Thursday, October 20, 2011

Avoiding the Bermuda Love Triangle

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Ah, the love triangle.  It's nearly as common in fiction (and non fiction for that matter) as the happy ending, an angst-ridden teenager, prophesies,  forbidden love and the secret that could ruin the protagonist's very existence.  In fact, if some of the books I've read lately are any reflection of the current trends, it would appear as though the love triangle is just as much a staple as bread and milk (or perhaps it always has been).  Of course, a lot of this has to do with our propensity for staring at train wrecks whenever we come across them hoping to catch a glimpse of the victims. Why else do you think magazines such as Us and People are so popular.  People like conflict; big, fat, juicy conflict.  After all, sex sells and doesn't appear to be going out of style any time soon.

Still, despite how often they appear in novels, crafting the perfectly believable love triangle is a fine art.  Anyone can write a story about two guys falling in love with one girl, but it takes real talent to delve into the dynamics of it all and create three characters who are real, sympathetic, and who tug at the reader's heartstrings.  In essence, it's easier to sail into the Bermuda love triangle than it is to make it out without sinking. 

For me, when it comes to love triangles I'm pretty vanilla.  I can live both with and without them.  However, that doesn't mean I don't have opinions on what I think makes for a more complete triangle (as if me having opinions is anything new).  The following are some of my thoughts about literary love triangles and what authors should do and what they should try to avoid:

Make both love interests interesting and appealing--Why is your main man or woman interested in these two individuals?  Is one of them mysteriously dark and brooding with a secret life only fantasies are made of while the other one looks like a cross between Hugh Jackman and Gerard Butler (or Justin Bieber and Zac Efron for the younger crowd)? Whether they're complete opposites in every way or there's only just subtle differences separating them, there has to be something that appeals to the leading character's senses.  Is the main character a bookworm with a hidden desire to be a bad girl?  Then perhaps it would be interesting to make her attracted to both her geeky study partner and the perennial school ditcher.  Whatever you do, don't make it easy for the reader to choose which one would be the better fit for your protagonist.

Have realistic reasons why your main character is completely torn over who to give their heart to--When it comes to affairs of the heart in the real world the ultimate decision--though sometimes heart wrenching--is usually made fairly quickly as not too many people are willing to wait around while their love interest waxes and wanes over whether or not to be with them.  If your main character is too torn to make a decision then there better be a darn good psychological reason why their heart is so fickle and why their love interests have no sense of self respect and are continuously swimming in a sea of uncertainty as opposed to moving on with their lives.

Don't drag it on--I understand cliffhangers and leaving your readers guessing until the next installment, but if you're on book twenty and your character is still submerged in a pit of indecisiveness, there's something seriously wrong with both them and their two love interests.  For starters, no one is THAT incapable of making a decision. There is always going to be one person who possesses a fraction more of your heart than the other.  Once you've figured out who that person is, bam, you've made your choice.  Secondly, no self-respecting person is going to sit around for four books waiting for the main character to make their move (I could see two, possibly two and a half books for that decision to be made, but no more than that). If your main guy or gal is honestly that torn, throw in another love interest for one of their potential suitors.  Throw in a death, an illness, or your Aunt Matilda as a distraction.  Just make things interesting, believable and, for the love of God, wrap it up before the characters are old enough to start drawing Social Security.

Why the main character is appealing--Let's face it, unless you're Jessica Alba, there isn't any of us who haven't experienced unrequited love.  With that in mind, if your main character finds him or herself entangled in one of these trifectas of doom it begs the question why.  What is so appealing about your main character that the rest of us average folk don't possess?  Why are they finding themselves irresistible to two equally attractive, interesting, and charming literary characters?  Are they unassumingly gorgeous, unabashedly hilarious, or possess a keen sense for the usage of adjectives?  There has to be something that sets them apart from all the other boys/girls in their high school, tribe, or state.  This is where the author must walk a fine line.  First of all, you want to keep your main character relatable to your reader.  Making a character flawless will alienate those who find flaws within themselves upon comparison to this character.  On the flip side, making a character the king or queen of self -deprecation isn't the answer either and will only make your reader want to usher them to a taping of Dr. Phil.  Make your main characters relatable; make them humble but not perfect, flawed but not shattered.  Above all, make your readers fall just as much in love with them as their prospective love interests.

Conflict--There's no way on God's Green Earth you can have a love triangle without there being some sort of conflict.  Love is a powerful, hypocritical emotion that can both tear people apart and piece them back together again.  In the real world, it has started wars and ruined friendships.  Why wouldn't the same be true in the literary world?  It's unavoidable; someone is going to get hurt and it's going to be ugly.  Don't sugar coat the ugliness, tackle it head on for the relationships of those involved will never be the same again.

Don't write a triangle into your book just to sell books--I think this is pretty self explanatory, but I'll go into detail anyway. When something is written without passion it--pardon my French--sucks.  The greatest stories are those weaved from the heart and not from the wallet.  Writing something because you believe it will sell as opposed to something you truly care about will be reflected within the final product. Did you enjoy writing those twenty page essays in school about subjects you could care less about?  No, of course not.  If you were to go back and read them could you honestly say they were your best work and a true reflection of your personality and abilities?  The answer to that question is most likely a resounding no.  Why?  Because you're forcing yourself to write something that you have absolutely no interest in and your readers will be able to see through your motive as though they were looking through your window.

Don't create teams (my personal pet peeve)--I know this is big in YA, but I cannot begin to express how absolutely annoying it is to me to see "Team Dumb" and "Team Dumber" paraphernalia associated with a book.  Perhaps it's the fuddy-duddy in me, but I just don't get it.  Sure, it's only natural to have your favorite characters and, of course, we're all going to secretly root for one over the other.  However, unless one of your main character's love interests is a complete tool, picking sides like high school groupies (and I'm mainly referring to those ADULTS out there with the "Team Edward" t-shirts hanging in their closets--you know who you are) completely takes away from the book itself.  If the story is well written and the character development is spot-on then both characters should be more than just words on a page. They should have hearts and souls that seem real and speak to you as the reader.  Think about it, if you had two incredible men/women pining over you and you ended up choosing one to the utter devastation of the other, would you want your classmates donning "Team Loser" buttons in class?  No, of course not.  Why?  Because someone got hurt and although your feelings for them didn't run as deep as the other guy/gal, it doesn't mean they should be dehumanized by the fan club of their rival.  Agree with me or not, just please sway your readers away from collectively turning your well outlined, serious work of art into something laughable enough to be the subject of a movie parody.

Don't let the relationships define the protagonist--Do you know those girls (sometimes guys too, but primarily girls) who are so completely co-dependent on someone else that it's a miracle they can breathe on their own without them?  Do you constantly find yourself saying, "Gah, I hate those girls"?  Enough said.  Your main character should be able to stand on their own two feet and not define themselves by which guy/girl they ultimately choose in the end.  Similarly, they shouldn't alter themselves to fit the mold of their love interests.  For instance, if love interest number one, Robert,  is a mechanic and your MC is a girly-girl, it would be completely out of character and somewhat annoying of her to suddenly subscribe to Car and Driver while simultaneously investing in a year supply of berets to keep up with Damon, artsy love interest number 2. Give your protagonist a backbone.  Don't let them lose themselves in their love interests as you may end up losing the reader if you do.

The love triangle should not be the story--Unless you're writing for Days of Our Lives, a story shouldn't just be about how three people found themselves embarking to Bermuda on the cruise from hell.  Of course, love triangles are interesting.  Hell, they've helped sell books for centuries.  But, the more interesting, worthwhile books only contain a love triangle as a subplot to an even greater cause (think Water for Elephants, The Fountainhead, and Anna Karenina ).  I believe books should be written to serve a far greater purpose than for just entertainment value.  They should also contain a message without being too preachy, leave their readers with something to think about, and provide knowledge that perhaps the reader was previously unaware of.  In all, a book should delve deeper than its characters fickle libidos.

I know from previous posts that some of my readers are highly opposed to the inclusion of love triangles in books at all.  My question to you is why?  For the rest of you, what do you think of love triangles?  Are they too overdone?  Do you avoid them at all costs or do you embrace them with open arms?

Well folks, I'm happy to report that as of today I have 100 followers.   It's so surreal seeing triple-digit people following me.  For those of you who have been following my blog, thank you so very much.  I promise I'll be far more active here in the next coming months.  For those of you who haven't followed me yet, please take pity on me and hit that "Follow" button. ;-)

As promised, now that I've hit the 100 mark I'll be doing a giveaway soon.  Look for details in my next blog post!