Bella | Edward | Jacob
Katniss | Peeta | Gale
Elena | Stefan | Damon
Rose | Jack | Cal
Marianne | Brandon | Willoughby
The list goes on and on.
Especially in the Young Adult (YA) circuit, love triangles are popping up more and more.
A Love Triangle occurs most often when one character has romantic feelings for two suitors. Using Twilight as an example, Bella is at the center of the love triangle with Edward and Jacob vying for her love and leaving her conflicted. This device is often used to add tension and drama to a story.
Since we’re approaching wedding season, I figured this was as good a time as any to talk about love triangles. As with a number of things in writing, there’s the good and there’s the bad. Sometimes a love triangle is what makes the reader fall in love with the story, but it can just as easily be the thing that breaks the story.
Love Triangles Shouldn’t Be The Only Angles
As I’ve mentioned, love triangles seem to be a sort of go-to for writers, especially in the YA genre.
Sometimes, however, it can feel like a love triangle is inserted in there because maybe the author thinks the debate it might spark among readers could help promote their book, or because it’s a popular trope.
In my mind, this leads to one of two outcomes
You can eliminate the love triangle and the story falls flat.
You can eliminate the love triangle and it has little effect on the overall story.
In the first scenario, this happens when a story relies too heavily on the love triangle. The entire plot revolves around it. Twilight is a common example of this.
In the second, the love triangle is completely irrelevant and doesn’t have too much of an impact on the story, as is the case with The Hunger Games.
In regard to the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale in The Hunger Games, while the romance is not at the forefront of the trilogy, there is something to be said for its existence.
As you might know, The Hunger Games is a dystopian YA series about an annual event where each District of Panem offers up two children to compete in a televised fight to the death as the government’s way to keep everyone in line after a war known as the Dark Days. Katniss volunteers as Tribute in place of her younger sister and is sent into the Games with Peeta.
The Hunger Games does a phenomenal job of creating an immersive world, touching on politics and history and other deep issues. But a fair amount of the hype surrounding the trilogy comes out of its love triangle.
This is one of the few times where a love triangle really doesn’t have too great of an effect on the overall plot but is still important to the story as a whole. The Games are one of many ways the government of Panem aims to distract its citizens from its corrupt ways, and draws attention to Katniss and Peeta’s “romance” as a way to keep its viewers interested. Katniss and Peeta keep this showmance going as a means of survival since sponsors are becoming more invested in them.
Similarly, the investment in the romance of The Hunger Games spread to its audience. Some readers were waiting with bated breath to see if Katniss would find herself with Peeta or Gale by the series’s conclusion, even though there is so much more to the story than that. In this instance, life imitated art. So even though it does feel unnecessary in a government-mandated Battle Royale turned Revolution, the love triangle does have its significance.
When introducing a love triangle into your fiction, think about how much your plot depends on it.
Personally, I like to make sure each character has their own storyline apart from the main plot. Sure, you can have a love triangle as the main plot, but my advice is to make sure that each person involved in that love triangle has their own life apart from it. Maybe Character A is trying to prepare for the opening of his sister’s art gallery, Character B is tying up some loose ends from her messy divorce the year before, and Character C is vying for a promotion at work and busting his butt to impress his boss, all while dealing with their involvement in a love triangle.
Remember, even though there are a bunch of authors who have implemented love triangles in their fiction, that doesn’t mean it’s a requirement for your book. Sometimes, it can feel like artificial drama. If it works with your story, go for it. But don’t force yourself into writing one if you don’t want to.
Eligible Bachelors (and Bachelorettes)
One of the most important to be considered when adding a love triangle dynamic is to make sure all three parties are worthy of the desired affection.
While under-developed characters vex me in general, it’s especially irksome in a situation where two or more people are vying for the Mary-Sue’s heart and leave me wondering what the heck they see in her/him.
Each of the characters in your love triangle should have qualities that make them stand out. What makes Character A so desirable that two people are attracted to them? What is it about Character B and Character C that makes it so hard for Character A to figure out their feelings?
Does Character C have more compassion than Character B, but B has the stronger work ethic? Character A might have the know-how to run a business at an executive level, but Character B presents more street smarts.
Additionally, these attributes should extend beyond “Oh, she’s got a smokin’ bod” or “He’s hella rich.” For me, I like to see the conflict reach a personal level.
Maybe Character B and Character A have known each other since the first grade but fell out of touch after one of their families moved the summer before middle school only to be reunited shortly after Characters A and C have started dating.
Or maybe it’s a historical piece Character A is the kind of guy Character B’s parents want her to marry to strengthen the ties between their two kingdoms but Character C is a peasant.
I want to see why the love triangle exists. Why is there conflict? What about both suitors is making this so difficult for the person caught in the middle?
Each individual involved in a love triangle should be just that: an individual. Make them unique. Make them independent. Give them qualities that make your reader feel conflicted about who they would rather see end up together.
Introduce the Bachelors Behind Doors Number One and Two
What do I mean by this?
Let the reader spend some time with both suitors.
My all-time favorite movie is Titanic. Even though it’s set about a century after my stories in 1912, it was once of my biggest influences for Guises to Keep because of the way it portrays both the first and third class, including Jack and Caledon’s lives apart from Rose. We get to see them when they aren’t presenting themselves a certain way to win her over (although, in all honesty, Jack really doesn’t do as much in this regard as Cal and lets Rose have full reign in their relationship).
Now, this isn’t exactly a love triangle since Rose’s engagement to Cal is strictly a matter of money and maintaining her social status after *something* happened with her father that left her and her mother with a, “legacy of bad debts hidden by a good name,” and she doesn’t have any feelings for him other than necessity, whereas she clearly has feelings for Jack.
However, we do see that both Jack and Cal have multiple facets to them.
Cal likes to be in charge and reacts poorly to not being in control of a situation, especially when it comes to Rose~who, for the record, he does care a great deal for, but fails to show well because he was likely raised in an environment where one demonstrates one’s affections by showering their beloved with expensive things, hence his giving Rose the infamous Heart of the Ocean.
Jack, however, is able to stand his ground a lot better. Rose’s mother makes a point to make his steerage known to the entire dinner party when he joins them in first class, but Jack handles her snide comments well in a way that really does charm the crowd (and puts Cal on edge). And once the ship is sinking, Jack is the one who demonstrates a little more composure, finding several ways of navigating the ship despite the frigid water blocking off pretty much every pathway, and even stopping to help a few people as he goes.
Cal’s first instinct is to throw money at his problems and try to buy his place in a lifeboat.
Full disclosure: I’ll likely end up writing an entire post on Cal because he is honestly my favorite antagonistic characters (I’m reluctant to call him a villain) and there is a LOT of material I am prepared to cover. You’ve been warned.
The point I’m trying to make is that both Jack and Cal are given chances to demonstrate their real selves, and the characters involved in your love triangle ought to do the same. Let your audience see how they are when their love interest isn’t around (which may be tricky to do in a first-person narrative like Twilight). Let your characters exist apart from the love triangle so there’s more to them than being Bachelorette Number Two.
Consider the Point
Titanic’s romantic conflict isn’t a Love Triangle in the sense that Twilight’s is.
With Titanic, Rose isn’t all that torn up by having to choose between Jack and Cal, but it’s their respective situations that complicate things. Two people are interested in the same person.
Twilight, however, is a little more on the angsty side and puts Bella in the position of developing romantic feelings for both Edward and Jacob. One person is interested in two different people.
Both examples have three people facing the same problem.
One of the common criticisms of implementing Love Triangles in fiction is the feeling of the protagonist feeling wishy-washy as he or she vacillates between two potential suitors, and readers might become frustrated as this character leads the others on for one or more books.
In my own experience, I have found that creating situations where the conflict that sparks the Love Triangle is something beyond mere attraction makes for a more compelling story.
This might be one of the reasons I typically gravitate towards using Titanic as an example of a good love triangle.
Rose is caught in the middle of more than just two men. There’s the influence of her mother and society. There’s her family’s financial situation depending on her marriage to Cal for security. Rose, like Cal, would have been raised in a way with a set of expectations.
One of my favorite moments in the entirety of the film is the one just before Rose joins Jack for the “flying scene,” where she sits with her mother and other women at tea.
In that scene, her mother says, “The purpose of university is to find a suitable husband. Rose has already done that.”
This furthers the understanding that Rose’s only objective in life was to marry well. Like Cal, she’s been brought up so that she knows her place.
And then there’s Jack tumbleweed-blowing-in-the-wind Dawson who just goes with the flow.
Rose isn’t just torn between two love interests, but two lives: one where she has a set plan to obey and another that is led by the unknown.
Love Triangles, no matter who is involved or who is attracted to who, can be made more interesting when their conflict is built on things other than just who is attracted to who. Consider what is at stake if Character A ends up with Character B vs Character C. What path would that put them on? What would they gain and what would be lost?
This isn’t to say you should treat Love Triangles as a business proposition (nor should any romance be considered in such a way), but it is important to assess the stakes at play in your story for all of the characters involved in the Love Triangle.
With a love triangle, things are going to get more complex because you’re not writing a single romantic relationship. Don’t leave one feeling unfinished because you’re so focused on creating the OTP of your WIP.
Love triangles, at this point in time, do feel a little cliche. Sometimes, they aren’t even necessary, but the only love triangle that is absolutely unnecessary is a love triangle that is poorly written.