Happy Family, Dismal Plot

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I am so guilty of the “dead mother” trope. So guilty. When you’re writing fantasy, it’s almost like a default condition for the main character, to the point where I’ve had to stop myself and say, “No, really, why would his/her mother be dead?”

I could postulate a number of theories on the prevalence of this trope. Sometimes it’s simply because the story wouldn’t take place otherwise. It says a lot about the stability a mother brings into her children’s lives, that her absence creates conditions for danger, adventure, and difficulty. Often, the death of a mother becomes one of the driving forces for the main character’s actions. If her death was sacrificial, even more so.

It’s an easy plot mechanism, in other words.

Sometimes, a character has no mother because that’s one less character to muddy up the narrative. If a plot doesn’t call for a mother, the mother gets left out. The author doesn’t have to specify what happened to her; the reader can deduce that she died (or more generically, that she’s not in the picture) and move on.

We’re encouraged to keep our character lists trim and efficient. Readers only have so much of an attention span, and extra characters who have no great bearing on the plot can become a distraction or, worse, an annoyance. When making cuts of this sort, family members often don’t survive.

Convenient plot devices and efficient casting are superficial excuses, though. In my view, the “dead mother” trope has another likely source: it’s a narrative drawn from the unfortunate realities of life.

Although modern science and medicine have drastically reduced maternal mortality rates, only a hundred years ago a woman would take her life into her hands to deliver a child into this world. And women had more children back then, and the risk didn’t change with each successive birth, which meant that, for the greater part of recorded history, a multitude of mothers died during or immediately after childbirth.

And their children grew up motherless. (If they survived, that is. Infant mortality above-and-beyond overshadowed maternal mortality.) Having no mother wasn’t an anomaly. It was a relatively common occurrence. The narrative appears in fairy tales and folklore. Motherless characters abound in classic works and history alike. If childbirth wasn’t the culprit, a dozen other potential executioners waited in the wings.

A mere century of good hygiene and medical practice isn’t enough to eradicate a narrative that’s existed for thousands of years, a narrative that yet exists in many developing nations. Maternal mortality rates continue to drop worldwide (thankfully), but the effects of bygone years don’t vanish.

In that respect, it makes sense for writers who look to the past for inspiration to include what was once a very real possibility.

Still, it’s not a trope to take lightly. I can’t imagine my life without my mother. She knows me better than anyone else, she loves me more than anyone else (probably, haha), and she keeps me emotionally grounded. When I think about my relationship with her, I realize what a crummy thing it is to deprive a character of that same relationship.

But, granted, not all mothers are as amazing as mine.

The antagonistic parent is a trope for another day, however.

 

And Some People Just Don’t Measure Up

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Poor Special. Quirky side characters only find love with other quirky side characters. A triangle is out of the question.

(Unless it’s really quirky, I mean.)

Often when MarySue appears in a story, another phenomenon occurs: side characters that exist only to validate or compliment her existence. Their motivations are flat, their desires are unimportant, and if they have a relationship, it’s quite possibly for comic purposes alone. These side characters give MarySue someone to talk to, someone to make her look good, someone to highlight how awesome she is without ever stealing the limelight.

They are, in essence, cardboard cutouts. Decorations. Props.

They parrot dialogue that allows MarySue to show her wit. They make rash decisions that allow her to demonstrate wisdom. MarySue is the center of the universe. Everything else must point to her and her amazincredifabulosity.

And it’s a colossal waste.

Side characters can have their own hopes, dreams, motivations, impulses, personalities, etc. without ruining a story. I would posit that they need all of these for a story to really, truly shine. The world is made up of individuals, all possessing a unique perspective on life. We’re all the main character in our own story. Literary worlds should reflect that diversity of thought.

Some authors who do this particularly well:

  • Diana Wynne Jones: While I love Howl’s Moving Castle, I think House of Many Ways might be my favorite of her books. The main characters from Howl’s appear as side characters in House, to hysterical ends. (I’m sorry. There is no keeping a straight face during Twinkle’s scenes. It’s just not possible, unless you have no soul.) Even so, they don’t outshine House‘s Charmain in the least. Rather, they all work together nicely to create a sense of a broad and varied world where many interesting people live.
  • Elizabeth Peters: Some authors create a new, alternate world for every book they write. Peters’s characters apparently all live together in one grand universe. The Vicky Bliss series in particular ties together multiple literary threads: Sir John Smythe has his first jaunt in a non-series book (as the villain, no less), the crime syndicate from Books #3 and 5 operates beyond the scope of the series, and even Amelia Peabody, from a completely different series and era, gets a nod.
  • Agatha Christie: Keep an eye on her side characters. They’re doubtless up to something. Bundle Brent, a side from The Secret of Chimneys, gets her romp as the main in The Seven Dials Mystery; Superintendent Battle from both of those shows up in the Poirot mystery, Cards on the Table. And even though Poirot and Miss Marple never cross paths, they do exist in the same universe.

I’m not saying that characters from one book must appear in another. I’m also not advocating an over-development of side characters to create an entire cast of MarySues. For me, a good side character is one with enough substance to have his or her own story as a main character, even if that story is never written. What makes characters real is not just reading about them in the small frame of the story, but knowing that there is more to their life than is contained within that story’s scope—and not because external events even receive mention, but because the characters behave in such a way that I can imagine them in situations beyond what the author gives me.

It’s one of the reasons I dislike the term “window character.” While yes, side characters are great for allowing the reader to witness a main character’s true self, they can do this while still having their own personalities, while being more than a transparent pane of glass. They have to exist beyond their interactions with the main character. Otherwise they’re just little yes-men.

And if that’s the case, they might as well be made from cardboard. Really.

Love Is Such a Trial When You’re Perfect

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Okay, so MarySue doesn’t always end up with both her triangle love interests. Sometimes she does have to choose one candidate over the other. If Character B wins the battle for her heart, Character C has three options:

  1. Accept it with dignity and deference. Reflect on how he wasn’t good enough for MarySue to begin with so the reader doesn’t have to feel bad for him.
  2. Pair off with a minor character so the reader doesn’t have to feel bad for him.
  3. Become a villain so the reader doesn’t have to feel bad for him. Because he was really a jerk who didn’t deserve MarySue in the first place.

You may have noticed a trend.

When MarySue appears in a plot, the reader should not feel bad for anyone but her. She gets all the feels, people. And choosing between B and C is, like, totes one of the most difficult things she’s ever done in her life. They are both so wonderful, and she would never want to hurt a soul (unless she’s showcasing her mad fighting skillz, yo), and this choice is tearing her up and why can’t you see how BROKEN and DISTRESSED AND IT’S SO ANGSTY!1!! HOW CAN SHE GO ON WITH ALL THIS PAIN??!?

Ahem.

When it comes to relationships, MarySue gets away with all kinds of shenanigans that Average Everygirl couldn’t touch. In some ways the Love Triangle Scenario itself might be indicative of a MarySue character: someone who is so effortlessly perfect that they attract multiple love interests. Or maybe I just think it’s a MarySue characteristic because I’ve never seen its equal in real life.

*shrugs*

For the record, MarySue is not always a girl. Back when I first encountered this term, people called the boys Gary Stu, but I’ve also seen Larry Stu, Marty Stu, Marty Sam, etc. I like MarySue as the gender-neutral term. Less confusion, and they’re all cut from the same cloth anyway.

And that’s enough of this silliness for today.

The Most Perfect-est Perfectness You Will Ever Perfect.

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I read a book last week with a whole cast of MarySues. I kid you not. Everyone was royalty, half-elf, full elf, an amazing fighter, horrendously accomplished/respected/feared despite their young age, dressed dashingly to the nines even in squalid circumstances, etc. The heroine MarySue-bested the hero when they crossed swords on their first encounter, and the hero was grudgingly impressed because he was, like, the Bestest Swordsman Evar!!1!1! His elf-prince sidekick had a nicely tragic backstory to make his alone-ness all the more poignant. The Lesser Sues either died nobly or received their glory moments so that the reader would know how omigosh speshul they were.

It was a riot. (And no, I’m not going to call out the book by name. That would be bad form.)

Basically, MarySue embodies the acme of ham-handed character development. Although she’s more common to fanfic and RPGs, she rears her head often enough in fiction to merit discussion. Everyone loves MarySue. Everyone readily sympathizes with her. Everyone knows that in the end, she will triumph and her cause will be vindicated. She is special, the exception to every rule, the outlier character with superficial flaws that are easily glossed over.

I’m guessing that at some point in our development, all writers are guilty of creating a MarySue—or a whole cast of MarySue variations. It stems from our natural desire for readers to love and sympathize with a character (or characters). Ironically, though, the more MarySue a character becomes, the less the reader is likely to connect. At some point, sooner rather than later, “amazing” becomes “absurd.”

Sorry to break the news. Your handsome prince-turned-highwayman who’s out for revenge against the wicked coward who murdered his father, and he’s only 18 but commands a whole crew of sycophants and has since he was 12, and they’re all unfailingly loyal to him because his cause is Just and True™ (except for that traitor-in-the-midst who is evil and self-serving and whose traitorous behavior no one ever saw coming because who could be so traitorous), who attracts the beautiful-and-contrary heroine with his dashingly noble behavior and draws her to his side despite him now being a horrible criminal (but he’s a noble criminal, you see), and their love is so destined because they are both awesomesauce with a side of angst? That guy is absurd.

“Well, when you put it that way, Kate…”

I’m not trying to be harsh. Like I said, I think it’s a stage of creation that all authors pass through at some point or another. And if you’re at all worried that your favorite brain-child might be tipping over into MarySue territory, Springhole.net provides a fun and enlightening diagnostic:

The Universal Mary Sue Litmus Test

Please note, this test has a very low tolerance for MarySue-ness. 5 – 16 points is the “very safe range” to be in. I took one of my early characters for a spin and was disheartened when she scored a 31 (“high-to-very high chance” of being a MarySue). But then out of curiosity, I tested a character from a fairly recent Big-5-published novel. Even leaving out the “author specific” questions (whether the character’s looks were patterned after the author’s; whether the author wanted to be the character or adopt the character, etc.), the score was 74.

And I felt marginally better—not because “My character is less MarySue than yours, lol!” but because I had mostly liked the second character. A few of the extra attributes got on my nerves, sure, but for the most part, I related to her and was interested in her story, MarySue or not.

I think that, particularly for writing fantasy, there will always be an element of MarySue, because MarySue is fantasy personified. I don’t have plans to overhaul my 31-scoring character, in other words. I like her the way she is for the world in which she lives. However, I might, on my next revision of her manuscript, highlight more of her human side, particularly the mistakes and poor choices that she makes.

There’s nothing I can do about her backstory, though. If she’s not a demon-princess-shapeshifter-dragon-elf-halfling-sorceress, the whole plot will fall apart.

(Loljk. She’s only two of those.)

When Fiction and Reality Collide

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I think one of my favorite cliches about the “Ruthless Character with a Heart of Gold” is to what lengths an author might go to show no, really, he’s a super nice guy; he’s just emotionally tortured and misunderstood. The whole “Character A walks in on Character B playing a heart-felt instrument solo and suddenly sees Character B in a different light” scenario gets me in the feels every time. If “the feels” are somewhere around the upper intestines and share characteristics with bilious indigestion, I mean.

But I digress.

The point of this week’s series, in a nutshell, is this:

Dear World,

Please stop glorifying abusive behavior.

Thanks and Kisses,
Kate

And I’ll readily admit that I might be too serious about it. What some consider harmless escapism I consider mental programming. I’ve witnessed manipulative, destructive relationships firsthand. I’ve seen the damage they can cause even years later. I’ve seen otherwise bright, intelligent women on the receiving end of abuse, harrowed of mind because they somehow failed to please someone who was hellbent on treating them like an object from start to finish.

Their relationship was supposed to be “Happily Ever After,” just like in the stories. Except that it never was.

It’s all fun and games in fiction, because the man reforms by the end of the book. Not so much in real life, where emotional patterns become etched upon a person’s heart. That’s not to say that an abuser can never reform, can never break bad habits, can never change for the better, but it’s an endless uphill path, and it requires a relationship with a Higher Power for true success.

That Higher Power, sadly, is not the undying Lurrrve of a submissive woman desperate for affection.

The Honeymoon Phase of any relationship is just that, a phase. When the dust settles and the infatuation dies, both parties typically revert to their former behaviors. If that behavior included abuse before, it will likely include abuse again. “The rats in the cellar,” as C.S. Lewis calls them, don’t disappear just because we haven’t gone down the stairs in a while.

Part of good literature is that it propels our minds into the unknown that exists beyond the lines on the page. We don’t have to take an author’s word for it that their characters lived happily ever after when the pattern for such a life exists in the story. When that pattern is false, though, when it goes against every instinct and statistic, when it undermines worth or objectifies individuals, its “unknown beyond” becomes a sinister wasteland. Sometimes this is what the author intends. Sometimes it’s a byproduct of superficial storytelling.

Sometimes we close our eyes and pretend that the wasteland is all sunshine and butterflies, just like an abuse victim might pretend that their abuser didn’t really mean it, won’t do it again, and loves them more than anything.

I prefer to keep my eyes open. Don’t expect me to cheer for a character whose only positive traits are external. Wealth and good looks might make a nice addition to any love interest, but coupled with destructive behavior, these attributes create only a cheap veneer, easily cracked by those who dare to look at the monster that lies beneath.

The book that invokes such a character is not a great romance. It’s not brain candy. It’s not escapism.

It’s a prequel to Sleeping with the Enemy.

Yikes.

Be smart. Choose better patterns. Maybe someday we can finally let this trope wither and die.

Symptoms of a Sociopath

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If book sales in the past decade are any indication, there exists a significant faction of readers out there who view stalking, obsession, and controlling behavior as oh-so-sexy… as long as said behavior comes from a handsome leading man. Give him fish eyes and a jumble-toothed grin, and suddenly the heroine is a victim instead of an envied avatar.

As I said in my last post, this trend in literature is nothing new. That it persists is what I find so disheartening.

I’ll be blunt: if the hero lies, manipulates, stalks, coerces, entraps, or performs any other act from a known spectrum of creepy behavior, and especially if he does it for his own benefit (usually to gain power over the heroine), he’s no hero. Those traits aren’t characteristics of a brooding romantic. They are symptoms of a sociopath.

(The same goes for female characters, of course, but when such traits occur in women, the book immediately shifts over to its rightful genre, thriller, and everyone recognizes her for the crazy that she is.)

Sociopaths make for fascinating characters. They can drive a plot forward, provide compelling tension, create seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Their detached, rational thought process and meticulous intelligence can strike terror in a main character and the reader both. One might say that sociopaths make the very best of villains.

They make horrible love interests, though. Mostly because, from a normal perspective, they’re dangerous and emotionally destructive.

And yet, they keep getting cast in that role, where often their only positive traits are wealth and a handsome face. A prevailing social narrative right now idolizes intelligence and rational thought, characterized by career success and a calm, detached demeanor respectively. Smoldering stares are prized over affability any day of the week.

“Just because a character smolders a lot doesn’t make him a sociopath, Kate.” Yeah, okay. If he smolders a lot, can he also turn on the charm when he wants to? And maybe that makes the smoldering all right?

Haha. Guess again.

Because I’m a giver (and because I’m too lazy to paraphrase when I’d have to cite the sources anyway), I will here provide some resources on sociopaths. Click the following for links:

If you’re really ambitious, measure your favorite character on any one of these scales. Measure other characters. Create a character or two or five and plop them into a lovely world they can manipulate to their shriveled hearts’ content.

Just, if you’re not writing thrillers, don’t give any of them a love interest, mmkay?

(Unless it’s another sociopath, I mean. Voldemort/Bellatrix, anyone?).

How It Should Have Ended

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This is the very first Average Everygirl comic I drew. In fact, it’s where her name originated. I had taken to doodling plot points that annoyed me, and really, what’s more annoying than the Wealthy Sociopath as a Love Interest scenario?

Sadly, this premise goes all the way back to the dawn of the English novel. In 1740, Samuel Richardson published Pamela. Its plot? A chamber maid evades her noble employer’s repeated sexual assaults by fleeing or fainting (or both); when he finds he cannot have his way with her as he pleases, he marries her instead.

My favorite part of the book is its subtitle: Virtue Rewarded.

“Congratulations, Pamela! You’ve successfully escaped several traumatic attacks on your person! Now you get to marry your would-be rapist! Hooray!”

It really is that bad. The guy paws and pursues her. He intercepts her letters to her parents. He yanks her onto his lap, kisses her against her will, rips her clothes, hides out in her bedroom closet, and gets into bed with her—once with a female accomplice holding her in place while he cozies up on the other side. Pamela’s faints and fits are the only things that save her, though the astute reader will discern that we don’t actually know what happens to her in those blackout periods. We only have her attacker’s assertion that he didn’t do anything, and he lies about that to other servants, so why would he tell the whole truth to Pamela?

Later in the story, after they’re married, it comes to light that he previously seduced another working girl, who then had his baby and is off living in another town with the child. So it wasn’t just Pamela ur so hott i need u now. It was I’m so rich I can do whatever I please with whomever I want and have no lasting consequences. What a gem.

In a perfect world, the novel would have consisted of one letter:

Dear Mom and Dad,

My employer tried to molest me, so I punched him in the face. Am packing my things and will be home shortly.

Your devoted daughter,
Pamela

Instead, we have two volumes of Pamela gushing about dozens of contrived situations. Mr. B, despite his repeated assaults, never gets charged with anything. He never even suffers from a tarnished reputation. He’s young and rich and hot, and all his “foibles” stem from his youth and wealth and hotness. He displays red flags like the feathers in a peacock’s tail, but his servants dismiss them because he’s their employer. Meanwhile, we are supposed to dismiss them because everything turns out “happy” in the end.

Haha… ha…

Yeah.

The public at the time ate the story up. It was preached from pulpits as an ideal of virtuous, womanly behavior. And while I can agree that, yes, we should run from our attackers, Pamela is hardly a role model. For one thing, she continues working for the squire despite his repeated, often violent attempts to seduce her. She also doesn’t reject his offer of marriage when it finally comes around. She hems and haws over whether he’s sincere or trying to trick her, but ultimately she gives in.

He’s reformed, you see. The right woman has that effect upon a man. It’s the Power of Romance™.

And it’s utterly, utterly false.

The great shame of Pamela, and of the many other novels of its ilk that have followed since, is that it neutralizes fundamentally repulsive behavior with something as shallow as money and a handsome face. Even worse, it sends the message that when a man inflicts violence upon a woman, she secretly wants it and she’ll eventually accept it if the conditions are right. In other words, she likes the repulsive behavior; she just doesn’t know it yet. The man and the audience both do, however, and we revel in her journey of enlightenment. Or at least, we’re expected to.

I don’t. Of all the subversively destructive literary tropes, this one really chaps my hide.

But Pamela at least has an excuse: it was written by a man. Richardson was a product of his era, when women were property and marrying well ensured them a comfortable life. He did break boundaries with a working-class heroine who entered the ranks of nobility, but the mess of a story undermines that message. In the end, the sole triumph of Pamela is that it spurred Henry Fielding to write Shamela and Joseph Andrews, both parodies of this literary atrocity.

A literary atrocity, I remind you, that reincarnates every time an impossibly rich, impeccably hot, implicitly abusive hero swaggers onto the page.

Triangles, Helen of Troy, and Pigskin: A Study in Metaphorical Parallels

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Alas. Logic brings a swift death to romance.

Today’s installment pokes fun at what is, perhaps, my biggest beef with the Love Triangle scenario: when two obviously attractive Characters B and C fall for the same Character A who must then choose between them, it strips any sort of romantic tension from the story. Instead of a knuckle-biting, “Ooh, who will Character A choose?” I think, “What’s the big deal? With this track record, Characters D through Z must be lining up around the block.”

And I realize that I probably shouldn’t equate romance with a scarcity of lovers, but when there is no shortage of potential partners and they’re all equally attractive, there’s no real gamble, either. I mean, Character A ends up with someone regardless (which is typically the end goal for this type of story). Characters B and C might have their own (often canned) personality flavors, but they’re both framed as viable choices, and the story rarely continues on to show any dire consequences for Character A in the aftermath. As readers we’re left to assume that the final outcome was the best.

(And if we disagree, there’s always fanfic.)

The urgency of the choice, too, gets on my nerves. “It’s now or nothing, Character A! You will never again meet anyone as perfect for you as these two magnificent specimens!”

A) Depressing.

B) Obviously Character A has some attraction that draws multiple love interests. Unless there’s a character overhaul in the near future (a traumatic brain injury that alters one’s personality, for example), chances are that attraction will still exist beyond the scope of the story.

Which brings to mind a question. If Character A (for Attractive) chooses B over C and they snuggle up together for their happily ever after, do Characters D through Z still show up wanting their turn in the aftermath? Does Character B get to look forward to an endless parade of rivals?

There is literary precedence for this scenario. Helen of Troy chose Menelaus from her man-harem, married him, and then ran off with Paris when he finally waltzed into the picture. And we all know how well that ended. (Paris died in battle, Helen moved on to Deiphobus, Menelaus finally won the war and dragged her back home to Sparta. Yadda yadda yadda.)

But then, Helen was the most beautiful woman on earth. More specifically, she was the most beautiful trophy on earth. Girl-as-Object was alive and robust in former eras. Sadly, we keep it alive with this particular love triangle scenario (and its Guy-as-Object variation, naturally), even if our heroine is only mediocre in looks.

Which brings me to a comment a friend made, regarding my last blog entry:

“One of the famous philosophers stated that the primary relationship in a triangle is not the apex, but between the two angles of the base. The two Hot Guys going after the girl don’t have a relationship with her, they have a relationship with each other.” ~Jen, who is brilliant in a multitude of ways

Imma let that sink in.

They have a relationship with each other.

A love triangle of this nature is not about the main character. It’s about the two rivals. If you pad them, dress them up in vibrant knee breeches, and assign them each a mascot, you can swap the girl out for an inflated piece of pigskin and have roughly the same pattern of action.

Back and forth, back and forth, here a touchdown, there a field goal. At the end of the book, the winning team gloats and the loser slinks off into oblivion. Or springs back renewed in a sequel, the rivalry more bitter than ever.

That’s right. We’re playing the literary equivalent of football. Suddenly all those #TeamWhoever tags make sense.

As does my apathy for Love Triangles.

(Sorry, not sorry.)

At least I know what I’m doing the next time I watch a football game. Now all I have to decide is whether I should call the ball Bella or Katniss. #TeamWhoeverWins

Stuck in a Delusional Rut

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Yes, I added little fangs and animal ears to my heroes. Yes, I possibly have too much time on my hands. (Lol, no I don’t. I’m just persnickety about minuscule details and end up using my precious time poorly.)

TVTropes.org lists 13 different types of Triangle relationships. The possibilities, when those relationships get used in tandem with additional characters and sub-triangles, are seemingly endless.

Why, then—seriously, why—is there such a rampant literary run on the basic “Character A must choose between Character B and Character C” scenario? Relationships are not items on a menu.

“I’ll have a steak, medium rare.”
“And what type of Love Interest would you like to go with that?”
“Ooh, I think something rich and robust, with a hint of humor. What do you recommend?”
“We have an excellent selection of Alpha Males.”
“Yes, I’ll take one of those. Surprise me.”

Characters B and C are never ordinary. They’re, like, the state-championship-winning quarterback vs. the hottest guy in school. Never someone from marching band, or that one guy who’s nice but has absolutely no ambition in life. They’re always valedictorian-team-captain-youngest-CEO-rock-star heroes. Because that’s realistic, two of the most desired and eligible men fawning over the same Average Everygirl character, as though no other available women exist in that particular universe. (Maybe it’s an ego thing…? The two studs are rivals in everything else, so why not vie for the same girl?)

The whole supernatural angle jacks this trope up all the more, if that’s even possible. Look, Average Everygirl! You’re loved by a fairy prince and a warlock! In a world where both are rare! Because of course!

I love a good fantasy. You know what’s not good fantasy? When two non-standard (“elite”) characters hone in on the same target love interest, whose sole appeal is that he or she is the protagonist of the story.

Let me repeat: whose sole appeal is that he or she is the protagonist of the story.

Houston, we have a problem. This is not storytelling. This is pre-teen girlish dreaming about what if I’m secretly beautiful and ALL THE BOYS can see my inner awesomeness that I don’t even know I have and then they’re all so into me and I have to decide which one is my soulmate for reals and forever??!?!?!?!!

*high-pitched squeeing into a faux-fur body pillow for next 3 hours*

And then, somehow, the pre-teen daydream of hidden awesomeness translates to a Character A who’s outwardly bland or off-putting, with a side of tortured inner monologue to spice things up.

Call me cynical (I do), but I have a hard enough time connecting with most protagonists already. When I encounter a churlish, emotionally unavailable harridan with a buzz cut, and she’s somehow having to fend off two Hot Guy Love Interests™ with a stick, I’m done. Reality has stopped. Verisimilitude has not engaged. My interest is aborted and if I stick around, it’s for mocking purposes only.

The focal point of the triangle has to have some genuine romantic appeal. Moodiness is not romantic (unless you’re Lord Byron). Bitterness is not romantic. Sarcastic wit is not romantic. Most people have egos that are soft and spongy and easily wounded, and trying to have a relationship with someone who is perpetually sour leads to hurt feelings and estrangement, not, “Oh, but I know your true inner goodness and love you for it.”

And yes, fiction is fantasy, but this romantic pattern of “Underwhelming Character somehow attracts not one, but two extraordinary lovers” is beyond fantasy. It’s delusion.

Delusion.

Wake up. Craft a better plot. The end.

(Not really. There’s still one more comic in this set.)

Choices, Choices, Choices

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I’m not going to say that the Love Triangle is a hallmark of sloppy storytelling, per se, but lately it’s been the Hamburger Helper of plot devices. Don’t have time for full plot development? Try the Love Triangle! Just add one more love interest, and voila! Instant romantic tension!

It’s the fallback used to get a romantic subplot moving, an unsubtle impetus to drive the hero and heroine closer together. The reader can typically tell which side of the triangle should prevail, which eliminates any true tension, and if the author dares go another direction, every non-hipster reader feels cheated. So, it’s either predictable or “artsy.”

But rather than harp on how underwhelming this trope has become, I’m going to focus on my favorite examples of the Love Triangle instead. Surprise!

A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

Plot: Fairies and humans converge in the forest on a midsummer’s night, with much mayhem as a result.

Love Triangle: Demetrius loves Hermia who loves Lysander, with Helena out in the cold; then Lysander and Demetrius both love Helena, who thinks they’re making fun of her, while Hermia is left abandoned and alone. I love that under the fairy-influence each heroine gets a sample of how the other feels, Helena annoyed by unwanted suitors while Hermia is left to solitude.  With four players, this is probably more like a Love Rhombus than a Love Triangle, but there’s only ever love between three of them at the most, so I’m counting it.

Shakespeare is particularly good at the Love Triangle, and he does it without having a fickle character angsting over which dreamboat to choose. When his love triangle motif makes an appearance, it seems more a mechanism of comic relief rather than romantic tension. See, for example, the Viola/Orsino/Olivia entanglement from Twelfth Night. (Also a delightful love triangle, but I like Midsummer Night just a shade more. At least when it’s staged well.)

Inuyasha: A Feudal Fairy Tale by Rumiko Takahashi

Plot: A modern girl goes 500 years back in time to medieval Japan, where she instantly ruins a lot of things and has to go around putting the pieces back together (hahaha, literally).

Love Triangle: Inuyasha, Kagome, and Kagome’s dead-but-resurrected past incarnation, Kikyo. Yeah. The heroine’s love-rival is a zombified version of her former self. The hero’s struggle between the two shows just how committed he was to that earlier incarnation, which is really sweet, considering what a rough character he is. This was the first manga series I read, mostly through transcripts because the English translation was so far behind the Japanese releases. I give it points for ingenuity in the love-triangle department, as I’d never encountered this sort of variation before.

Love triangles are a manga-plot staple. For a well-done standard “A must choose B or C” scenario, where both B and C are viable choices, see Natsuki Takaya’s Fruits Basket.

The Castle of Llyr by Lloyd Alexander

Plot: A farm boy escorts his noble crush back to her homeland, where she is promptly kidnapped by a witch.

Love Triangle: Taran loves Eilonwy, who is engaged to Rhun. Rhun is far too innocent and lovable for anyone to hate (though Taran resents him, and then resents himself for resenting someone so harmless). Eilonwy, meanwhile, remains oblivious that she’s the focal point of this triangle, as there’s no question in her mind how things are going to turn out.

I always loved that Eilonwy knew her own mind. I wanted to be her. That is all.

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

Plot: Cursed by a witch, a young-turned-old woman takes up housekeeping in a moving castle owned by a philandering wizard and powered by a fire demon.

Love Triangle: Sophie fights her growing feelings for Howl, who shamelessly flirts with every woman he encounters. There’s also the whole Michael loves Lettie-Martha issue, as well as Lettie + patchwork Suleman/Justin. It’s not so much a Love Triangle as a Love Scribble-all-over-the-page, and the whole book is entirely delightful.

Skip Beat! by Yoshiki Nakamura

Plot: Spurned by her childhood crush after sacrificing her future to enable his, a young woman joins the entertainment industry to exact her revenge.

Love Hate Triangle: Kyoko loathes Sho and despises Ren. Sho holds Kyoko in contempt, while Ren dismisses her for her vengeful ambitions. Sho hates Ren for being successful. Ren is indifferent to Sho, because he’s beneath notice. As far as I’m concerned, this is the Anti-Love Triangle. All three characters are at odds with one another, and then they grow and the plot twists and turns, and my insides are tied up in knots every time a new chapter is released.

I have laughed and cried over this series. I adore it. But then, it’s the tale of a self-hating Average Everygirl whose only path to success and happiness lies in learning to love herself first of all. It’s beautiful and brilliant and hilarious.

(And Kyoko’s finally getting somewhere, thank the stars.)

So, not all love triangles are bad. Have a favorite? Leave it in the comments!

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