Freudian Saturday: Triangles of Loooove

Well, yesterday has passed, and today brings a STORM OF DOOM to southern Indiana, but all is well.

So I ask you: what is an urban fantasy or a paranormal romance without a love triangle (or quadrangle, or dodecahedron)? Bella has her Edward-Jacob dilemma, Sookie has Eric-Bill-Sam-possibly Alicide-and, well, anyone else who may pop up. Rachel Morgan has, well, lots of people, including her best friend Ivy. Even Katniss has Peeta-Gale pseudo-love-triangle—which, being one my big problems with The Hunger Games, I will address later.

But why? What is it about love triangles that gets our little hearts pounding? We love to be Team Edward/Team Eric/Team Peeta, but why do we invest so much in these fictional relationships? (Is anyone actually Team Peeta? Though I haven’t finished the trilogy, so I don’t know who Katniss chooses. Or pretends to choose, the selfish minx.)

TVTropes.org assumes that anything greater than your standard love triangle blunders into comedy, and part of the writer’s job is to tie up all the loose ends. Meanwhile, my handy-dandy Penguin Reference Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory (which I used to study for the literature GRE—a test I aced, by the way, though I have no PhD to show for it—and now happily use to discuss paranormal soap opera) says romantic comedy is “a somewhat vague term which denotes a form of drama in which love is the main theme—and love which leads to a happy ending.

But, while most of my examples have or may have happy endings, the love-angles portrayed are anything but comedic.

Let’s look, as we always do, at some examples.

True Blood: Sookie has so many potential love interests, it’s difficult to keep them straight, but—at this stage in the show—Bill and Eric are the main two contenders. One lifted her up out of her ordinary life, a life in which people thought she was eccentric or just flat-out crazy, and transformed her into a powerful, desired woman who can hold her own in the supernatural world. (More or less.) The other actually lets her act as that powerful woman, trusts her to survive and keep fighting, and declines to put her on the shelf. They both trust her at their most vulnerable, but both have lied to her, put her in danger, and done despicable things in the name of “protecting” her—and just generally, as well. There’s no clear answer here. She’s vampire crack to both of them, and they’re both immortal, so neither is really a feasible long-term partner. And yet we True Blood fans have our favorite, and actually care which of these unsuitable suitors she winds up with.

They're both pretty dreamy.

The Hollows: Ah, Rachel Morgan. First she dates a human thief she met when they were both cursed into animals and entered into rodent-fights. Then she dates a pretty-boy, semi-badass vampire. Then there’s a brief interlude with a nice, boring fellow-witch, and another with a reincarnated (though that’s not really the right word) 18th-century demon hunter she had a crush on when he was a ghost. (…huh?) Throughout the whole series, there’s the thread of question about whether Rachel will ever give in to the oh-so-dangerous temptation of her best friend Ivy’s love for her. And for a few weird shippers like myself, there’s her sometime-enemy and occasional-friend-and-ally, bad-guy elf Trent, who seems like the best fit all around. It’s never exactly a triangle, but Rachel has a plethora of potential lovers, and she’s hard-pressed to choose the one who wold suit her best. The point is, though, that Rachel trades up: she’s not human, and there’s no way she could be with a human. She’s more than a witch, too, and part of her character arc is accepting that: choosing a lover who can keep up with her is naturally part of that development.

The Hunger Games: Katniss goes off to the games accompanied by Peeta, who claims to have loved her for years, and leaving being her best friend Gale, a guy who, if you ask me, is far more suited to her needs. He’s strong, he hunts, he fishes, he’s a survivor. Peeta is dead weight to Katniss during the games: she pretends to be in love with him so that they can get the viewer support they need and possibly both survive the games. What troubles me about the love triangle aspect of these books is that it doesn’t seem to add to Katniss’s character development: it just makes her unlikable, at least for me. She uses Peeta, and that’s fine. But why have the guilt and the dilemma of “Which should I choose?” when the answer seems fairly obvious. To me, the triangle is just a ploy to have that Team Gale/Team Peeta aspect and stretch relationship drama out longer.

They're just not as sexy.

So, why the love triangles? Here are my theories:

1. We humans love drama… and since most of us will never experience a love triangle, we get to live vicariously through the soap operas we frequently see in fantasy. Writers can use the introduction of another lover to draw out a relationship conflict and keep us on the edge of our seats, salivating for whichever suitor we prefer.

2. Love triangles allow the writer to reveal and explore different aspects of a given character’s personality by providing her with two opposing lovers. The main character will develop over the course of the work and see who complements her better. To me, this is the better use of the device, because it acts enriches the plot.

What do you think, readers? Why do love triangles feature so prevalently in urban fantasy and fantasy generally?

Imaginary Friends

I refer to my characters as imaginary friends. They are, aren’t they? I spend more time with them than I do with plenty of my real-world friends. I spend my work hours with them, so they’re also my coworkers. I guide them through the worst times of their lives, and some of them have seen me through some rough times, as well.

It’s a pretty twisted relationship, though. I make them do things that won’t end well for them. I destroy their relationships, their careers, their homes. I’m not one for the too-easy happy ending, so things rarely turn out well for them. I refuse to give them a break.

But who are they? Where do they come from? How have they become real people to me?

Jim says five things help you build interesting characters: exaggeration, exotic position, introduction, verisimilitude, and empathy.

Exaggeration and exotic position are two ways of making your characters stand out. I’ll put my current protagonist on the pedestal (which is how she likes it, anyway): Mitzy Morgan is exaggerated both in her addiction to alcohol and in her spoiled-brat ways. Her old money snobbery and her alcoholism are exaggerated, sure, but she’s fiction: the exaggeration makes her amusing.

Her exotic position is not her job as a detective. Nope, she’s a detective who got transferred from her former job because she… well… I can’t give everything away, now can I? But she also has an exotic position because she has a rare magical talent: she sees magic. This gives her a leg-up in investigating, but it’s also a nuisance because people expect a lot from her.

Introduction is less about the character and more about you. Jim says:

You never get a second chance to make a first impression. When your reader meets any given character for the first time, it is critical to make sure you get the bare bones of your character into his head immediately. By establishing your character firmly, you’ll make the whole process of virtual-story-world-creation move more quickly and easily. There are multiple techniques for planning a strong introduction, but I’m only going to hit on the strongest one: CHARACTERISTIC ENTRY ACTION.

A solid CHARACTERISTIC ENTRY ACTION consists of introducing your character to the reader by bringing him into the story in the course of an action which clearly, sharply typifies who and what he is.

I introduce Mitzy on the job, looking for missing magic around the body of a girl drowned in a bathtub full of expensive martini fixings. Exaggerated? Sure. Memorable? Probably. But it ties all her characteristics and a couple of plot points together right from the start.

Verisimilitude probably deserves its own blog post. I’m going to skim this one for now and just leave you with Jim’s take:

When you are writing your characters, it is absolutely critical that you convey to the reader the sense that your character is a whole, full person with his own life outside the purview of this particular story. This is a task that will take a little bit of time, as your reader follows your character around and sees what is in his world.

The single most important technique for doing that is through showing your character’s: 1. EMOTIONS 2. REACTIONS and 3. DECISIONS. When something happens in your story, a character with a decent V-factor will react to it. The reader will see his emotional reaction played out, will gain a sense of the logic of a question or problem, and will recognize that the character took a believeable, appropriate course of action in response.

Mitzy gains verisimilitude in how she deals with the situation: as the plot builds and situations get worse, she drinks more. A low point for her is when another character forces her to sober up. But, like I said, we’ll come back to verisimilitude in another blog post.

Empathy is the key. If you can’t win a reader over to your character’s side, you are, in technical terms, screwed.

I like unlikable characters. I think a Scarlett O’Hara is much more fun to read than a Melanie Hamilton. We all love Melanie, but a book about her would be pretty dull. Unlikable characters need to have redeeming traits, though, otherwise readers get turned off to them pretty quickly.

For Mitzy, it’s the vulnerability she has from feeling she doesn’t live up to her role models’ expectations. For Scarlett, it’s her tenacity and passion.

I don’t want to get sidetracked too far, but Katniss in The Hunger Games didn’t strike that much empathy in me, and that’s why I only read the first book. She’s tough, sure, and I admire her for going to such lengths to save her sister. But she uses people right and left, and she’s wishy-washy about knowing her own heart.

Empathy is tough because it depends so much on your reader. Obviously other people empathize with Katniss, or the books wouldn’t be so popular.

 If you do your job, you will create a sense of empathy in your reader for your characters. This is what makes people burst out laughing while reading. It’s what makes readers cry, or cheer, or run off to take a cold shower.

Like V-Factor, empathy takes time to build and it relies heavily upon the skilled use of sequels. But if you can get the reader to this point, as an author, then you WIN. Big time. This is the ENTIRE GOAL of all this character work, because the reader’s emotional involvement is the single most important factor in how well your story is going to fly.

So, there you have it. Exaggeration, exotic position, introduction, verisimilitude, empathy. What works best for you when designing the perfect imaginary friend?