We all long for the convenience of formula. And while it’s true that formula is a good place to start, it’s all too easy for things to devolve into the formulaic. I prefer the word “equation” when it comes to conceptualization in writing. It sounds more mathematic. And yet, adhering too closely to any “equation” of conceptualization can cause a story to grow inorganically and predictably. Not good. We see this kind of GMO storytelling all the time in mediocre movies. Smart conceptualization is all about creating effective trajectory so the story can unfold intelligently and the writer can, to borrow a term from actors, “play discovery.”
But this essay is about another “T” word: Triangulation. And while movies are often formulaic and predictable, they can teach us a lot about what I call Character Triangulation.
Most schools of fiction and screenwriting reduce character mechanics to 1) Protagonist and 2) Opponent. This is about as effective as a two-legged stool. The best stories are almost always a triangle: 1) Protagonist, 2) Opponent and 3) Guide. The Guide Character is exactly what it sounds like: it guides the Protagonist through the Adventure—often with the aim of correcting or vindicating the Protagonist’s Misbehavior (Misbehavior, by the way, is not always pejorative—it can merely be unconventional).
Sometimes Triangulation is hard to discern—especially in ensemble movies or books. It is useful to remember that even in “overpopulated” stories one can always reduce things down to three “ultimate” characters: Ultimate Protagonist, Ultimate Opponent and Ultimate Guide. Everyone else is simply an ally of one of these three.
Also, remember that in a Romantic Comedy or Drama, the Love Interest is the Ultimate (Romantic) Opponent. Think of the Opponent as the “Ultimate Source of Opposition” to the Protagonist correcting or vindicating their Misbehavior.
Here are some Triangulation examples from movies and literature:
Ultimate Protagonist: Tom
Ultimate Opponent: Injun Joe
Ultimate Guide: Huck Finn
ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST
Ultimate Protagonist: Chief
Ultimate Opponent: Nurse Ratched
Ultimate Guide: McMurphy
(From seeing the movie, most people would call Jack Nicholson’s character, McMurphy, the protagonist—not so! The book is told from Chief’s POV. But in the movie, McMurphy steals the spotlight—which goes to show how important a Guiding Character can be).
Ultimate Protagonist: Rocky (Sly Stallone)
Ultimate (Romantic) Opponent: Adrian (Talia Shire)
Ultimate Guide: Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers)
KRAMER VS. KRAMER
Ultimate Protagonist: Father (Dustin Hoffman)
Ultimate Opponent: Mother (Meryl Streep)
Ultimate Guide: Son (Justin Henry)
Ultimate Protagonist: Male Screenwriter (William Holden)
Ultimate (Romantic) Opponent: Female Screenwriter (Nancy Olson)
Ultimate Guide: Aging Movie Star (Gloria Swanson)
Ultimate Protagonist: Desperate Functional Alcoholic Writer (Paul Giamatti)
Ultimate (Romantic) Opponent: Hot Waitress (Virginia Madsen)
Ultimate Guide: Best Friend (Thomas Haden Church)
Ultimate Protagonist: Pinto (Tom Hulce)
Ultimate Opponent: Dean Wormer (John Verson)
Ultimate Guide: Otter (Tim Matheson)
(I include this as an example of how Triangulation can work in a busy ensemble piece. Tom Hulce’s character, Pinto, is the Main Character or Protagonist of Animal House—but this is overshadowed by brilliant comic set pieces and colorful allies like Bluto and D-Day. Pinto is also the first person we see in the movie—usually a strong clue as to who is the actual Protagonist.)
Some stories are reducible to 1) Protagonist and 2) Ultimate Guiding Opponent. Here are a couple of examples:
Ultimate Protagonist: Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke)
Ultimate Guiding Opponent: Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington)
ON THE ROAD
Ultimate Protagonist: Sal Paradise
Ultimate Guiding Opponent: Dean Moriarty
These examples are by no means definitive. In fact, one can try to make the case for alternate Triangulations. These are simply what I’ve come up with. For example, in the book/movie The Graduate, one could say:
Ultimate Protagonist: Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman)
Ultimate (Romantic) Opponent: Elaine (Katharine Ross)
Ultimate Guide: Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft)
Elaine is a soft Romantic Opponent—you know as they ride away on that bus they’re going to be divorced within five years. You could also argue for this Triangulation:
Ultimate Protagonist: Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman)
Ultimate Opponent: Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft)
Ultimate Guide: Elaine (Katharine Ross)
Notice I didn’t say “Romantic Opponent”—Mrs. Robinson is loveless, preying sexually upon Benjamin. His involvement with her is as artificial and shallow as the career advice he receives at the party (“Plastics.”). Whenever he tries to deepen the relationship—she deflects. As a Guide Character Elaine is, again, a little soft. So maybe this version isn’t as accurate as the first. Still, it’s interesting to wonder how the author Charles Webb might have approached writing the novel and how my friend Buck Henry tackled the brilliant screenplay adaptation.
Exploring various permutations of Character Triangulation can help break a story wide open. Children’s books and animated movies almost always have transparent Triangulation. One of my favorite examples is this iconic book/movie:
THE WIZARD OF OZ
Ultimate Protagonist: Dorothy (Judy Garland)
Ultimate Opponent: The Wizard (Frank Morgan)
Ultimate Guide: The Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton)
How many people would automatically label the Witch as the Ultimate Opponent? True, the Witch is evil—but after she’s defeated, there’s an entire Third Act! This is another clue to Triangulation: The Guide Character almost always breaks off/disappears from the Protagonist and the story at the end of Act Two. The Ultimate Opponent is defeated in the Ultimate Battle Scene as close to the end of the story as possible. In this case, it’s when the Wizard is exposed as a fraud.
In The Graduate, Mrs. Robinson is defeated by Elaine and Benjamin’s elopement. But if one goes back to earlier in the story, there is a scene where Mrs. Robinson’s husband confronts Benjamin and ends the affair. What follows is a brief Third Act and it’s all about Benjamin fixating on Elaine—the (soft) Romantic Opponent—and the flawed means by which Benjamin ultimately corrects his Misbehavior.
Again, think of Character Conceptualization as a stool: It requires at least three legs or else the story will fall on its ass.
Robert Morgan Fisher’s fiction has appeared in 0-Dark-Thirty, The Huffington Post, Psychopomp, Golden Walkman Magazine, The Spry Literary Journal, 34th Parallel, Carnival, The Snake Nation Review, The Seattle Review, Spindrift, Bluerailroad and other publications. He’s written extensively for TV, radio and film. Robert holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University, where he now works as a Book Coach. He also develops courses and teaches for Antioch’s online I2P Program. He often writes companion songs to his short stories. Both his music and fiction have won many awards. Robert also voices audiobooks. Find him online here.