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 TriangleMake 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?