Love triangles in literature tend to have a polarizing effect on readers. Either readers enjoy love triangles, and their satisfaction of the novel enhances, or the love triangle destroys what would otherwise have been a good book.
Though love triangles are an established part of literature, it’s only in recent years that they’ve increased in popularity. Perhaps not in popularity of readers, but they are more frequently seen in novels, especially young adult novels.
A love triangle is a romantic relationship between three individuals. A few better known love triangles are:
- Katniss/Peeta/Gale in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
- Bella/Edward/Jacob in Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
- Heathcliff/Cathy/Edgar in Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
- The Phantom/Christine/Raoul in The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux (the novel that was adapted into Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical)
Typically, a love triangle involves one woman and two men, where the woman has difficulty choosing between the two men. While the woman cares for both men, the men usually are in competition with each other and usually fill archetypes. For example, one man is the woman’s childhood friend, while the other is the newcomer, a bad boy, a prince, etc.
Most times I’m not a fan of love triangles because often I find them to be trite. But if done well, a love triangle can be quite the adventure.
What makes a love triangle work?
- The protagonist isn’t sure of their identity. The two romantic choices can represent different aspects of the main character. Whomever the character chooses with show who the character wants to be, and who the character ultimately becomes. Will the protagonist become the hardened warrior, or choose a softer version of herself?
- Wish fulfillment. When faced with the choice between the bad boy and the good boy, in real life most individuals would choose the good boy. The good boy is practical, stable, and will be someone you can trust. However, in the fantasy world, the bad boy is much more exciting, and since fiction isn’t real, it’s easier to choose the intoxicating, bad boy, who’ll make you miserable in the long run, but who is great for a short while.
- The men in the love triangle are opposites. This option shows two different lives the protagonist can have. It’s not so much about the protagonist’s identity, but showing options. Will the protagonist go for the prince, who will provide the protagonist security and all her material desires, but who “was raised to be charming, not sincere,” or the rogue, who will be able to give her nothing but his love and loyalty? (quote by Prince Charming from Into the Woods)
- There is intense chemistry all around. The protagonist feels attracted to both men, and she could be happy with either choice. One of the aspects of love triangles that can get very annoying is when readers know that one choice is much better than the other, but the protagonist can’t see that.
A few things to watch out for:
- Making the entire story about the love triangle. When that occurs, it’s easy for the characters to turn into stereotypes and for the plot to simplify to the point of foolishness. The male characters do not exist just to be in love with the female protagonist. They have their own identities and personalities, responsibilities, quirks, loyalties, bad sides, etc.
- Sticking a love triangle into a work because it’s what’s popular. If the story doesn’t call for a love triangle, don’t put one in. Readers can tell when a romantic relationship feels forced. If there’s no chemistry, readers aren’t interested.
What do you think? Are you for or against love triangles?
(Photo courtesy of Greg Jordan.)