Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Romantic Triangle

Close the Last Door: Nagai knows what his best decision is.
Romantic triangles are like mafia tales--people either love 'em or despise 'em.

When reading romances, it is almost impossible to avoid minor triangles--the ex-girlfriend or ex-boyfriend or outside interested party who threatens to break up our favorite couple. These minor triangles can be handled badly (every teen drama on television) or quite well (Season 6 of Bones). But they are notably inconsequential.

With a few exceptions, I avoid the type of triangle that runs the entire series/show/movie. The third party is only going to pose a continual threat if (1) he or she is crazy; (2) he or she invites one of the protagonists to stray.

The first possibility is discomforting. The second gets a little too close to the distasteful cheating plot. 

The exceptions prove the rule. The few ongoing triangle plots that I have found entertaining in manga include Close the Last Door, Allure, and Only the Ringer Finger Knows. And the reasons I can stand them illustrate the potential flaws buried within the triangle plot.
In Close the Front Door (see above panel), the protagonist is caught between an idol and a real, if fallible, boyfriend. There's no substitute for the real relationship, and he knows it. He recognizes that even should he win the idol (which becomes a possibility), the reasons that make the idol so attractive are precisely the reasons his relationship with the idol (as more than a friend) would ultimately prove unsuccessful. I am loved, and I love: why would I want to mess with that? best sums up his conclusion. The day-to-day successes of his real relationship provide an emotional haven--and resilience--that the fantasy relationship cannot. It isn't so much that he realizes, Guess I'll have to "settle." Rather, he realizes that he actually has gotten something better than what he had imagined for himself (rather like Leonard in Black Sun).

As someone who reads shojo and admires
flowing locks, I find this panel hilarious.

I had to read Allure several times to appreciate the underlying issue, and it is psychologically fascinating (see post about dysfunctional relationships): namely, the ex-girlfriend is actually quite controlling. She took on the caretaker role while Kai was blind, so much so that he finds himself, when sighted, carrying around an entire look/image that doesn't suit him and feels false. The ex- is not a bad person and will make another type of man a fine wife. Kai is simply not that guy. He can either remain someone he isn't or be someone he is.

Only the Ring Finger Knows comes closest to being unbearable, despite being well-written--so much so that I came up with an extended version that deals more conclusively with the interfering third party. The series is redeemed by Wataru being believably ill-prepared (due to youth and lack of experience) to counter the sophisticated countermoves of the third-party--right up until his forthright and honest nature cuts through all the bull.
My take-away: the triangle can work if the protagonist is intelligent and appreciates that "snatching" (as Dorothy Sayers would say) after illusive happiness will not automatically produce better results than dealing with life-as-is (again, Brennan and Booth from Bones are positive examples). The triangle can also work if the protagonist resolves the issue not by glumly remaining faithful (which is depressing for everyone) but finding happiness within small and precious moments.

In sum, a good protagonist is honest with him/herself and fair with others. Most importantly, a good protagonist is reasonably optimistic/forward thinking. A character who is constantly bemoaning the "grass that could be greener" and running after the first stray fancy that might satisfy his or her ego may make an interesting character; he or she will fail as a protagonist worth investing in.

Of course, it is even better when there is no contest--Jamal
pours scorn on the idea of substitution in Black Sun.

Unfortunately, too many triangle plots involve self-pitying protagonists who employ justifications that the reader is supposed to consider defensible (since, after all, the protagonist is acting out of luuuuv). Such plots become frustrating, as in unbearable, when the triangle is presented as a mark of conquest or triumph for the protagonist, rather than a hurdle to be handled with finesse.

The "oh, I don't know which lover to choose! I guess I should waffle until circumstances force a decision!" mental framework speaks more to immaturity than successful personal growth.

I must say: I greatly admire Japanese manga and light novels regarding this trope; although the triangle crops up quite often (and can be as irritating as described above), characters are rarely let off the social-harmony hook. Stop making life difficult for others! is the underlying message. And it's a good one.