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Math and I have never been what you might say, good friends. Reluctant acquaintances is more apt. However, it has long been proven to me that for as long as there have been romances, math has played a part in it.
So get out your calculators and rulers, we’re revisiting 8th grade math (hey, we were dumb in my school; we did this stuff later than everywhere else.)
The triangle: we’re always trying to figure out the angle of the thing, and there is nothing like a simple, uniform triangle to sufficiently tangle your story for a good 300 pages. Love, as the saying goes, comes when you least expect it. You’re not looking for it; or you’re least not looking for it with him. In fact, he’s the last person you were thinking of. Your thoughts and energies instead were focused on Mr. Ideal. The third point of the triangle.
Writers enjoy employing triangles as a writing device because they’re simply complicated, or complicatedly simple. Whichever. You’re not bogging the reader with a slew of unnecessary characters to remember, but you’re sufficiently raising the emotional stakes and tension until we’re all screaming, “Kiss him already, no, not him, the other guy!”
Sometimes writers like to do a diamond sort of thing, a triangle and a triangle, with the short line connecting our hero and heroine at the middle. Each has their own Mr. or Ms. Ideal, but are still drawn to each other. This is trickier to do, because there is a sort of timing to it. If they’re both with their ideals, or pursuing their ideals at the same time, it’s hard to keep them together and aware of each other. There is almost a choreography on ice with a diamond (get it? Ice and diamond? Right.) and one triangle is completed just after the second one takes up, so both characters suffer sufficiently. Writers who do diamonds well make you feel as tense and engaged as if you’re watching Dean and Torvill at the 1984 Olympics.
Warning: if you’re not careful, you’ll end up with the multi-triangled approach of Bhartrihari:
She who is always in my thoughts prefers
Another man, and does not think of me.
Yet he seeks for another's love, not hers;
And some poor girl is grieving for my sake.
Why then, the devil take
Both her and him; and love; and her; and me.
It’s probably more accurate in the long run, but this is only going to work if you want to write your own Gone with the Wind. And you’ll notice Bhartrihari and Scarlett did not have happily ever afters. If you want a happily ever after, keep your writing and your geometric proof simple: go for the triangle. Then when you’re ready for the Olympics, try a diamond.
Because I am a hopelessly simple English major, I’m going to keep this little math analogy as hopelessly simple as possible: we’re always solving for X.
My high school math teacher kept assuring me I would use algebra in everyday life, and I kept saying she was on crack; but it turns out on the most basic, simplistic level (not that complicated calculus she was assuring me about later), we are always using algebra (and geometry). X + Y = Z. I usually solve for X, trying to figure out how many miles to the gallon I got on this particular tank of gas. I’m pretty sure I’m doing it wrong since it’s rarely the same mileage twice. I’m sure it’s why I’m not good at solving for X in my writing too.
I think the X in a lot of fiction books is the dead body. Everyone loves a good mystery: who killed the dead guy, what happened to Aunt Meredith’s diamond and ruby necklace, just what exactly is the hero hiding about his past anyway? We’re all curious about the X and want to find the source of it. X is backstory. After all, what is a dead body at the beginning of a novel but backstory that hasn’t been revealed yet?
So for me, my writing equation to solve for X is: X + H = C. If you could remove a hero from his backstory, you’d have a much less complex creature. But add your backstory and your hero? COMPLICATED. Neurosis City.
And much like all those math classes, where I spent my time, beating my forehead on my desk, saying, “I can’t solve for X because it doesn’t make any sense!”, you can’t really have a hero without backstory, can you? If you have a hero without backstory, you have an infant, fresh from the womb, untested, untried, and unriddled with all the little slings and arrows life saddles you with. But it amuses me to see a lot of writing books where they want you define your character first, then write the backstory separate. It just seems so wrong. It’s like scrambling two eggs in a bowl, then being told to turn them back into unbroken, unscrambled eggs again. Right. That can happen.
Plus, you’ve been to character interviews, haven’t you? You’ve set your smoldering-eyed, gypsy man in a chair and start firing questions at him like you’re Barbara Walters, calm but no nonsense. For no explicable reason, your character clams up like he’s being tried by Joseph McCarthy instead. He has no answers for you. He doesn’t know. He shrugs. You don’t know. And it’s very irritating because you made him up. You’ll even offer him answers, and he continues to shrug as if that is a very nice answer but he can’t be bothered to give confirmation either way if you’re right. Bastard.
Clearly algebra is still the bane of my existence, even in writing; but geometry, which I always seemed to do well in (I loved doing proofs), seems to be something I feel a bit more equipped to do.
I generally find that people can do one math or the other, but not both particularly well. Which one were you better at? Which one are you better at in the scope of your novel—triangles or X’s? If you’re a reader, what has been your favorite triangle in a novel, or your favorite X-backstory? What triangles are you sick of and what would you like to see more of?
*Math masterminds do not need to point out Hellion’s tenuous grasp on mathematical concepts. She is already aware her checkbook doesn’t balance; and this is called literary license.