Love In The Time Of Isosceles

by J.T. Ellison


Sigh. If only we could apply the Pythagorean theorem to words. Just think of it, the ease of plugging A² + B² = C² into your manuscript and watching all the 1s and 0s percolate, get red hot on the screen and suddenly pop up with an answer – Choose Frank, you imbecile!

Love triangles suck.

I became a writer from sheer necessity, as numbers began to look Greek to me around the same time as my advanced algebra teacher caught me kissing a boy in the hall before class, pulled me aside, got in my face and yelled at me. “You’re not in love, you’re in heat,” were his exact words. I was wildly insulted. I found myself neither yowling aloud nor turning in circles with my tail in the air spraying urine on passersby (though I was in my preppy handbook stage, but that hardly qualified.) Turned me right off quadratic equations, and I didn’t find the love again until I met up with Euclid and his lovely triangles in my sophomore year. But by then it was too late. I spent much too much time in geometry extolling the virtues of Cal Ripken’s ice blue eyes with a fellow student and popping out my contact lens so I could sneak into the girls’ bathroom for a smoke. Trigonometry was great, we were allowed to use our circles in class, and I loved the way the word cosine sounded in my mouth, (try it – cosine. Co… sine… sexy, yeah?) but by the time I hit calculus, boys, books, sports and stories were paramount and I could barely give the numbers my attention.

But back to eighth grade. Said kissing, and apparent early onset estrus, was quickly followed by my first love triangle. The other boy, who shall remain nameless to protect the innocent, was older, darker, taller and richer – by God, he was in high school and drove a Saab. A SAAB, people. In comparison, my current relationship seemed like mere puppy love. I mean really, what girl’s going to pass up an opportunity to be driven home instead of holding sweaty hands in the back of the bus, watching the cowboys do snuff and cough their lungs out, and wondering just what base made you cool and what base made you a slut?

I labored over the decision (not the bases, the boys. The bases were later. Ahem.) The guys were friends. The older boy a sort of mentor to the younger. But he was so damn charming, and invited me to go skiing with him (up to the mountains in his Saab…) Who was I to hinder fate? I went. We skied, we drank cocoa, I felt cool in my new blue moon boots. Eventually, toward the end of the afternoon, on the ski lift for the last run of the day, we kissed. It was magical. Puppy love at its finest. And then I had to come back to earth (literally down the mountain, ah, the imagery slays me even now) and break up with the other boy, explain that somehow, without it being my fault, I fell in love with his friend.

I felt like a total heel. Still do, all these years later. The second relationship worked for a very long time, but eventually it too disintegrated, the vagaries of time, hormones and 3,000 miles of distance proved too much for its fragile beauty to withstand. We’re all Facebook friends now, because really, who doesn’t want to relive their most humiliating moments and painful decisions over and over and over?

My first love triangle proved to be painful for all involved. So when I approach the page with the concept, I am very, very careful. I know what it feels like to be the girl trying to make a choice. It’s not fun. No matter what, someone is going to get hurt.

That makes for a great story, because you’ve got a stellar opportunity to have character development. Pain makes your characters grow. And growing is what we’re all striving for in our fiction and hoping for from our characters, right?

But to have the logic and simplicity of math in the equation… We would know exactly what formula would work when presenting two love interests to a female lead. As it is, sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. When I introduced James “Memphis” Highsmythe, Detective Inspector for the Metropolitan Police at New Scotland Yard, Viscount Dulsie, I knew I was about to shake things up a bit. But I had no idea the impact it would have. I’m hardly in Stephanie Plum or Bella territory (though if someone were to establish a Baldwin versus Memphis fan club, who am I to interfere?) but I was shocked at the reactions. My male readers HATED Memphis. Some of the women did too. Though some really liked him; it’s been a completely mixed bad from the feminine side. I attribute this to the eighth grader in all of us who found themselves in exactly the same pickle I did, and the boys were obviously on the receiving end. Makes perfect sense.

As a writer, I adore Memphis. He is my own personal earthquake. He gets to step in, screw things up and make everyone mad, then trot off back to England and mourn his dead wife. No one can stay mad at him for long; though a confirmed rake, he’s got that special something all rakes have, which makes him catnip. Taylor is so far above the fray when it comes to these issues because she is a hero, but the fun of being a writer is watching heroes fall down on their way up Mt Olympus. Her fiancé, John Baldwin, FBI profiler extraordinaire, has always been the one to catch her when she falls. But not this time. When Memphis and Taylor shared a kiss, I mourned for Baldwin. Taylor was now interested in two men. I find myself suddenly backing into a love triangle, though I’d be more inclined to call this a polygon with modified vertices and segments with three non-collinear points and a distinct plane, because the word triangle is just too simplistic to explain the situation.

I’m working on the 7th novel in the series now, and Memphis is back, in a big way. He is a catalyst. But I can’t help but wonder what would happen if he were to become… more. The unknown is always fertile ground for playing…

So tell me – love triangles: Love them? Hate them? What are your favorites? Do they have any place in crime fiction?

Wine of the Week: Tenute Rapitalà Nero D’avola – we’re heading into winter, so we need heavy wines that pair well with stews and soups. This one does the trick nicely.

17 thoughts on “Love In The Time Of Isosceles

  1. JD Rhoades

    "“You’re not in love, you’re in heat,' were his exact words."

    The proper response:: "And your point is…?"

    Don't knock heat. In prose and in life, it can shake things up a bit.

  2. Randy Russell

    Terrific post. The love triangle that always did me in was choosing between the person I was with and someone I hadn't met yet. Needless to say, I was single a lot. But, NO ONE can be part of a love triangle too.. although it's probably a super boring story. I am also boring a lot. Thanks for the post!

  3. Chuck

    Hi JT:

    I like the change of pace today. Thought provoking and fun.

    The love triangle…like Jerry Seinfeld's menage a trois…haha. I remember the look on his face when he said, "She's INTO IT!" to George.

    I think it has a wonderful place in crime fiction because, much to many relationships' detriment, it sure as hades exists in real life. To those of us in relationships, it's not all satin sheets and roses. In those dark days that turn into months, when the comments get snippier and the tender moments few and far between, it's so easy to see greener grass on the other side of the fence. It happens. People stray, usually realizing quickly that the new relationship has as much (or more) baggage as the first. But often times the feeling, for both people, linger.

    Readers certainly understand this situation! Perhaps your giving it to them will be all the release they need. (Or maybe you will encourage them. 😉

    Thanks for letting me ramble on about the obvious and make little sense.

  4. Spencer Seidel

    Love triangles (and even squares and pentagons) most definitely belong in crime fiction because they're part of the human condition. Also, I'd be willing to bet that love triangles are sadly responsible for a huge percentage of murders over the years, so this makes them fair game by my rules!

  5. JT Ellison

    Dusty – I couldn't agree more. Of course, since I was 13, my parents were the ones who told him off, I was too busy being humiliated. He was my favorite teacher too – made the rest of the semester rough.

    Ah, Randy, the grass is always greener on the other side love triangle. Excellent point, it's completely possible to have an affair with the unknown. Thanks for that idea too, mate.

    Chuck, you're right. People DO stray. All the time. I know Facebook has been the cause of tons of breakups. 66% of lawyers have used evidence from Facebook in their divorce proceedings. It's also a great challenge for me as a writer, because of my personal feelings on marriage and fidelity. I have to keep reminding myself that Taylor ISN'T married. Not yet, anyway.

    Spencer, absolutely! There's no doubt that jealousy is one of the main motivators for murder. And all sorts of other crazy behavior.

  6. Dudley Forster

    First, there shall be no more talk of high school in the same sentence with love or sex. Rolling around in the excrement of humiliation is not my idea of a good time. Since we have been down this road before, you know I am not found of love triangles. I specifically don’t like any thought of a Memphis – Taylor – John triangle. Taylor and John are in a committed relationship and Memphis is the interloper. This is where you deduce that yes indeed I am a ROMANTIC.

    I do have to thank Memphis for one thing. In suggesting to you that he be exiled I had to look up the point furthest north in the UK, that being on Unst, an island in the Shetlands. I still think that is where he belongs. However, I was so interested in the place it is now one of the locations in my NaNoWriMo novel.

  7. Alafair Burke

    Oh, don't you love when those long forgotten faces reappear thanks to Facebook?

    I like love triangles in fiction if they're well done. Stephanie Plum's indecision between Ranger and Morelli kept me with that series for a long time.

  8. JT Ellison

    Louise – relationships are tough enough. I'd never planned to do this, and it's not easy.

    Dudley, that's a hoot. I don't think Memphis deserved banishment, not just yet. Who can blame him – Taylor's one hell of a woman.

    Alafair, they do pop up at the most random times. Not really a fan.

    Pari, I have to be obtuse – I'm not sure what Jules et Jim is. My Google search says it's a french film. Deets?

  9. Debbie

    A little tangential I know and this may sound harsh, but if there's no fidelity before marriage, there should be no marriage. Aren't relationships a commitment to another that involve sacrifice. If you're trying to figure out what within the relationship you can get away with before you've crossed the line, aren't you missing the point? Isn't love about sacrificing oneself, esteeming them better? Obviously that should be mutual. Okay, here's the segue….

    Affairs happen, people are flaawed, but I want my protag to get the best, not someone who doesn't value commitment and would consider hooking up with somebody new who is already involved or when they themselves were involved. The love triangle can work though. Especially when the characters and reader are tortured by the impossibility.

    As I contemplate your post, I realize that there is a formula I like: What brings them together, keeps them apart. Now all the author has to do is spin them out of the fact that they CANNOT be together <g>, not because there is another love interest to fall back upon, although that intensifies the conflict, but because there is a way that makes it possible. I think that kind of conflict works best when it seems the other relationship is over or impossible. By that I mean that the first relationship is over, a new one begun and the original resurfaces. Or put another way, I don't want a character to contemplate an affair, but to be in love and then realize that s/he is (Jane Eyre, Casablanca, Sense and Sensability) The torture is greater for the reader if there is no breaking of morals, just a shitty situation.

  10. Reine

    Hi JT – Sorry I'm late. NaNoY'no.

    I think triangles are great, and they really are everywhere. Like they taught us in school – with the wrong conclusion, though – anxiety is reduced but not resolved with triangles. A pair bond when they prefer each other, but when in conflict an outsider is brought in by one. A new pair forms that may then exclude the outsider. As the third is excluded feelings of rejection often cause the outsider to try to get closer to one of the insiders. Positions unfixed do not become lines or circles or boxes. Anything but a triangle is an illusion. The idea that low anxiety allows people in relationship to differentiate and be healthy in a sort of separate but equal status is an illusion, because tension is interjected everywhere in response to anxiety on the outside. Great storytelling! I do LOVE your characters!

  11. pari noskin taichert

    It's the classic menage a trois, m'dear. A Truffaut film that captures the dynamics of a three-way relationship beautifully.

    BTW: The few times I was involved therein, I found the experiences quite exhausting <g>.

  12. JT Ellison

    Sorry to be late returning – no Internet and a trip to Kentucky got in the way of finishing responses.

    Debbie, I fully agree. Marriage is a sacrament. Which is why I'm treading so very carefully in the territory of the love triangle, because I don't think you can start your lives together with the specter of another hanging over you. It took me three books to figure out how to handle it, but now I've got it.

    Reine, that's it exactly. Two magnets reverse repel instead of attract. So you have to be very, very careful how you put the magnets together on the page. Trying to avoid adverse reactions, that's my gig.

    Ah, Pari, thank you! I'll check it out.

    Cornelia, yes! Yes you may!

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