Jeannie Campbell

Jeannie Campbell is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. She is Head of Clinical Services for a large non-profit and enjoys working mainly with children and couples. She has a Masters of Divinity in Psychology and Counseling and bachelors degrees in both psychology and journalism. Jeannie started doing character therapy in March of 2009. Her Treatment Tuesdays feature assessments of fictional characters and plot feasibility while her Thursday Therapeutic Thoughts take a psychological topic and make it relevant to writers. She can be found at her blog, The Character Therapist, at

Therapeutic Thought on Triangles

Since I’m new to CFOM, I thought I’d introduce myself by sharing a bit about what I do for a living as well as enlighten you about an important aspect of relationships and how to apply this to your works in progress.

I’m a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. My specialty is doing therapy with the entire family to create change, produce healing, and strengthen ties. To do this, I work with the family system. That is, the nuclear family (mom, dad, children) and occasionally a grandparent or some other significant family member who lives in the same house.

One of the pioneers of family therapy is Murray Bowen. And just about everything I can share about this man’s theories would shed a therapeutic light on your manuscripts, but this month, I am writing about what Bowen considered the smallest stable unit of relationship: the triangle.

According to Bowen, virtually all significant relationships are shadowed by a third person. Mom/Dad/Child. Husband/Wife/Mother-in-Law. Hero/Heroine/Heroine’s Other Potential Boyfriend. When this happens, the third person is said to be “triangulated” into the relationship, brought in to alleviate conflict.

Rarely (if ever) would a therapist see two people in her office for couple's counseling when some other third party wasn’t involved. If the couple doesn’t already have triangle, then they try to triangulate the therapist. Each has the agenda to win the therapist over to seeing his or her side of the story.

Are you nodding yet? You should be—we all do this. When two people are unable to resolve their problems, humans have an inherent bent to draw in another person or group of persons (especially in a chick lit novel where the heroine is part of a “pack,” then the other friends still serve as a single unit for the purpose of this illustration).

There’s something stabilizing about the triangle. We can have a riff with our spouses, call our friends to gripe about how wronged we were, and then just feel better. The healthier thing to do would be to go directly to the other person and communicate our feelings and try to solve things that way . . . but we typically don’t.

How true is this for almost all relationships we have? Let’s take a second to consider a few books/movies. You’ll see that they all center around one or more triangles. Gone with the Wind: Scarlett/Rhett/Ashley. Twilight: Bella/Edward/Jacob. Pride and Prejudice: Elizabeth/Darcy/Mr. Wickham.

Romantic triangles can also be between two people, but three personas. Superman: Clark Kent/Lois Lane/Superman. You’ve Got Mail: Joe Fox/Kathleen Kelly/NY152 (Fox’s online persona). Down with Love: Catcher Block/Barbara Novak/Zip Martin (Catcher’s alter identity).

Triangles don’t have to be romantic, either. Silence of the Lambs: Clarisse Starling/Hannibal Lecter/Buffalo Bill. The Godfather: Michael Corleone/Don Corleone/Kay. The Shawshank Redemption: Andy Dufresne/Red/Warden Norten.

An object, idea, or animal can be triangulated, as well. Lord of the Rings: Frodo/Sauron/The One Ring. Star Wars: Luke Skywalker/Darth Vader/The Force. The Sandlot: Scott Smalls/Benny Rodriguez/“The Beast” guard dog. Anna and the King: Anna Leonowens/King Mongkut/Siam traditions.

I tried to think of a movie that featured a solitary person, and the only one I came up with was Tom Hanks playing in Cast Away. But there was still a triangle! Tom Hanks created Wilson, his soccer ball “friend,” to alleviate his anxiety of being on the island alone, while cherishing his pocket watch gift from Helen Hunt with her picture in it. So his triangle was actually two objects, but one was representative of his girlfriend.

A great movie that is a study in triangles is Love Actually. It has several story lines, but they are all interconnected by triangles. It also shows how one person can have many triangles in his or her life—at work, at home, at church—that can overlap at times.

So how can you apply this to your manuscripts? Think about your book. Do you have a triangle already in place? If you don’t, then you might want to think about going back to the drawing board. No matter what genre you write, the triangle is still relevant. Not only will it make the book more realistic, but also triangles create the best tension and make readers yearn to know how it will resolve.

The thing to remember is that although triangles might stabilize a relationship, they also freeze conflict in place. When a third person is brought in, relational progress essentially stops. So ideally, the triangle should be resolved by the time the character arrives at the end of their inner journey. A good relational triangle can lend itself to a solid plot, which should be music to the ears of character-driven novelists!

In therapy, the therapist’s goal is to help the person work through the triangulation (their mother’s well-meaning but awful advice, a friend’s jealousy, etc.) in order to come to a mentally healthy place. In fiction, a writer’s goal should be to produce a quality piece of work that others want to keep reading because they relate to it on some level. Our work touches something in them.

Thinking about relationships in your novels in the context of triangles will help your writing achieve a psychological level of authenticity that engages the reader and keeps them flipping pages well past bedtime.

The Character Thrapist