Writing a Quality Love Triangle

| Monday, January 14, 2013
Today's Tune: Ready or Not

I have a confession that you already know because I have confessed it several billion* times before: I FREAKING HATE LOVE TRIANGLES. I THINK THEY ARE (MOSTLY) THE WORST. More often than not, they create superficial tension, paint the protagonist as emotionally hurtful, provide excessive angsting, and somehow manage to turn the (usually female) main character into an object for two (usually male) characters to fight over like a chew toy. I don't like them. I rarely see them done well.

However, when they ARE done well, I think they can make a splendid plot element that shows a lot of great emotion and explores the nature of choice, who we are, and what we want. In these cases, I can get firmly behind them and maybe even find them -- GASP -- enjoyable. At their very best, they get under my skin and move me emotionally. Which just goes to show that even a humbug can change their tune if they find the right thing.

So I decided to compile a list of elements that, in my humble opinion, constitute a "quality" love triangle. As a disclaimer, I want to clarify that this is only my take on the subject, and I'm only one person. There are probably infinite ways to write a love triangle that's interesting and emotionally complex, and I don't have all the answers. If you want to tackle the love triangle trope and knock it out of the park in your own way, go for it!

So, here goes.

Writing a Good Love Triangle

Make the love interests believable, unique, strongly-drawn characters in their own right. If I'm going to believe that a character is equally attracted to and confused over their options, than I need to really understand why each love interest has that effect on them. They need to represent something different, they need to be fleshed out, and I need to really feel the chemistry with BOTH characters. There needs to be a real choice. Not just Bland Option #1 or Bland Option #2. Malindo Lo's newest novel Adaptation had what I felt was an understandable love triangle. The protagonist had real reasons to feel conflicted about her choices, and the two love interests represented very different things for her. On top of that, both characters had a unique and non-stock personality. I understood her connection and attraction to both.

Make the choice more than just between the LI's themselves. This moves into metaphor a little bit. The love triangles I respond to most are the ones where the protagonist's choice is about something bigger than just This Hot Person or This Other Hot Person. Does one represent her childhood and the other her adulthood? Is it her choice between war or peace? One more closely aligns with her personal beliefs and the other prefers a line of thinking she can't get behind? I want to see CHOICE. What are love triangles about if not making the choice of what you want and who you are?

Love comes in many forms. One of my favorite love triangles comes from the manga Fruits Basket. The sticking point in this series was that while both LI choices were attractive in their own right, and she cared for both in equal measure, the relationships evolved into a different sort of love. Relationships change, and one leg of the triangle came to view the protagonist as more of a sister -- or even mother -- figure. She felt the same. They were family, not lovers. This feels most successful when the relationship naturally evolves this way, rather than them being all hot-and-heavy-makeouts and then ten chapters later they're like "oh you're like a brother to me."

The conflicts are real. Too often, the tension built into love triangles circles around something superficial or inconsequential, like a silly misunderstanding or an out-of-character action. If I'm going to believe that the protagonist is going to walk away from someone she claims to love, the conflict needs to feel important and in-character. It needs to be personal and rooted in the protagonist's own choice. That means not going for "we can't be together because you/we/everyone will die." That's not a choice. That's forcing someone's hand. I want to know that the MC is walking away because this relationship isn't right for her, and that she's choosing to walk away for real reasons.

Avoid excessive and prolonged angsting. When it comes to love triangles, some amount of angsting is going to come with the territory. There's going to be confusion, sadness, and heartbreak. I wouldn't expect anything less. But the last thing I want to read about is constant waffling and 80% of their thought process dedicated to thinking about who they'll choose when there are other things to do and think about.

No jealousy for the sake of jealousy. I would be super mega excited if I never again saw a situation in which the MC is completely uninterested in a romantic/sexual relationship with the "best friend" until they finally move on and develop a crush on someone else. You have no idea how excited that would make me. It makes the protagonist seem so possessively selfish.

The love interests aren't in constant annoying competition and respect the MC's personhood/choice. I recently read the Song of the Lioness quartet by Tamora Pierce for the first time, and I was struck by the way the various love interests never fought over Alanna or tried to one-up each other. They were friends, even. When Alanna decided she wanted to become romantically entangled with one, her choice was respected by the other. She wasn't treated like a prize to be won, but as a person (aside from the argument that one of the LIs acted like an entitled child at one point, but that relationship didn't last). I don't LIKE reading about two (usually male) love interests talking around the (usually female) MC like this isn't her life and her choice. The muscle-flexing and snarky comments get really old really fast.

Don't ignore real chemistry in favor of ramming together two "intended" characters. Sometimes when we're writing, characters we never meant to have intense chemistry end up off the charts. Don't ignore that. Maybe your character isn't supposed to end up with the hot, broody one. Maybe they have better chemistry with the happy goofball for a reason. Remember and respect your MC's own personality. Legend of Korra I'm looking at you.

Put a fork in one relationship before moving on to the next. Sometimes relationships don't work out. Sometimes we fall madly in love and then life happens, people change, and things fall apart. I really wish I saw more cases of real relationships and love just not working out. Once that relationship is officially over, it leaves the protagonist open to finding a better one, and it avoids the complication of making them seem callous when they make out with one while involved with the other. Unless the relationships are all out in the open, that is.

* Probably not an exaggeration. Probably.

What do you love and hate about love triangles, dudes?


{ Old Kitty } at: January 14, 2013 at 6:18 AM said...

I'm totally going off piste here but at the moment my fave love triangle is in Les Mis (no I haven't read the book, I must I must!!) the musical and currently showing in cinemas near you! Love musicals me - and this one panned by one and all (well the initial theatre release anyway!) has a totally fab "love triangle" I really like. There's poor Eponine whom I root for lusting after silly Marius who only has eyes for doe eyed placid Cosette. And the way to solve this crises? Kill poor Eponine. LOL!

Anyway! What I hate most about love triangles is when the main person chooses the "wrong" one in my opinion. Like in Pretty in Pink - poor Duckie - that bit where he gives his blessing for Andie to go for Blane. Bleagh.

Take care

{ Andrew Leon } at: January 14, 2013 at 10:15 AM said...

I once saw an agent say (and this representative of the entire agency, not just her own, personal feelings, although they were that, too), that no book could actually be considered a book if it didn't contain a love triangle. My eyes almost fell out of my head. The agency she was representing was letting people know that they would not be accepting any submissions that did not contain a love triangle.

Personally, I find love lines complicated enough; there's no real need to add that extra point in there to make it a triangle.

{ Matthew MacNish } at: January 14, 2013 at 11:34 AM said...

Oh Korra got the triangle so wrong. That was the worst thing about that show.

{ Stephanie Ingrid Sarah Kristan } at: January 14, 2013 at 12:17 PM said...

Hm, that's a long list... Hehehe. In principle we agree with you, but when we reflect on a few "good" love triangles we've read, we see that they don't hit ALL of these. It's more like mix-and-match a handful of them. So apparently that's enough to satisfy us.

What's really grating is when the love triangle is clearly shallow and forced. That's a HUGE turnoff for us as readers, and really rather implies that the author didn't trust their hero/ine or story to be compelling enough on their own.

{ Stephanie Ingrid Sarah Kristan } at: January 14, 2013 at 12:17 PM said...

"Personally, I find love lines complicated enough; there's no real need to add that extra point in there to make it a triangle."

Haha, true that, Andrew Leon!

{ Morgan Hyde } at: January 14, 2013 at 1:16 PM said...

Speaking of Alanna's love life: did you know that in the first draft(s) of the quartet, back when it was just a single book (and for adults too), Alanna ended up with the other LI? But after that choice, the book just dragged because she was so unhappy, and so Tamora Pierce rewrote it all. (I can't find the source, but I've read it several times in the past, so I'm nearly certain it's true)

{ linda } at: January 14, 2013 at 7:27 PM said...

I am a huge disliker of love triangles, as well. I think it's because I'm already super picky about how characters handle romance, and if there are two love interests there's potential for double the fail -- which for me includes excessive angsting, mistaking lust for true love, prioritizing infatuation over dealing with real dangers, people being selfish idiots, etc. I've seen love triangles that didn't make me want to strangle everyone involved, but as those are rare, I am rather wary of love triangles in general. (Plus I get so mad when the one I was rooting for doesn't get the happy ending I wanted for him/her!)

{ Paul Anthony Shortt } at: January 15, 2013 at 4:10 AM said...

I hate when whichever LI seems to be "losing", for want of a better term, is just made to look bad or is humiliated for their feelings. Like if the heroine speaks to him in a condescending manner about how he does things (not just related to the romance, but also whatever quest or even day to day tasks are at hand), or the rival LI gives him a verbal (or even physical), thrashing over some minor disagreement. I just start wondering why this poor guy would want to be around the other two if that's how they treat him.

Why can't there be more love interests who aren't either bad boy jerks or complete doormats?

{ farseer-lolotea } at: March 20, 2013 at 2:54 PM said...

Heh.  What does it say that I knew you were talking about Korra in the chemistry chapter before you even said it?

{ Violet Knoxville } at: March 28, 2013 at 4:11 PM said...

Great article thanks for writing!

{ James Duckett } at: August 9, 2016 at 5:19 AM said...

Good stuff to think about. Thanks, Steph!

{ James Duckett } at: August 9, 2016 at 5:19 AM said...

Good stuff to think about. Thanks, Steph!

{ aliya seen } at: November 4, 2016 at 10:42 AM said...

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