When I was at school and just getting started with writing, I devoured shojo manga and anime. This somehow got the idea into my head that love triangles and complex love charts were the key to drama and therefore great storytelling. As such, I made sure that all of my stories had love triangles in the hopes that they would become better.
It was only when I became a little better at writing that I looked at my plots and realised that the love triangles I had shoehorned in for the sake of drama were completely unnecessary. They did nothing but add unneeded subplots and worst of all made my characters seem unlikeable.
Now I avoid love triangles as much as possible, or at the very least the ‘which boy should I choose’ variety (and yes, it is almost always a girl who has to choose between two boys). I also started to avoid reading stories that rely solely on love triangles for their drama. I’m clearly not the only one who feels this way; just look at the backlash against Twilight and its ‘Team Edward’ and ‘Team Jacob’ camps. But then again, there are also books like The Hunger Games which subvert the trend and make a love triangle work. So is it really possible?
These are the reasons I’ve found why love triangles seldom work:
- Creating unnecessary drama. As I mentioned above, many newbie writers, myself included, fall into the trap of thinking all love stories need love triangles to give them more drama. In fact, most of the time they merely create a pointless obstacle to the main couple getting together.
- Telling us who the ‘right’ type of love interest is. How many times have you read a book and wished that the protagonist got together with someone else, instead of the partner they ultimately chose? Even if that person is obviously wrong for them and in the worst cases abusive, they are meant to be together because the writer said so. If the protagonist had a fling with the ‘wrong’ person then they are punished for it before realising the error of their ways.
- There is always a backup boyfriend. The worst implication of love triangles is that if something happens to the chosen guy, it doesn’t matter that much because the girl has another guy who’s madly in love with her who she can run to. That person has to live with the knowledge that they were ultimately the second choice and only with the girl because they got lucky.
- And a backup love interest for the losing partner. How many love triangle stories have been resolved with a forgotten minor character showing up at the last minute and making an instant connection with the losing partner? The writer wants everyone to have a happy ending but can’t consider that a character getting over someone and doing something else with their life is an option. One of the reasons that even hardcore fans turned away from Twilight (I promise this is the last time I’ll use that as an example) was when the losing partner Jacob imprinted on Bella and Edward’s newborn daughter. I suppose the implication was supposed to be that he could tell that she would grow up to be his soulmate, but it came across as incredibly creepy and probably the worst possible way to end his story.
- The characters are turned into horrible people. The moment I stopped putting love triangles in my stories was when I realised that the characters I was trying to portray sympathetically were coming across as horrible because they were jealous of each other. It’s hard to like a character who will string along two different people and put them both through hell just because they can’t make up their mind who they want to be with. If done incorrectly, love triangles can make characters seem indecisive, cruel, malicious, and uncaring. There is also the trap that one of the love interests will be painted as a villain just to make the other look better by comparison. Think of Rose’s fiancé in Titanic for an example. It’s not particularly good writing when you need to show a character being mean to emphasise that the other character is nice.
- It’s obvious that one partner is going to either fail or be the villain. It’s not so much drama if we know that only one love interest will be chosen. Nine times out of ten that person is obvious from the outset, making the whole idea of a love triangle seem pointless. Love triangles involving villains or the above example of one partner being nasty are also far too common. These stories make it clear that the protagonist will be pushed into the loving arms of the person they were obviously going to end with while the other will spend their nights crying and eating ice cream.
- Everybody loves someone who doesn’t deserve it. Most of us are lucky to have just one person fall in love with us, so why does your protagonist get two or more? If your character is just such a nice person that many people would realistically be in love with them then fine. But chances are they aren’t, or your character isn’t as special as you think they are.
So is it possible to make love triangles work? It’s difficult but if your writing is good enough, then yes. The most important way I’ve found to do this is with good character development. Give both of your potential love interests clear goals, motivations and both positive and negative character traits to show genuine reasons why your protagonist would want to be with them. Develop your protagonist equally well so that the reader can believe why they are so beloved. If you are going to introduce a backup love interest for the losing party, develop that character as well and give them their own story arc. Unless you’re intentionally going for tragedy, leave every character in a good place by the end of the story with something they genuinely wanted and needed.
Writers, how do you make love triangles work in your stories? What do you think are the best and worst examples in fiction?