Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Classic Triangles by C.L. Phillips

Today I'm thinking about conflict, and classic triangles.  The classic character triangle gives writers fertile conflict.  We can play characters off each other, in a wide number of combinations.  In our own lives, we find triangles between real people every day.  My favorite, the mother-in-law, husband, wife triangle.  But I digress.

Common triangles in literature include the love triangle, the hero-sidekick-villain, or the hero-sidekick-mentor.  What other triangles are out there?

One of my favorites is the Hero-Sidekick-Villain.  I fell in love with Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.  Was there ever a better hero-sidekick?  Maybe it's the new Sherlock Holmes movie, complete with Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law that makes this dynamic duo so easy to recall.   Holmes was always in the lead, but Watson never let him down.  Dr. Moriarty served as the ultimate villain, a mysterious presence.

A more recent trio comes to us from the Hunger Games, with Katniss, Peeta and their mentor Haymitch.   Katniss and Peeta are rivals until their survival depends on each other.  Haymitch is a wounded mentor, a man that never reveals the true price of participating in the Hunger Games until the end of the journey. Is this an example of the Heroine-Sidekick-Mentor trio?

Another recent trio, more lighthearted, can be found in Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series, with Stephanie, Morelli, and Ranger.  This trio plays both sides of the street with professional danger and romantic tension.  I often wonder how long Stephanie can go back and forth between Morelli and Ranger without choosing, yet the audience seems to enjoy the indecision and prolonged sexual tension.  Sixteen books and counting.  Has any other trio been so frustrated?

I'm thinking about trios and triangles as I contemplate my next project.  Are there other classic triangles that give mystery writers a great example of archetypes for the story?  Do you recognize a triangle when you see it early in a novel?  What about novels that don't have a triangle, but instead rely on the duo structure?  Like Jonathan Kellerman's Alex Delaware series.   Or what about the stories with four characters involved in the mix, like Star Trek (with Kirk, Spock, Bones, and Scottie)?

More and more, I find myself drawn to the trio, but don't know why.   Could it be that the classic triangle has a power I don't recognize?  Could it be the pyramids?   Who knows.  One thing is certain. The classic conflict triangle gives me the structure I need to create great conflict.  The recipe :  three characters, each with a conflicting agendas, and a willingness to say what polite people will not.

So what impolite, politically incorrect thing do the folks in your triangles say?


Joyce said...

I've used both duos and triangles in my novels. My WIP definitely has a triangle--my protag, her ex-husband, and the new guy in town. There's also a duo, because her mama is kind of a sidekick.

Joyce said...

Btw, Cindy--you may want to add your byline to your post.

Gina said...

You left out a triangle - me, my spouse, and my dog (or cat). Talk about inappropriate behavior - pets can even urinate on people they don't like!

C.L. Phillips said...


Thanks for the catch on my byline. I posted one of those written in advance posts. I need a better checklist.

My current triangle is a bad boy, a emerging strong young woman, and a good guy she thinks she doesn't deserve. She says the most delicious things as she pushes the good guy away. :)

C.L. Phillips said...

Yikes, I'm not sure I did the byline correctly. I'm having one of those mornings where the only thing in my head is Amelia Fortune.

She's the emerging strong woman, and right now, she's running through my mind with a switchblade chasing the bad guy through a crowded street, to no avail.

And the good guy, the cop, is ten seconds behind her with his gun drawn. :)

Jenna said...

I have a hard time with the love triangle, to be honest. The idea that someone can be in love with two people at the same time does not compute for me. That said, the Cutthroat Business mysteries do have sort of a love triangle: there's the heroine, the bad boy she secretly likes but that she knows she's supposed to stay away from, and the good guy her mother wants her to marry, but who isn't as exciting to her. Rather than being in love with both, there's want on the one side vs. duty (I guess) on the other. Or excitement vs. security, or something like that.

And for the record, I think Stephanie Plum just needs to make up her mind and marry Joe. That way I can have Ranger. (Seriously, though, it's been dragging on for too long. Wa-a-a-y too long.)

Joyce said...

I don't think you can be in love with two people at the same time either. Maybe in lust, but not in love. Big difference.

Go finish that scene, Cindy!

Joyce said...

Hey, Jennie/Bente/Jenna, just how many names DO you have???

Patg said...

Crap, all this discussion has done for me is make me realize I have too many characters. Well, I've had that in the back of my mind for a while now, so thanks for a direct point-out.
So, let's see, let's get it down to a 'kind' of cop for a protagonist, a vampire as another 'sort' of cop as the antagonist and a villian who is also a vampire.
Hmmm, doesn't work. The trouble with triangles is that there always has to be somekind of relationship issue going on and I just don't have that.
Oh well, back to plotting.

NancyM said...

When I started the Blackbird sisters mysteries, the ever-changing triangle of 3 sisters had built-in conflict. I'm still mining it 10 years later!

Jenna said...

NancyM - yes, I heard there'll be another Blackbird Sisters book. Psyched! I mean, Roxy is just fine, but Mick.... There'll be Mick in the new one, right? Right?

Joyce, it'll all become clear soon. On the first Friday in May, specifically, since we don't have any open dates until then. Or send me an email and I'll explain.