Ah yes, the love triangle. It’s one of the staples of movies and television that somehow never gets old, and yet can easily feel stale if not done well. What actually separates the love triangles we get invested in from the ones that feel like lazy plot devices? That’s the question we’re going to explore today. We’ll be looking at it through the lens of one of the best of all time: Dawson Leary (James Van Der Beek) and Pacey Witter (Joshua Jackson) fighting for the heart of Joey Potter (Katie Holmes).
For those who have never seen Dawson’s Creek, the teen drama that aired on the WB from January 1998 to May 2003, let’s go through a brief recap of who these three characters are and how they relate to one another. Dawson and Joey have been best friends since childhood. Joey has a fairly troubled home life and has almost been psuedo-adopted by Dawson’s parents. It’s actually quite common for her to climb up a ladder into Dawson’s bedroom and sleep in his room, because for some reason Dawson’s parents are just cool with ALWAYS having a ladder up to their son’s open bedroom window at all times.
Pacey Witter is Dawson’s other best friend. In many ways he serves as a comic relief character, with his plot lines often playing second fiddle to Dawson and Joey in earlier seasons. While he and Joey have also grown up together, we get the sense that Pacey and Joey were always closer with Dawson than they were with each other. They both consider Dawson their best friend, but don’t necessarily consider each other best friends. The series begins when these three characters are 15 and still unsure what to do with all their new hormones. Let’s look at how some of these arcs play out, and what other people who want to write effective love triangles can learn from the Dawson/Joey/Pacey triangle. What are the reasons that this triangle works so well?
Reason 1: Dawson and Pacey both have lives outside of Joey.
Part of why Dawson, Joey, and Pacey work so well as a love triangle is because all three characters are established in their own right before the writers attempt to throw any of them into relationships together. We know Dawson has lived a relatively carefree life and loves making movies. We know Joey has had a troubled home life, dreams of escaping from Capeside, and channels her energy into academics since she sees it as a way out. We know Pacey is a bit of a goofball with no concrete ambitions for the future, and he’s not good at taking anything particularly seriously. And while it’s very obvious from Episode 1 that the show plans on bringing Dawson and Joey together at some point, it still takes an entire season defining who they are before that.
Furthermore, we also get to see how each of these three functions in relationships outside of the central triangle. In the case of Dawson, we get to see him chase after Jen. Pacey settles down into a serious-by-high-school-standards relationship with Andie before he realizes he has feelings for Joey. While Dawson is technically Joey’s first boyfriend, we also get to see her have an arc with Jack in Season 2, another arc with Eddie in Season 6, and several other shorter lived flings in between. We have a strong sense of who each of our central three people are when they’re single, and how they function in relationships with other personalities.
Part of why so many love triangles fall flat is because they’re clearly being used to advance the Favorite Couple’s arc. Writers know they want Character 1 and Character 2 to end up together, and they can’t think of a better way to demonstrate that than to bring in Character 3 who’s clearly wrong for either Character 1 or 2. Even Dawson’s Creek does this. In Season 3, Joey briefly dates A.j., some dude at a college who hosts her for a college tour.
On some level, we know that A.J. isn’t a serious contender. Why do we know that? Because we never learn anything about A.j. except what we need to know for Joey to see he’s not the one. A.j. doesn’t exist outside of Joey. He’s here solely to make Joey and Pacey ponder the feelings they have for each other, and force them to admit to things they otherwise might have hidden from each other. Whereas if we start with three fully fleshed-out characters that all have their own individual challenges outside of the triangle, it keeps us guessing about who will ultimately “win.”
Reason 2: Dawson and Pacey are both flawed, but in very different ways.
A big reason why it’s important to give characters concrete personalities before you start pairing them off is because we need to understand the pros and cons of both potential mates. In the best love triangles, there isn’t a clear right answer. When one potential partner is the obviously better choice, it’s hard to milk more than a few episodes out of the conflict without frustrating the audience. If writers attempt to do that, it can sometimes result in us thinking less of the character at the center of the triangle who has to make a decision. After all, how big an idiot do you have to be to NOT pick The Clear Winner who’s perfect in every way over the The Clear Loser? Dawson’s Creek runs into this issue later in its run when it tries to position Eddie as Pacey’s primary romantic rival rather than Dawson.
Eddie is not introduced until the sixth and final season of the show, so of COURSE audiences can’t really fall in love with him the same way some of us fell in love with Pacey, who’s been here since the beginning. We’ve gotten to watch Pacey grow up as the series went on, and watched many a Pacey/Joey cute couple moments. There’s just no way for Eddie to catch up in the amount of time he’s given. We also see Eddie do some pretty terrible things to Joey, such as move out of Boston without a proper goodbye. Watching Joey pine for Eddie when Pacey was RIGHT THERE saying he still loved her actually made me lose some respect for Joey.
But Dawson and Pacey each bring good qualities to their respective relationships with Joey while also presenting their own drawbacks. I think that’s important because you can get yourself into trouble by simply writing two different love interests who aren’t meaningfully different from one another. In some cases you’ll have one potential partner branded as “the bad boy” while the other is branded as a nerd or a goody two shoes, but ultimately both partners are reasonably attractive and reasonably nice to the main lead so who really cares? Maybe there isn’t a Clear Winner, but the resulting relationship will be functionally identical regardless of who our lead chooses, so we don’t care much about who wins.
But Dawson and Pacey have completely opposite ways of looking at the world. Dawson dreams of becoming the next Spielberg and 100% believes he can do it, completely naive about the curveballs that life can throw a person. Pacey has no real life direction or ambition, and often lets his low self-esteem keep him from moving forward. Both boys have different dynamics with Joey that result from their different histories with her.
Dawson has always been there for Joey, as has his family. They already trust each other with all their secrets. Dawson represents a comfort zone for Joey, and dating anyone OTHER than him poses an element of risk that Dawson doesn’t. His pie-in-the-sky dreams have an endearing puppy dog quality to them that the more pessimistic Pacey does not.
On the flipside, Pacey is able to understand and empathize with Joey’s troubled family situations in a way that the more sheltered Dawson doesn’t. He has a cheeky wit to him that has its own charm. He’s willing to make real sacrifices for Joey and her happiness while the more idealistic Dawson seems to think that if they’re meant to be, everything should just fall into place with little to no effort.
There’s so many ways in which Dawson and Pacey are starkly different. Yet at the same time, neither is so perfect that Joey can confidently stick with one for the entire series. That’s how the show simultaneously avoids the “Clear Winner vs. Clear Loser” pitfall AND the “so similar I don’t care who wins” pitfall. Because these boys bring such different things to the table, it’s actually believable that Joey could spend literal years of her life not knowing which one was right for her, if either. There’s endless room for Joey to pick one boy, second guess herself, then go back to the other one. That wouldn’t work if there was a Clear Winner. Even though I personally prefer Pacey, I can still understand why Joey would be drawn to Dawson because there’s so much history there. Because there’s positives and negatives to both choices, writers can have Joey waffle back and forth without it necessarily reflecting negatively on her.
Reason 3: Dawson and Pacey each face different relationship hurdles when they’re with Joey.
Point number three is perhaps just the manifestation of the first two points, but hey, we’re talking about triangles today so it all works out really. Joey, Dawson, and Pacey have all been defined outside the triangle, and Pacey and Dawson especially have very different personalities. It stands to reason than when Joey and Dawson are together, the challenges the face as a couple are very different from the challenges that Joey and Pacey face as a couple. That’s why we can follow these triangular trials and tribulations for so long without it getting old.
When Joey and Dawson are together a lot of their conflicts stem from the fact that these two are so used to each other, and used to things being easy. For nearly a decade, Joey and Dawson were able to be everything the other one needed without even having to try. As a result, they never learned how to have the kind of open, honest dialog needed to solve problems within a romantic relationship. Any time a conflict arises, the two get scared and run away from each other because the notion of conflict is just so foreign to them.
One of the things I love about Pacey and Joey is that they are able to face problems, talk them out, and figure out a solution. They move on an even stronger couple for having been through the conflict together. They don’t treat every single hurdle as an existential threat to the entire relationship, and that’s why they’re able to stay together as a couple for an entire season (Dawson could NEVER).
However, Pacey’s insecurity oftentimes gets the best of him. He has a chip on his shoulder, and spends most of the series expecting Joey to run back to Dawson. Even when the two have been a proper couple for months and Pacey is the “winner” (at least on paper) he still doesn’t fully trust Joey not to leave him for Dawson or some other guy. Joey understandably gets frustrated with this, feeling like she can’t quell Pacey’s fears no matter how hard she tries.
This is perhaps the true genius of the Dawson/Joey/Pacey triangle. The biggest flaw of each relationship are two sides of the same coin. Dawson and Joey fail because Dawson feels too secure, almost entitled to Joey. He’s used to getting what he wants without trying all that hard, so he never puts as much effort into their relationship as Joey needs. Pacey and Joey fail because Pacey is so insecure. In his mind, he will never be worthy of her no matter how hard he tries. He constantly feels like Joey could do better if she wanted to, and their breakup is only a matter of time. That anxiety gets the best of both of them in a perfectly poetic self-fulfilling prophecy.
All of this is to say that the best love triangles result from the best characters. When we’re invested in individuals, it’s easy to get invested in the relationships between those individuals. As with tv writing in general, the best way to convey what makes one character unique is to have them interact with a contrasting character. Dawson looks all the more idealistic precisely because Pacey is so cynical. When we have a likable lead forced to choose between two likable, yet flawed characters that feel like total opposites, that’s a recipe for a love triangle we can watch for years.