Why Character Triangles Work (Or: Why Good Things Come in Threes)

The love triangle may be one of the most abused elements of contemporary fiction (particularly in the YA genre), but that’s for a good reason. The reason is this: good things come in threes. Beginning, middle, end; the Three Musketeers; birth, life, death; Ego, Superego, Id; past, present, future. It’s natural to structure elements in 3s, but there’s also a compelling mathematical logic for having three primary characters* in your novel.

(*This doesn’t always mean 3 POV characters – 1 of these will be your protagonist: your main main character. The other two will be the next most important characters. Together, this trio are the primary characters)

Let’s presume we have 2 main characters, Andy and Beatrice. Here are the different relationships a writer can explore:

  1. Andy ‘s relationship (i.e. thoughts, attitudes and feelings) to Beatrice;
  2. Beatrice’s relationship to Andy.

This gives a relationship dynamic of 2. Not a whole lot of room to work with, eh? Sure, a skillful writer might do a good job of it, but as we’ll soon see, there’s more room to play, experiment and explore when you use a relationship triangle of 3 characters, rather than a relationship line of 2. With 3 characters (Andy, Beatrice and Chad), you can explore:

  1. Andy ‘s relationship (i.e. thoughts, attitudes and feelings) to Beatrice;
  2. Andy ‘s relationship to Chad
  3. Beatrice’s relationship to Andy.
  4. Beatrice’s relationship to Chad.
  5. Chad’s relationship to Andy.
  6. Chad’s relationship to Beatrice.

Having 3 characters generates a relationship dynamic of 6! This provides so much more room for complex character interactions, tension and conflict. Harry Potter made the most of this through having Harry, Ron and Hermione as the a primary trio of characters.

A side note, before we continue. You’re probably wondering, why there are multiple relationships for each character? The reason is this: a character can (and often does) relates to another character differently to how that character relates to them. For instance, Adam might be in love with Beatrice, but Beatrice might despise him.

More is more?

Now, you’re probably wondering if having more than 3 main characters is even better. After all, 3 was better than 2, right? Well, let’s add another character (Darcy) into the mix. You now have these relationships to explore:

  1. Andy ‘s relationship (i.e. thoughts, attitudes and feelings) to Beatrice;
  2. Andy ‘s relationship to Chad
  3. Andy ‘s relationship to Darcy
  4. Beatrice’s relationship to Andy.
  5. Beatrice’s relationship to Chad.
  6. Beatrice’s relationship to Darcy.
  7. Chad’s relationship to Andy.
  8. Chad’s relationship to Beatrice.
  9. Chad’s relationship to Darcy.
  10. Darcy’s relationship to Andy.
  11. Darcy’s relationship to Beatrice.
  12. Darcy’s relationship to Chad.

4 characters means a relationship dynamic of 12! This is too unwieldy for most writers – can you imagine trying to explore 12 different sets of feelings, attitudes and thoughts at once? It’s possible, but it will be tougher to beat than a juiced-up, photocopier-occupying racoon (i.e. very).

5 characters means a relationship dynamic of 20, and 7 characters (as in Rick Riordan’s The Heroes of Olympus series) equals 42 relationships to flesh out. Obviously this is a super difficult task – how can you balance all these relationships and explore each in equal depth? This, for me, was why books 3-5 of The Heroes of Olympus failed catastrophically compared to books 1-2, which had a more moderate cast of – you guessed it – 3 main characters (and also, as a long-time Riordan fan, got my hopes too high).

3: The Magic Number

Having a trio of main characters gives you the right balance between quality of relationships and quantity of relationships. There’s enough complexity, conflict and tension to sustain a series (i.e. Harry Potter) without overwhelming readers. Thus, using a character triangle (love triangle optional) is your best bet to crafting intriguing, meaningful and enjoyable character interactions.

What are your thoughts on triangles? And squares and rectangles, for that manner – no room for shapeism here. Can you think of a book that successfully pulled off a large number of relationship dynamics? Do you think character triangles are a good idea? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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2 thoughts on “Why Character Triangles Work (Or: Why Good Things Come in Threes)

  1. Three really does seem to be the most balanced number when it comes to character interactions. I’m currently juggling five main characters in the trilogy that I’m writing, so I had to write out each character’s arc and main actions in separate documents, as well as their goals and the obstacles to them, in advance. It’s definitely no easy task! But thankfully I think I’m getting the hang of it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting insight! A trilogy – rather than stand-alone book – should hopefully give you more room to explore the 20-odd relationships between your 5 characters. I can’t wait to see how it turns out!

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