So, my dilemma is as follows. I have a romance project with the MC trying to choose between two women who he cares for very much. Each has broken his heart, but are willing to make amends and provided justification for their misdeeds.

In order to give you more information, I'll talk a bit about the persons involved.

Cassidy is the MC's childhood friend and high school sweetheart. She's a tomboy, yet is very sweet and caring. However, in their high school years, she met someone who took on a trip to the "dark side". I'm not going to mention anything gratuitously, but she did go off the deep end here. She stopped seeing the MC, and grew more and more attached to the new stranger, stopping altogether when the MC left to go to college. But, after the man was killed in a gunfight, she went through rehab and started to turn her life around.

On the other hand, Diane was a waitress at a place the MC enjoys to eat at. The two often saw each other, and would occasionally chat and make small talk while he ordered. However, when a particularly inebriated customer started going a little too far, the MC intervened, and after a small scuffle outside, returned triumphant. However, Diane's family is... not the happiest when it comes to their daughter being "out in the world." They'd rather be able to "keep an eye on her" and when she was invited to visit, she disappeared for months.

Now, both girls are here, and want to get back together with him. Since he still cares very deeply for both of them, he's going to forgive a lot easier than most, and will eventually get back together with one or the other.

MY question is, though, how do I, who have grown attached to both of the characters and want them both to succeed, do so in a way that doesn't seem like I'm settling for one or the other?

This question could apply not only to straight, male-on-female relationships, but to any relationship.

I'm not trying to ask who is worse, or who to pick at the end. It's how do I "detach" myself from my characters in order to make a decision.

up vote 34 down vote accepted

There's another character in this equation: the MC. It's why this is called a love triangle rather than a love-decision or a love-fork.

Relationships are not like ordering "chicken or fish". The MC is completed, or complemented, differently by each woman. Figure out the chemistry between the main character and each woman – that means there is something new in his character when he is around each woman, something that grows and has its own story arc.

Who does he become when he is around the woman with the dark past? What does she bring out in him? How are they alike, and how are they "good" for each other? Is he afraid of being hurt again? Maybe he trusts her but not the drugs – and maybe that says something about his past.

How is he a different person when he is around the waitress who gets the wrong kind of attention? Is there an aspect of hero-worship? Is she more exciting? More fun? What is the downside of excitement? Is she maybe too flirtatious? Does she solve all problems by finding a man, and is her problem always some other man?

Each situation has a smaller story within it, a conflict and a reveal, something that makes us care.

Most of all what is the MC lacking when he is on his own? Why does he need a girlfriend at all? Why does he have to decide NOW? If we don't see any problem, we have no reason to feel one way or the other when it gets "fixed". If there are no stakes to him finding a relationship it's just stuff that happens.

It doesn't matter if he eats the chicken or fish. You can describe the the sauce and spices, and tell me how each is grilled or baked, but it's not important unless it actually changes the MC. The decision is not between Girl A and Girl B, it's between Relationship A and Relationship B. It's the relationships that you have to develop and make us care about because those are the things that cannot mutually co-exist.

Once you figure out what each of the relationships are actually about, they will likely have a natural resolution. One relationship may resolve itself, while the other moves into a new phase but with lingering issues – the conflict is more important to the story than the conclusion. Your MC should also be "solving" his issue about being single – whatever has held him back he makes a choice to move past it.

If it's still not clear at that point which relationship makes more sense then it probably doesn't matter to the story either way.

Obviously as an author, you are going to wind up with

1) No girls,
2) Girl 1,
3) Girl 2,
4) Both girls.

You have to decide. Probably, no matter the outcome, you should have him try with both girls. Take the one he will not end up with, so he discovers in the course of that relationship why he can't be with her, then have him try with the other girl, and (A) discover why he can't be with her either, or (B) discover she was the right girl all along.

The excuse for starting with the wrong girl can be simple: She called first, they dated, they slept together, then Girl 2 comes back, and he isn't a cheater, so he puts her in the friend zone. Until Girl 1 turns out to be a drunk, or drug user, or rage-a-holic, or she's into cosplay sex as a chipmunk and that weirds him out.

That covers situations (1,2,3) and situation (4), he ends up with both girls, probably means the girls are into each other, or you are telling a more modern tale of more open relationships, like multiple friends with benefits.

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    Or, plot twist and go with option 5) Both girls end up together – Thomo Nov 11 at 23:28
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    @Thomo: See Legend of Korra for a well-executed example of that. Although the male character did sorta fade into the wallpaper. – Kevin Nov 12 at 2:21
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    @Thomo +1, that's funny, but option (1) No Girls covers it. If they get busy after dumping him, hooray for girls that don't need no stinkin' men! – Amadeus Nov 12 at 18:40
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    @Thorno All 3 end up together. But this is a part of Both girls option. Plot twist: MC is tired of heterosexual relationships (/s). – rus9384 Nov 13 at 14:47

Let's broaden the question. You have two paths down which the plot can proceed. You find both equally appealing. How do you choose? Consider, then, this:

  • Which option offers more character growth, for the MC, and also possibly for other characters?
  • Which option offers more conflict? Conflict is the soul of a story, so more conflict is good. In effect, which option is more interesting?
  • Which option goes better with other elements of your story, with core philosophies you're trying to impart? How does this choice mesh with other choices the MC is making? What does choosing Option A over Option B tell us about the MC? What does it tell us about Right and Wrong?

Consider also whether there is a "third option". Are there some alternatives you haven't considered, or must the plot necessarily follow down either Path A or Path B? Could you perhaps surprise us with a twist ending that would be neither, or both, and provide even more conflict, even more character growth, be even more in line with what you want to say?

To answer the actual question that you asked:

how do I, who have grown attached to both of the characters and want them both to succeed, do so in a way that doesn't seem like I'm settling for one or the other?

by walking yourself and the reader through the process. Being in love with two women can be nerve-wracking and leave you in exactly this position you find yourself in: Frozen, unable to decide anything, stuck between the chairs.

Explore this feeling in your MC. Make him go through the decision process again and again and again. Show his pain, because you have a version of that pain in yourself. Bring it out into your story.

And then here is how it will end: Either by walking through the process, a decision will appear, a clear path will emerge from the fog and triumphantly, you and your MC both take it.

...or it ends in desaster because the girls won't wait forever and if he can't make up his mind, time and things happening will take them both away.

...or if you have a path for yourself that doesn't fit for your MC (e.g. you prefer one girl because you just find it easier to write her) then external circumstances make the decision for the MC. A sudden death by accident can take one of the girls, the other comforts him and he ends up with her but there's this nagging feeling if maybe he should have been with the other... well, you know, you basically set up a sequel where that conflict will be explored.

Sometimes it is a matter not of detachment, but rather of slipping into the MCs head and seeing where he is at.

Where do you want this story to go?

Why must he choose someone who has broken his heart as his potential life partner?

I have a character with multiple potential love interests and his relatives and friends ask him about that, how he feels about each. His answers tell them which way his heart is leaning even if he hasn’t quite made up his mind and does not think he knows which to choose.

If you have a character your MC talks openly with, have that character ask questions and that will clarify it in your mind.

What traits does each woman possess that makes them good potential lovers and why not some woman with whom he has no baggage?

If he starts dating Cassidy, how will Diane react? Will she care? Perhaps she finds out accidentally or he might tell her during one of their chats about the girl in his life. Will she think that her parents were right about him or might she just sit back and watch his life slide downhill?

How would he describe each to his best friend or parent?

Run each scenario through and see who would be a better match for him, then ask yourself do you want him to find his match or a mismatch? Will he find happiness with Diane or Cassidy? Will he find unhappiness when he realizes that he chose the wrong one?

Whichever direction creates the best story is the way to go, but get into their minds, don’t step away.

I don't think there's a real choice here; your main character has the opportunity to be with his first love, the new girl doesn't stand a chance, period. The only time I've heard of a married man leaving, not cheating on but actually walking away from, his wife was when he found he had the option of going back to his first. You don't forget the first person you fall in love with, there's a permanent "what-if?" that you always want to answer if you aren't lucky enough to spend the rest of your life with them. Your MC isn't with anyone and has the opportunity to answer his what-if, it may not last but it will be the first option he pursues unless he is most unusual.

  • The thing is, neither of them were ever married. – Kale Slade Nov 12 at 14:58
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    @KaleSlade Doesn't matter, the reason I mentioned marriage at all is that there is a lot of truth to the old saying that "married men don't leave there wives" as a rule they don't but that one actually did. – Ash Nov 12 at 15:01
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    @Ash You haven't been around many marriage break-ups, have you? Especially the really crappy, emotionally-abusive kind. As a rule, divorced people look at their exes and think "What in the name of God did I see in them?" and it's rare that they can even stay in the same room comfortably. Believe me, it's not sexual chemistry, it's the same unease that you'd feel sharing the room with a poisonous snake. – Graham Nov 13 at 0:55
  • @Graham I've been around around a fair few, several where the husbands couldn't stand to stay in the same country as their ex-wives afterwards; yet they didn't leave while they were still married, even when separated, they left the country the day the papers were signed though. – Ash Nov 13 at 9:20
  • As I am constantly stating, neither of the girls were married to the MC before or during the events of the book. – Kale Slade Nov 13 at 16:29

A school friend had a perfect way to make a difficult choice. He would toss a coin. If he was willing to accept the result then he went with it. If he resented the choice made by the coin, he would override it.

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    Hello chasly. While this is a common decision making strategy, maybe you'd like to expand your answer and make more relevant to the question? – Liquid Nov 13 at 9:55

If neither choice jumps out at you, the writer, as being the best choice for your story, you can always go back and revise earlier parts of the story so that one choice is clearly better (clearly better for the story, that is--it can still be a difficult choice for the character to make). The choice that your main character makes should tell us something about who he is and how the events of the story have shaped him. Maybe he makes a choice that seems wrong to the reader at first glance, or that strikes other characters as wrong, but is actually right for some specific reason. What's the reason? It's up to you. It depends what you want your story to be about.

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