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Of This & That

Character Triangles

When I first began writing novels, I saw their development in traditional literary terms as the conflict between protagonist and antagonist. But a few books later, I found it more useful to work in triangles.

We instinctively know the power of triangles. By kindergarten we have figured out it is easier to confess to one parent at a time. By our middle school years we’ve discovered having two best friends can be awkward. In high school we may find ourselves in a miserable love triangle.

The drama of three has existed through millennia: Think Adam, Eve, and the Serpent; Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot. Triangle trouble has been documented in clichés: two’s company, three’s a crowd; feeling like a third wheel. On the other hand, what fun and mischief transpires with the Three Stooges, the Three Amigos . . . or simply three sisters in the back of the family car. The fact is triangles of people are dynamic.

So now, when I’m developing a story and making my “character tree,” I look for triangles to exploit. If there is an outlier, I work to bring that character into a threesome. I like my main characters to be part of several triangles. With all that built-in push and pull, there is no shortage of energetic scenes to write.

Oh, those evil people!
For me it is essential to identify with the bad guys in my stories, including those who have murdered several times. Their motivations need to be extreme versions of emotions I have felt. Occasionally I am conscious of the link between a character and myself; more often I am not aware of it until well after I’ve written a book—I just know the character is clicking.

From time to time one of these wicked people has given me a fit as I struggle for his or her emotional handle. If I completely detest a character, I can’t make that person anything more than a stereotype. Faced with this situation, the first thing I do is choose a name that will “warm me up” to the character. Which is why my nastiest-ever villain bears the name of a dearly loved cousin.

Inadvertent fictions
While I was growing up I’d listen to family stories and would ask, “Did that really happen? Did you really do that?” I wanted the answer to be yes. But as teenage cynicism set in, fed by the discrepancies I noticed among stories told about the same event, I’d think, “They’re stringing me along.”

In my twenties I observed—with a touch of patronization— “They really believe their stories. They think they are telling it as it happened.” At thirty-something came the humbling realization: “I’m doing the same thing.”

Now I enjoy this very human condition; and I listen for the deeper truth in our inadvertent fictions. I see them as proof that, during the years spent deliberately writing fiction, I’ve been writing truth all along.