makemigrations.

If you run this migration normally, you’ll get an error that says something like django.db.utils.ProgrammingError: relation "course_tag" already exists. You have a couple of options to deal with this:

  1. Run the migration with the --fake option appended. This will not change anything about your database, but will let Django know that the migration has been “run” so that any future AlterTable operations will run successfully. The downside here, at least in my case, was that our automatic build failed, because the test suite runs migration files. Tests can of…