My Take On How Love Triangles Could Be So Much Better Than They Are
Everyone seems to hate a love triangle. I know people who will actually toss an otherwise perfectly good book across the room the moment the slightest hint of one rears its ugly head. Just google the love triangle and you’ll find about three hundred billion bloggers and critics willing to pen whole articles devoted to why they suck as a literary device.
But why is the love triangle so universally despised?
The main, although far from the only argument, is that it’s so completely overdone. There’s totally a case for that. They’re everywhere, from the generally excellent Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo (although that could technically be called a love square) to the generally less excellent (in my opinion) Vampire Diaries. The Infernal Devices, Twilight, The Hunger Games, and now the Crown’s Game too! It’s no wonder readers are sick of them.
But really, are they more over used than the “Will they, won’t they?” I mean think about it. The examples of this device are endless too; Lizzie and Mr Darcy, Jane and Mr Rochester, Karou and Akiva, Ron and Hermione, Ross and Rachel! These couples are almost as prevalent in literature and pop culture as their three-wheeled counterparts.
But people don’t hate them anywhere near so much. Why? Well IMHO the most convincing argument many use against love triangles is the issue of quality. People don’t mind the “Will they, won’t they?” device, not because it’s less over done, but because it’s usually much better done. People don’t hate love triangles because they’re everywhere, people hate them because they’re usually terribly written.
But, I thought, if that’s the case, does that mean that love triangles always have to suck, or would it be totally possible to write one that worked for both the plot and the reader? Short answer? Yes, with an “if”. IF, you were a good writer, and IF you actually tried to be original.
But how would you write an unorthodox love triangle?? Well, I’ve come up with some suggestions below.
1) NO OBVIOUS CHOICES, PLEASE!!!
Ok, sorry for the caps lock “shouting”, but these really suck. I mean, the whole point of the love triangle is to create dramatic tension, right? But how can you do that if the whole way along you make it one hundred percent clear that your MC will wind up with the guy she immediately fell for in the beginning? (Damn insta-love too, damn it to book hell!)
Twilight was a terrible offender for this. Did anyone really expect that Bella might suddenly change her mind and end up with Jacob? No? Yeah, me neither. And even in the Grisha trilogy we all kind of knew Alina was never going to run off with the Darkling. He was more than a bit evil after all.
A good love triangle would be one where the MC could and might genuinely end up with either of the wannabe boyfriends. A great triangle would leave us guessing her final choice, right up until the end, and perhaps even beyond. After all, if art is supposed to mimic life, why would a conflict end at the final page?
Example? Maybe our MC chooses one, but continues seeing the other too, on the sly. Maybe it’s ok for our main character to do something kind of mean like that. Not everything in this world has a tidy resolution, and not everyone is nice all the time. Even basically good people can act like jerks. And it’d be interesting, even though not perfectly romantic.
2) You Don’t Have To Have Two Good Options.
In a love triangle, there is so often a bad boy, vs good boy dynamic. This could actually be fine, if the bad boy was actually, you know, bad. Take Jace, in the Mortal Instruments, for example. He’s sassy, he’s arrogant, and he’s had a troubled life. Seems like a bad guy? But no, because ultimately he’s a good guy at heart, as is made all too clear throughout.
The problem with this is actually, there’s no real danger for our MC. Her true choice here is actually between “safe, responsible, boy next door, good guy” and “snarky, arrogant, edgy good guy”. Where are the stakes? Either way, she gets a basically good guy who LOVES HER VERY MUCH.
Even when we do get a genuinely dangerous guy in our triangle (or square), it’s always made all too obvious that our protagonist would never really choose them in the end! (Yes, Grisha Trilogy again. I really did like those books, honest!)
So why can’t we have a real a**hole in our triangle, one who we truly fear our character may actually fall for?
I think writers fear that we won’t like an MC who could make such a mistake. But I don’t think that’s fair to the audience or to women. The assumption is that, what…? We think that all women who fall for narcissists are weak or stupid? That we’ll then hate our MC for being so dumb? Not so! The whole thing about manipulative narcissists is that they can be terrifyingly convincing. Some of the very smartest women I know have fallen for a total d**k at one time or another. Wouldn’t it create some real drama if we saw a character we liked gradually being drawn into a relationship by a charming, convincing, secret jerk, and losing out on someone truly good?
I think it would, at least, and we get that kind of dynamic too rarely, in my opinion.
3) Our MC Doesn’t Have To Be Entirely Preoccupied With Romance!
Ok, in point one I argued for no resolution at all. But if you do have one, why does it have to be so predictable? Why is it that in almost every series that includes the dreaded triangle element, the girl ultimately ends up choosing one of the guys to be with FOREVER? Except Tessa obviously who got them both!
Our MCs in YA are young, almost always under 20. How many of you fell madly in love and got married before you were 20? Some people do of course, but most people don’t. Most people at least like to finish school before committing to one person for ever and ever and ever.
And why should the girl have to pick a guy at all? Call me a crazy feminist, but wouldn’t it be an interesting outcome if she turned them both down? What if she told them both to stop fighting over her like a couple of territorial gorillas, because she was off elsewhere to do something more important? It would certainly turn that boring feeling of inevitability on its head.
I read a criticism of the Hunger Games that totally resonated with me. Katniss is a badass. She’s a warrior, catapulted into the van guard of a revolution, determined to protect the people she loves and find a way to survive. Why would she care so much about trying to pick between two guys? Katniss has more important things to worry about! Katniss is better than that! Bella might not be, but Katniss totally is!
Personally I’d love it if the protagonist ended a love triangle by telling them both to shove it. Hey, or she could even pick another woman! Go off with the too often under-written, underappreciated best girlfriend! I’d read that!
Well there they are, my rules for building better, less clichéd, more interesting love triangles. I could actually go on for twenty more, but this post is already twice as long as I planned.
What do you think? Do you think a love triangle can ever work, or do you think every last one of them is doomed to corniness?