Sunday, 3 May 2020

Trio Character Dichotomies

While writing today's earlier blog post, I was thinking to myself "man, I should write a post about how dichotomies work when the character dynamics are built around trios, see how they change".

By the end of it, I had 

a) mentally committed to doing so
b) realised I had very little to work with

Fiction of all types, not just fantasy, loves fiction that concentrates on one person's journey fully and that person alone. It also really loves stories where two people are equally important; lovers, ex-lovers, enemies, friends, friends who become enemies, who become friends, and everything else. Stories based around four people, or maybe even five, they're there too, although I bet most of you can pick out the important one or two people.

Three? Stories where there are three almost equally important people, where their journeys are all equally important and they actually interact regularly? I'm struggling to think of them. Is there a good reason? One of them's Harry Potter, it's not like it'll prevent a story reaching commercial success. Hell, maybe the fact everyone watching could probably identify with one of the three had something to do with the success.

There's Pratchett's Witches. There's kinda the trio from The Wheel of Time but they spend most of the series apart. I know Staveley's The Emperor's Blades has three royal siblings, and Fonda Lee's Jade City has three ruling family siblings but again, a bit apart. There's sort of a trio in The Wounded Kingdoms between Girton, Rufra, and Aydor, once it's all said and done, but it drifts in and out. Gemmell has a lot of warrior trios, but often in supporting roles. And so on. It's not common. It's like, there has to be a hero. He can have a mirror. But how can he have two mirrors? And if he has two mirrors, well, how do they interact when they're facing the hero and not everyone? That's the problem behind Ron and Hermione. I'm sure I'm missing plenty of examples from books I haven't read or am forgetting, but not lots and lots. It feels uncommon. It doesn't help that a lot of them where it works will be love triangles, which I have so little to do with. I apologise now to everyone who wants to know about them.

I'm going to try and break down what we have and maybe should be. A quick look at TVTropes says the usual method is two quarrelling types and someone keeping the peace. That's kinda how Pratchett's witches do it, but I can't think of many others. Gemmell's backing trios (used in Quest for Lost Heroes and Winter Warriors) have that but the focus is mostly elsewhere. Is there any reason you can't have three quarrelling types with them taking turns? It is, after all, closer to how Pratchett's witches operate.

The whole dichotomies thing to me is that the characters are heavily at odds but linked by not just a common purpose, but a common strong personality trait that's buried deep in one of the characters. A second very similar example to Holt and Peralta would in fact be JD and Cox in Scrubs, where the emotionally needy JD infuriates the uber-masculine Cox yet never enough for Cox to overlook the fact that JD is the one guy who cares as much about helping the patients as he does. 

Can you turn this into a three way circle? Where character A's dominant personality trait is shared by character B as their hidden core, and where character B's dominant personality trait is character C's hidden core, and Character C's dominant personality is A's hidden core? I have no idea. I don't think I've seen it done, at least not as the main characters (and the more I look at things, the more power trios seems to be the backing group to the main man). It sounds feasible, but would it just confuse readers?

Perhaps it'd be wiser to drop the all round dichotomy. You can certainly have an MC with two similar mirrors, like B99 is increasingly trending with Peralta, Holt and Santiago. Or go with three MCs with contrasting strengths and methods, and let them argue it out witch style. Maybe you have that and they all have to answer the same question in the same way. It's sort of where Gemmell goes with King Beyond the Gate with the main characters trying to find identity and meaning after leaving the army and losing a vital part of themselves. There is of course the HP method with the MC having two mirrors reflecting different parts of himself.

Let's try looking at this another way. Let's look at contrasting arcs and contrasting goals, or contrasting perceived goals. I feel like doing this instantly gets more juice. Immediately, both Pratchett's witches and Harry Potter work as the driven fighter (Weatherwax/Potter), the comfortable one (Ogg/Weasley), and the ambitious reformer (Magrat/Granger). The mythic roles I noted for the Wheel of Time three in my earlier post translates into plot arcs very well. Having three characters tread different paths to the same goal, or the same path to different goals, feels like it makes sense and is read something readers can instantly get their heads around. 

Maybe something a writer could do here is to stagger the normal emotion highpoints/lowpoints of the three characters' arcs, letting one character hit their low point while everyone else is at their peak in order to contrast the way they are. Now I've written it, I realise this is the most common idea in the universe and I'm a moron. Which is a good sign that it's time to put the pen down on this effort. Three is seemingly not the magic number, not unless you start doing sub-divisions on the whole. Which makes it an opportunity, right?


  1. Another trio: Wydrin, Sebastian and Frith in Jen Williams' 'Copper cat' trilogy.
    That certainly turns the usual '2 men and 1 woman' roles on its head.

    1. Jen seems to like her trios; I nearly mentioned the one The Ninth Rain, but alas haven't finished the series yet. Maybe I should get onto that!

    2. You do!!!
      Yep, in the Winnowing Flame trilogy the trio is even stranger: an older woman, a young witch and an ageless young man :)