Stalled in Love

A reminder for those of you in my neck of the woods: I will be at the Ridgefield Public Library in Ridgefield, Connecticut, on Saturday, November 10th at 2:00 pm–even though elsewhere on the website it said 1:00 pm until yesterday. Oops! I would love to meet any of you who can come!

To all those on the first leg to NaNoWriMo, hang onto your hats, and all the best!

On August 31, 2018, newtothis set off quite a discussion with her question: So, guys, what are your thoughts on love triangles?

Christie V Powell: Well, you asked for it

Personally, I’m not a fan–at least, not the most cliche version with one “ordinary” girl who somehow catches the attention of two equally hot guys, one brooding and mysterious and one a good friend.

Besides the cliche, I’m not a fan of having the girl be so indecisive: I feel like the point of a romance, subplot or otherwise, is watching the two characters grow closer and learn to work together. You can’t really do that if you’re vacillating between love interests.

Song4myKing: I don’t usually like them either, but thinking about it, it all depends on how it’s done, and why. I read one book with a love triangle that would sound very cliche if summed up, but I liked it anyway. There was way more to the story than only the romance stuff, but the MC’s reactions and thoughts about the two young men were part of the whole story theme. It all worked together and was decently believable (rather than “oh, she’s mad at him now, because the romance was going too obviously in his direction”).

I generally don’t like the whole indecisiveness. It often feels contrived. And we as readers often have a good idea of which way it will go, and it’s annoying when the MC doesn’t “get it” for so long.

I also get annoyed at the too-many-suitors aspect. Maybe it’s just because I totally can’t sympathize. But I think it also rings of the unrealistic to me: I do have friends who have too many would-be suitors, but so far none of them have told me about having two equally nice guys chasing them at the same time.

Another reason I don’t usually like love triangles is because I don’t really care for romance in general. Which means you can take my comments about it with a grain of salt! What do I know about it anyway if I don’t read it?

Basically, what I think about love triangles is this (it kinda applies to romance in general): Make the story about more than just it. And avoid the opposite ditch at the same time – make it part of the story. Don’t just tag it on as a crowd pleaser. Don’t stretch the whole indecision thing just to make the fans team up for their favorite. Think carefully about whether it adds or detracts from the rest of the story.

Raina: I think it all depends on the reasoning behind them; if it’s a forced love triangle between three people just for the sake of drama/showing how desirable the MC is, then in my experience, it usually feels unrealistic and doesn’t work. On the other hand, if it develops naturally from character relationships (as any romance should), then I think it could work. People are complicated, especially teenagers, and it’s quite realistic for feelings to change rapidly, especially in the beginning stages of a relationship (i.e. when you’re not actually dating, and therefore aren’t formally committed). I think as long as you’re not putting in a love triangle for the sake of a love triangle, but simply have two potential love interests that represent different but plausible (and hopefully happy) futures for your MC, that should be fine.

Bethany: All I’m gonna say is, when have you ever seen a girl who is in love with two different guys in real life?

At my signing last week, a man asked me why I thought “Beauty and the Beast,” in all its variations has survived so long. And I said that I think it’s because, however weak this may seem to some, everyone–man, woman, and child–wants to be loved. In the traditional retelling (not, by any means, in my Ogre Enchanted!), the Beast loves Beauty so-so-so desperately that he will die without her. This is appealing if not emotionally healthy, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to be loved. Quite the opposite. Empathy comes partly from wanting to be loved, in my opinion, and a lot of good behavior does, too–loved romantically or in any other way.

Something similar happens in a love triangle. The two suitors at the base of the triangle love-love-love the character at the apex, whatever the gender of those involved. The reader imagines herself (or himself) as the wanted one, standing on tiptoe on that heady peak–while the point tears into her foot, and blood streams down the sides.

I haven’t written a love triangle and probably never will, although Ogre Enchanted has elements in common with one.

Strong emotions are the hallmarks of a love triangle, if it’s taken seriously, if it isn’t a cliche: jealousy, love (real or imagined), hate, anxiety, fear. And sadness is common if not inevitable. The love object, if she lets one of the suitors go, will experience deep loss, because she’s giving up this person’s love, something she’s proven, by getting into a love triangle, she needs very much.

Maybe she wants to hang onto both, but she has to be two different people, one for each. How can she be true to herself? Where is her self-respect? And there are self-respect issues for the suitors. Why are they willing to endure this? The one who drops off will grieve. All three can entirely split apart, too. There’s no law that two have to be left together.

One of the sad aspects of a love triangle is stasis. While the triangle continues, none of them can continue with their lives. Oddly, it makes me think of Hamlet, who is stuck in the indecision that kills him in the end. The main characters in a romantic triangle are like charged atoms, stuck in orbit around each other.

As all of you have said, it depends on how it’s done. Everything in writing depends on that. And how it’s done in a romantic triangle hinges on the characters involved, because this is a character-driven story, which would be the strategy we can use to approach it.

What happened to land these three people in this dilemma? What does each one want? How do their goals intersect and diverge? What ideas do they cherish of themselves? Why is it so hard for them to break free? The stasis is the villain. What other characters and circumstances are keeping it going? How is it defeated? Who does the defeating? Is this a tragedy, like Hamlet, or a romcom?

What is likely to make the dilemma worth it for the reader is the appeal of the MC and the other two. She has to be flawed but lovable. The reader needs to understand why the other two love her and why she loves them.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Your MC is given permission by her parents to get a dog. She goes to her local animal shelter, where two puppies in particular shower her with licks. They’re both adorable, and she doesn’t know what will happen to the one she doesn’t take. She has to pick one, because her parents have been very clear about this. Write the love triangle.

∙ Cinderella and Prince Charming are engaged and planning their wedding, when he’s called away on a diplomatic mission that takes him through the forest where Snow White has just been poisoned by the evil queen. He recognizes her, because their kingdoms are neighbors, and they grew up seeing and liking each other when they met on state occasions. Naturally, he kisses her. She wakes up, sees his face, remembers her friendly feelings for him, and is primed for love. His heart is touched, and the love triangle begins. Write what happens.

∙ Your MC has had one boyfriend since eighth grade, and now it’s twelfth, and she, a talented actor, is cast as the lead in the school production of Carousel and finds herself liking the boy who plays Judd–and he likes her. The boyfriend is the stage manager. Write the triangle and how it works out.

∙ Two of the dwarves fall for Snow White, who enjoys being adored. She leads them on and leads them on. Write what happens. You can take the fairy tale in a new direction if you like.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Kit Kat Kitty says:

    This is a really good post! All I can say about love triangles is this: They can be enjoyable sometimes, but only if done right. The typical girl falling in love with two nice guys for different reasons is done to death, but I do like love triangles with a twist. One that comes to mind is from a movie I watched where a guy and a girl have feeling for each other, but don’t say it, but another girl falls in love with the guy. But the love triangle is only a subplot, because there’s an entire war going on. I think love triangles make a good subplots, but in a romance book, I think it”s more interesting if the two characters who fall in love have different obstacles in there way.
    Another thing about love triangles when it comes to readers is the fact that you can’t please everyone. If the girl ends up choosing one guy over the other, some people will get angry at the character’s choice.

  2. I just read your post on Changing POV, and I’ve been thinking…
    I am writing a novel in first person, for the sake of intimacy with the MC, and I’m considering switching to third person because there are some scenes that I would like to include where the MC is not present. This is an issue for me because one scene in particular would give the reader some vital information (why the villain is after her), but I suppose I could write the story without it.
    What are your thoughts about this?

    • Kit Kat Kitty says:

      You could write most of the scenes/chapters in first person, but then shift to third person for the other scenes/chapters. If you don’t want to do that, you could drop hints of things that happened when the MC was not present, via another character.

  3. Have any of your books been adapted for the stage? I recently reread Fairest and thought that it would make a great musical (especially since I was listening to the Sound of Music sound track the next day!).

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      Yes. There’s a stage musical ELLA ENCHANTED adaptation (much closer to the book than the movie is) that’s been performed at a lot of regional children’s theaters, and there’s a stage TWO PRINCESSES OF BAMARRE adaptation that’s been performed at one or two places, but I don’t think it’s a musical. No FAIREST, though I’d love it–as long as the permissions process were followed. A musical would be great.

  4. I found this post very interesting, because I’ve never personally enjoyed love triangles, but I know lots of people that adore them. I agree it depends entirely on how – and why – it’s done!

    Quick question – for those familiar with MBTI types (it’s the quickest way I can think of to describe this character) or empath types; how would you write an INFJ as a villain? In my current book, I have this exact situation; she’s excellent at sensing everyone else’s emotions, which, I realized, would make a really excellent bully against one of my MC’s, who is keeping a major secret and most of his troubles are emotional. She’s turned out to be perfect for getting at both him and two other characters – she always says the one thing that will cut that person to the quick, and always notices and exploits the deepest insecurities, and always when it will hurt the most.

    But, alas, I realize she’s a little contrived; I can’t reconcile why a person like her could notice people’s feelings so well AND be willing to hurt them so deeply. If she’s so sensitive to their feelings, hurting them should hurt her. Is there a way to realistically get round this, or have I created a person who couldn’t exist?

    • It could be she notices there feelings, but they make her angry because she struggles with being able to feel happy, so she hurts people to make them feel like her. I think there can be people like this, but there has to be something in there life so emotionally scaring they’ll do anything to someone just to feel better, even if they know how much it hurts them. If you also put in a sense of remorse after they she does it, especially if she knows how much it hurts people, it’ll be more believable.

    • INFJs are not incapable of wanting to hurt others. I am an INFJ, and I have to admit I know.

      So your question is motivation? Her own pain could be a motivation. It is true that hurting others hurts ourselves, but I think we do have a little control over that. I hurt most when people I care about hurt. I put myself in their place, because I care. But she could be so focused on her own pain or what another person is doing to her that she doesn’t care about them, and she won’t let herself feel for them.

      INFJs feel things deeply, and being introspective, we explore those feelings; and since we have great imaginations, we probably feel a lot of things that aren’t true; thus feelings of isolation and rejection are probably a lot more common than the actual rejection. So here’s a thought: If she feels isolated and unloved, she may feel justified in “punishing” those around her for “rejecting” her. So she lashes out at them in subtle, painful jabs, wanting them to feel what she does, thinking she’s giving them a taste of their own medicine. But even so, she hates causing pain, and loaths herself. Then the pain she inflicts on others becomes a sort of self-punishment as well.

      I thought of two other motivations that are a little less psychological: INFJs will fight for those they love, or for a cause they think is just and right.

  5. Also, does anyone have any advice on how to write an emotional death scene? In the story I’m planning, there’s a death scene that’s dramatic, but it’s not die-in-your-arms dramatic. A building blows up with one of the main characters, and the other main character is devastated at the loss. I’m just not sure how to make the reader very emotional if you don’t actually see them die, or if the death happens during a fast paced scene, since there will be a lot of those. Any advice?

    • Taking a paragraph or two to create some stasis in your chaos would probably work. I don’t think there really has to be that dramatic a break from the fast pace of your scenes, just a meaningful reaction. Combining the setting (you know, that kind of scene you’ll never forget) with the conflicting feelings should be emotional enough without actually seeing the death.

    • Sometimes the shock doesn’t hit until the adrenaline wears off. Ex: You fight the fire, see the building fall and you KNOW your partner’s in there, but you go home, take a shower, sit at the kitchen table…and realize that he left his half-finished cup of coffee on the table when the phone rang, and he’ll never come back to drink it.

  6. Here’s a question, Mrs. Levine and Co:

    I have an MC who simply HATES another character in the novel. With a bottled-up passion. She has (sort of) good reasons for said hatred: this antagonist is snippy, rude, uppity,etc. But how do I convey this despising without making readers despise my MC in the process?

    • I’m working on something similar right now. My MC’s two companions hate each other, but I want them both to be likable. They both care for the MC, and she likes both of them. I’m looking at their strengths and showing how both are likeable: both are fun and like athletic, outdoor activities, so I included a couple scenes that will show that. I’m also adding a service-type scene where they volunteer to help strangers, though in different ways.

  7. I think if your MC has other people she’s close to, like friends and family, and if she’s already a pretty likeable person that should keep the readers on her side. Another thing that you could do is have your MC put in some effort to being polite to her enemy, even if she fails. That self-restraint will add a little heroism to her character and set her above the enemy…then when she gets away from said character, she can rant to another character, or to herself, or in her diary.
    Hope I was able to help!

  8. Ways to show hatred:
    Physical – clenched hands, set jaw, narrowed eyes, tensed muscles, bit tongue, heightened heart-rate, deep breath let out verrrry slowly.
    Mental – imagined “conversation” in which the MC tells the offender precisely what she “ought to” hear; Negative motives assigned to everything the antagonist does; preparing to go on the defensive every time the antagonist shows up or is mentioned.

    I agree with Poppie about how to keep your readers liking her. There are many other ways to show hatred, such as refusal to have anything to do with the other person, that will end up making your MC look totally unreasonable, and just as petty as the antagonist.

  9. I’m an aspiring 13 year old writer and really appreciate your blog! I was wondering if you had any advice on developing character flaws. I kind of want my characters to be ‘perfect’, but I know that’s not realistic and the readers need to be able to connect with the characters. Thanks for any suggestions!

    • Characters can also have flaws because of the situation there in. One of my characters was raised in a strict order, so she has no idea how the rest of the world works, so she needs someone to help her. Her aunt also died to save her, so she feels like she has to do something to make her dead aunt proud. She’s also amazingly headstrong. My other character was the sole survivor of a massacre on his village, so he doesn’t like to attach himself to people, although he is a lady’s man. And my other character was taken from her parents when she was a child to be raised in the same order as the first character I mentioned, so she has trust issues, and some identity issues, and her lover dies.
      I am not very nice to my characters, am I? So the point is, characters can have emotional scares or be thrust into situations they can’t handle to bring out there flaws. Hope that helps!

  10. I’m trying to figure out if I’ve had a brilliant insight or gone off on a time-wasting tangent, and I’d love some input.

    I’ve been trying to write Book 2 of “Malak’s Trilogy” for months now, but I keep stalling out and feeling like I’m trying to drag a cat that’s gone limp in a harness. When I do have an idea for a scene, I usually think “Nope, that happens in Book 3.”

    But then I thought: “What if “Book 3” comes BEFORE “Book 2?” It gives more time to introduce a certain villain, so they don’t come out of the blue, and for the romance to build up, and has a more dramatic opening…
    BUT…I’d lose some scenes that I really love, and I’d basically be starting from scratch, possibly only to learn that I’ve been following a red herring.

    What do you think? How do you tell which of 2 ideas is stronger?

    • I heard some advice somewhere (I’m guessing the Ready Set Write podcast) that said you should never save “good stuff” for a future book when writing a series, or else neither you nor your reader will ever want to go on long enough to get to the “good stuff”. They suggested trusting that the same mind that gave you the interesting ideas you want to save will still be able to come up with new “good stuff” when you get to the future books.

      I had a story that I worked on for multiple years. I finished, started querying agents, and while I was waiting I started the sequel. I soon realized that the book I had written was entirely backstory, and the real story started with the sequel. So I bit the bullet and started over. Books 1-3 are published now, and lots of information from that first story has come up as backstory and flashbacks. I’ve toyed with the idea of resurrecting some of that first material as a short prequel, but so far I haven’t.

    • Can you write an outline for each? An outline is less work than a full novel so if it doesn’t work out, your losses will be considerably smaller, but I’ve found I can spot most story problems in an outline before I even start writing.

      This might only work if you’re a plotter, though, or willing to become one. And you’ll still have to do the actual deciding of what you want to do, but making an outline might help you gather your thoughts.

      As for the actual deciding, there are two main approaches I’d suggest. One is logical, in which you list the pros and cons for each and then add them up. The other is logical, which is write what you’re most excited about, what gives you butterflies in your stomach or what you lie awake at night imaging, and trust that the rest will follow. I’ve gone down that road several times and changed scenes and evens stories because what was on the page was different from the story in my head.

      But whatever you decide to do, I wish you luck! It’s always hard to kill your darlings, but you can always find new ones along the way.

  11. I think I’ve been in a similar situation. I was plotting out a series I wanted to write, trying to figure out what happened in each book. Book one had all been plotted out, but when it came to book two I had some really good scenes I loved, but I couldn’t come up with enough plot/ideas to make an entire book. Alas, I never got around to writing the series because I moved on. I’m not sure if the situation is the same, but I did think of book three a lot more then book two. The best advice I can give is to go with what your heart tells you, because you want to tell the best story you can. If you feel like the events of book three need to come sooner, then do that. Especially if it involves character development. People who read the book might not be interested if the characters are dull. If your heart tells you to keep book three as book three, then do it! Book two will turn out fine.

      • Kit Kat Kitty says:

        I think it might help to go back to the first book and skim through it. Try to remember what you were thinking about when you were still writing the first book. What made you excited about continuing? Where did you feel like the characters wanted to go?

  12. Hi Gail! I just wanted to let you know that I’m writing an analysis paper on The Fairy’s Mistake for a paper in my Myths, Legends, and Folktales class where I’m analyzing adaptations of Toads and Diamonds. I read The Fairy’s Mistake once as a little girl, once again when I was nineteen, and a third time at age twenty-two for my paper. It’s even better the third time. Now that I know the tale, I can see a lot of fun bonuses, like how Rosella is named after a flower and likes gardening and the nice sister from the fairy tale speaks flowers as well as gems. And how she sings her song about the months of the year and the fairy tale The Twelve Months is a related fairy tale to Toads and Diamonds. Thanks for making my homework fun!

  13. Does anyone have any advice on how to write a book out of order? I’m not very good at beginnings and I feel like it might be easier if the middle or ending is solid (by having it already written.) I’ve heard this advice before, to just skip beginnings, but I’m not sure if I can do this and still get the right “angle” on my story. Have any of you done this before? Even if you haven’t, any advice would be great!

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