The Power of Three in Storytelling

A recent read has got me thinking about how three shows up in stories–specifically, stories centered around three lead characters.  There are romantic triangles, of course, but I’m thinking of a different kind of triangle, of three people all connected by friendship, and with no more than one romantic tie.

Anton Chekhov said, “Let two people be the center of gravity in your story: he and she.”  That’s a story that works well too–but sometimes those two people need a third.  And sometimes it’s that third character who really steals the show!  “He and She” are in some ways locked into their roles; they’re on a character-growth journey, or they have to be the moral center of the story, or they’re a reflection of the reader in order for said-reader to relate.  The third character gets to break out of the mold, to be the comic relief, or the dashing rogue, or the morally ambiguous semi-ally.

Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series is a perfect example, with Percy, Annabelle, and the comedic Grover (my favorite character!)  Harry Potter probably came to mind for everyone: Harry, Hermione and Ron, although Rowling shifted the romantic pairing away from the lead.  I would argue it even applies to Star Wars, at least in A New Hope: it’s really Luke’s story, with Leia as the heroine and Han as the roguish third character.

Sometimes the third character is an animal sidekick.  In Hero by Alethea Kontis, there’s heroine Saturday, hero Peregrine, and shape-shifting sidekick Betwixt (my favorite!)  Or in my novel (although I didn’t think all of this through when I wrote it), there’s Jasper, Julie, and snarky, talking-cat Tom (who seems to garner the most fans…)

There are variations, of course.  The weight of the story doesn’t always rest quite so neatly on two people, with a third in satellite.  I’m thinking of Catherynne M. Valente’s Fairyland series, with September as heroine and her two friends, A-through-L and Saturday.  Mostly it tends to be male and female leads, with a male third character, but not always: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid focuses on the two title characters, with Etta as the third.

And then sometimes the third character becomes the lead character.  I’m pretty sure Pirates of the Caribbean was supposed to be Will and Elizabeth’s story, but in true pirate fashion, Captain Jack Sparrow stole the movie.

I can’t ignore my favorite triumvirate either, of Kirk, Spock and McCoy.  Some would say (and the recent Star Trek movies suggest) that Kirk and Spock are the leads with McCoy as satellite–and as the irascible, possibly comedic character he has some of those trademarks…but nevertheless, I maintain absolutely that those three all have equal weight, and trends to the contrary represent a serious lack of understanding on the part of those currently running the franchise (not to get all soap-boxy about it or anything…)

Anyway…I find I really like this kind of character set-up.  So now I’m eager to find more examples!  What are some books or movies you’ve enjoyed that feature a Friendship Triangle?  Who are your favorite Third Characters?

And if you’d like to read a book that accidentally followed this set-up, you can win a signed copy of my fairy tale retelling, The Wanderers! Just put #WanderersGiveAway in your comment to enter.  Only open to the end of the month!

10 thoughts on “The Power of Three in Storytelling

  1. I’ve been thinking about these threes – I love the examples above – particularly the LoTR references – and now, my mind has gone completely blank and I can’t come up with anything at all!
    Lynn 😀

  2. I love the friendships or Harry, Hermione and Ron, and Percy, Annabelle and Grover. Great choices. My favourite Narnia book The Voyage of the Dawn Treader has the great combo of Edmund, Lucy and their rotten cousin Eustace. I also like the times in Lord of the Rings where Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli travel together.

    1. Yes! Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli are a great example of a small trio breaking off from a larger ensemble cast. Ooh…and also we get Sam, Frodo and Gollum. And arguably even Merry, Pippin and the Ent (whose name I can’t remember…) Maybe this is why The Two Towers is my favorite…

  3. Dennis

    Yourobservations about the third character make me think of a plot device that was often used in the old Laurel & Hardy comedies. Stan and Ollie often had a handsome friend. In part, this was so that there could be somebody to have a romance, but it was more than that. Stan and Ollie were funny-looking and silly. The friend was always gorgeous and serious. As such, he was a straight man, who made the two leads all the funnier for the contrast to his normalcy. And it also gave us a character we could like very much, simply because he never looked down on Stan and Ollie for their oafishness. I don’t think it is as common as it used to be to have two two funny leads with a straight man for a sidekick, but those old comedies show us how well it can work if done right.

  4. and snarky, talking-cat Tom (who seems to garner the most fans…)

    Of course he does. He’s wonderful. ❤ *waves Team Tom flag*

    More in keeping with your post and question, though, it's admittedly something I haven't paid too much attention to, so it's a tough question! I can see what you're saying reflected in some of my own stories. It's not always a Friendship Triangle or a Romance triangle, but it's definitely almost always some triangle. Hmmm… There’s M.C.A. Hogarth’s jokka trilogy. The threes run all the way through to the world-building there, so it is cheating a little bit. But if you’re looking for the (not-romantic) triangle angle, they’re a pretty solid bet for that. ^_^

    N.K. Jemisin’s works comes in threes a fair amount too. It’s also in her world-building for the 100,000 Kingdoms books, but it’s also in the narrative structure for The Shadowed Sun. (Actually, it has four narrators, but one is clearly not a part of the triangulated structure. It’s been a while since I read it, so my ability to go into more detail isn’t as good as I’d like, sorry.)

    There’s the Unicorn, Schmendrick and Molly Grue from The Last Unicorn. If you allow films, there’s Sarah, Hoggle and Ludo in Labyrinth. Hm. Come to think of it, these are both examples of trios that turn into foursomes. There’s Lír in TLU who shows up in the latter half and for Labyrinth it’s Sir Didymus. Food for thought there. ^_^

    I think that might also be the case for Pratchett’s Witches series? Or at least one triangle dynamics replaces another…

    Elora Bishop’s Benevolence Tales are about a friendship triangle too. Sort of. There’s also a romance aspect, but it’s not a romance triangle. It’s a witch, her familiar and her beloved having adventures. (Sort of. They’re very quiet books. I really like them.) Also talking cats. ^-~

    There’s also, of course, Diana Wynne Jones’ The Power of Three. That’s definitely got a friendship triangle at its heart. Thinking of titles is trickier than I thought it’d be! Curses on my awful memory!

    I think one of the reasons three is such a powerful number in (Western) storytelling is partially just what you said, that the third person has more freedom. If you have just one character, it’s very tricky to get them interacting in a way that’s engaging. If you have two, there are a lot more options, but it’s still fairly linear. If you’re writing a romance with two people, there are only two ways you can conceivably go. Either they end up together or they don’t. Throw in a third person and it adds spice and opportunity, a chance for the plot to veer off (or give the illusion of that). Add in more than three people and it becomes harder to juggle keeping the cast distinct and characterised. It’s not impossible, of course, but it’s harder to make sure everyone is distinct. Martin and Jordan would probably never had managed such a large cast convincingly if they hadn’t split everyone up to have their own adventures.

    Of course that depends on the writer and the story. ^_^ Personally, I don’t think three is the cut-off point for a cast list. It’s just the one we wound up with because our storytelling legacy uses it so extensively. (I assume. I’m sure there are more and other reasons as well as plenty of exceptions.)

    1. I may need to market “Team Tom” flags… 🙂

      I’m actually glad to hear you haven’t thought about this before–I was a little worried this was a known convention that everyone but me was aware of!

      And thanks for all the ideas–I like your point about larger casts that split down into groups of three. I bet there’s a lot of those too. Must think more on that…

      And I think I have to read the Benevolence Tales! I like the sound of quiet books with that set-up of characters (and a talking cat, of course!)

      1. Team Tom flags and banners!

        Ah, I’m aware of the convention, actually. ^-^; I just hadn’t given it much thought.

        There probably is, though I can’t think of any right now. I did just finish The Vintner’s Luck, though, which definitely has a friendship triangle going on in it.

        Oh! Tanya Huff’s The Fire’s Stone has one too! And probably one of the clearest I’ve read too, come to that. I’m not sure how I forgot it.

        I hope you’ll enjoy them if you read them! I happily recommend them. ^_^

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