The love triangle. Let me guess, the first thing that comes to mind is an indecisive teenage girl toying with the emotions of two hunks who are too good for her anyway. Am I right?
This negative connotation is understandable. If executed poorly, a love triangle can leave the reader feeling annoyed at best (Make up your mind already!), disgusted at worst (Does she EVER think of anyone but herself?!). But allow me to offer a counterpoint. Good or bad, love triangles can certainly keep readers turning pages (am I the only one who can’t rest until I find out which one the character ends up with?) and tend to prompt a lot of discussion and debate. When done well, a love triangle can also give thought-provoking insight into the nature of the human heart. In an ideal world, we would all identify our one true love in an instant, with no cause for confusion or heartache. But love triangles reflect real life in that often romance turns out to be much more complex, as circumstances throw people together and unexpected, sometimes even conflicting, feelings arise.
What is it, then, that separates a compelling love triangle from a frustrating one? I’ve identified four factors that play a critical role: how the love triangle comes about, how the protagonist treats the competing love interests, the duration and prominence of the love triangle within the story, and the way it’s resolved in the end.
As a side note, below the discussion of each factor I’ve included examples of series that handled that particular factor well. The examples come from:
- The Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer
- The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins
- The Enslaved series by Katie Clark
- The Selection series by Keira Cass
Beware that the examples include spoilers, so you may want to skip over them if you’re planning to read any of these series in the future. And I tend to use female pronouns since each of my examples happens to feature a female protagonist, but the following analysis would apply equally to a male protagonist.
From my perspective, here are the ways in which the different factors play into creating a compelling love triangle:
Formation of the Love Triangle
Let’s face it, the character torn between two love interests has gotten herself into a messy situation. The only way out of her predicament is to break someone’s heart. Therefore, it’s important to examine how the character got into this fix in the first place. If her reasons are understandable, readers will be sympathetic to the character’s plight. If not, readers are more likely to blame her for maltreatment of the rejected love interest. Generally, the more outside factors playing into the creation of the love triangle, the better, as love triangles created by the actions of the character herself tend to be harder to forgive.
Hunger Games: Katniss is content with her close friendship with Gale until the Hunger Games puts her in a dilemma where the best way to help Peeta survive is to pretend to feel more for him than she does, making it hard to fault her for the resulting quandary.
The Selection: America is separated from her first love, who appears to have rejected her, when she is chosen to participate in the Selection, placing her in an understandable position when her friendship with Prince Maxon begins to evolve into something deeper.
Treatment of Love Interests
No one envies the position of competing love interests, right? They’re faced with the turmoil of alternating hope, confusion, jealousy, and fear of rejection. So how the main character interacts with them has a significant impact on the reader’s opinion of her. Is she sympathetic to the pain of the competitors, and keenly aware of her own confusion? Or is she using the love interests for her own pleasure or gain? The answers to these questions can be a distinguishing factor between effective versus ineffective love triangles.
Enslaved: When Hana realizes she will have to choose between conflicting love interests, she continually assesses how her behavior may be hurting each of them, and tries to refrain from physical affection with either until she has sorted out her feelings, thus demonstrating her kindness in the midst of the pain she has inadvertently caused.
Duration and Prominence
Even a love triangle that gets off to a promising start can crash and burn when it comes to this factor. A love triangle that unnecessarily prolongs the misery and confusion of the competing love interests is sure to lose a reader’s sympathy. But length alone (as measured in time or pages) won’t necessarily make or break the love triangle. A related factor is where the focus of the story lies. If the protagonist is saving the world in the midst of conflicting feelings for two different love interests, the reader can more easily forgive her for not making the decision between them her first priority. On the other hand, if the foremost action in the plot revolves around the main character’s interactions with the love interests and her wavering emotions, readers will be much more likely to feel impatient and annoyed if the decision drags on.
Hunger Games and Enslaved: Katniss and Hana are each trying to defeat the leadership of their respective countries, giving them ample excuse to defer the resolution of their love triangles.
The Final Choice
At the end of the day, readers are most interested in seeing how the love triangle is resolved. In order for it to be interesting and suspenseful, both love interests must have qualities the protagonist is looking for and be able to provide a potential future for her. So how is she to choose? Her final decision, and the reasoning behind it, will have a lasting impact on how the reader looks back on the book or series. If the rejected love interest proves too poor a candidate in the end, readers may feel misled, wondering why this negative quality didn’t come out in the character before. On the other hand, if the love interests stay on equal footing throughout, it may be hard for the reader to truly feel happy for the one the protagonist ends up choosing. It is a difficult balance that can make or break the final resolution of the book or series.
Hunger Games: I found Katniss’ choice of Peeta because he represented hope to be the perfect answer given her troubled mindset following her participation in the Hunger Games and the resulting rebellion against the Capitol.
Twilight: While I wasn’t entirely satisfied with Bella’s choice of Edward (I must admit I was on Team Jacob), I have to acknowledge Stephenie Meyer’s creativity in resolving the love triangle in a way that didn’t leave Jacob drifting out of Bella’s life forever with his tail between his legs – pun intended J
Now it’s your turn! Are you a fan of love triangles, or do you avoid them like the plague? What factors do you think contribute to making a love triangle enjoyable versus painful to read? What other examples can you think of, and were they well-executed?
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An avid reader since birth (her parents claim she often kept them up until 11:30 p.m. begging to hear just one more story), Laurie Lucking discovered her passion for writing after leaving her career as a lawyer to become a stay-at-home mom. She is an aspiring author of Christian YA romantic fantasy and co-founder of Lands Uncharted, a blog for fans of clean YA fantasy. A Midwestern girl through and through, she currently lives in Minnesota with her husband and two young sons. Laurie enjoys making new friends on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Pinterest.