Ahhh, Valentine’s Day. A day when love and romance should be the first thing on everyone’s mind. Even when we’re not dating anyone, we can’t help but brood over such things today. Okay, love, romance, and maybe massacres.
I’ve got plans, so I won’t be here for long, but I wanted to take a moment to address a common issue I see with love stories, whether they’re the main thrust of the story or just a subplot.
The weak triangle.
I’ve mentioned triangles here before. They’re an easy form of conflict where a character (A) has to choose between two options (B and C). They come in a variety of flavors, but for today’s little rant I’m going to talk about one of the most common ones—the romantic triangle.
We’ve all seen romantic triangles before. Wakko (A) has been lusting after the head cheerleader (B), but then comes to realize that his best friend Phoebe (C) is really the person he should be with. Dot (A) is all set for her reliable-and-boring boyfriend (B) to propose on their trip to Europe…until she meets the bohemian artist (C) who just moved in across the hall.
Sounds familiar, yes?
Here’s something else that may sound familiar. In how many versions of this story is that head cheerleader (and please pardon me for being blunt) a cruel, wretched bitch? Not just in a “mean girls” sense, but an honestly reprehensible human being? She isn’t just someone you wouldn’t want to date, she’s someone you wouldn’t even want to talk to.
And yet… Wakko’s infatuated with her. He’s totally blind to her faults, no matter how many times he’s smacked in the face with them.
Now, granted, in this scenario Wakko’s a high school boy. High school boys are notorious for overlooking things, especially when it comes to high school girls. It’s a hormone thing.
But we’ve seen this situation reversed, too, haven’t we? Where Dot is smitten with the quarterback—an arrogant jock whose dream is to start up a Hitler Youth program at their school because he thinks it will look good on his college applications. And we all know girls mature faster than boys soooo… what’s her excuse?
Really, there’s a dozen versions of my B character (B referring to the point of the triangle, not the sophistication of my writing). The Bridezilla. The condescending executive. The fixer. The person who’s nice to you but rude to the waiter. The all-too plain Jane. The Mister-so-Right-it’s-kind-of-creepy. Everyone reading this can probably name a dozen examples from a dozen different stories, yes?
Now, in this particular triangle scenario (and all the variations of it), the big problem is the actual integrity of the A-B line of the triangle. When B is such an overall undesirable person, we can’t understand why that relationship even exists in the first place. Why would Wakko be involved with someone like her? What does Dot possibly see in him? Surely either of them could do better, right?
See the problem here? If it’s that obvious to all of you that my character is with the wrong person, then said character looks kind of stupid, don’t they? Maybe really stupid, depending on how much of an ass I’ve made B look like.
More to the point, going with C isn’t much of a surprise in this scenario, is it? It’s the only sane choice. If they don’t go with C, they look even dumber than they do for being with B. To paraphrase Eddie Izzard, when the choice is cake or death, we’re not really surprised that most people choose the cake.
If I’m using a triangle for conflict, especially a romantic triangle, B and C both have to be valid choices. If they’re not, then my triangle doesn’t have any strength to it. It’s weak, and that means my conflict is weak. And if my plot or subplot is based on that conflict… well…
Mind you, B doesn’t need to be perfect. He or she should have pros and cons, like any good characters. But there need to be enough pros—even if they’re shallow ones—that they somehow outweigh the cons. As I mentioned above, there are times that a pretty face or really great sex can override a lot of negative qualities in a person. So can a lot of money or material goods. But these things can only make up for so much. At the end of the day, the relationship between A and B has to be a solid one. Not rock solid, but it has to take some weight.
Making this decision between B and C needs to cause some turmoil for A. Not gut-wrenching, years-of-therapy turmoil, but it should require a bit of effort. It has to be a challenge.
At least, more of a challenge than picking cake or death off the dessert menu.
Next time… well, it’s that time of year again. It’s contest season, and I wanted to offer a few tips to the screenplay-centric folks so you can make sure that your script goes down screaming in a ball of flames and never has a chance.
Until then… well, okay, tonight your mind shouldn’t be on writing.
But tomorrow, go write.