Whether you enjoy them or despise them, love triangles are a literary staple. It would be difficult to find a reader who hasn't come across this trope from time to time. But despite their frequency, there can be some pretty big differences between them—how they're constructed, the role they play in the story, and what they add
Whether you enjoy them or despise them, love triangles are a literary staple. It would be difficult to find a reader who hasn’t come across this trope from time to time. But despite their frequency, there can be some pretty big differences between them—how they’re constructed, the role they play in the story, and what they add (or don’t add) to the character development. And because love triangles can provoke such different reactions, we at WWAC decided to get together to talk our experiences and approaches to this often divisive trope.
Ray Sonne: I am so very tired of love triangles. It’s clear that they became what the publishing industry sought out after Twilight, except while it worked for Twilight, because that book was intended to be trashy romance smut, it doesn’t work for every young adult novel. For Twilight, the love triangle was most of the plot. For many other young adult novels, it makes no sense why there’s a love triangle present at all. Presumably, it’s because the author and publishers expect their teenage girl demographic to project themselves into the main character, and they want them to feel desirable, but that doesn’t mean the dynamic fits structurally.
And speaking of two boys, love triangles are often still written as super heteronormative. Even when the stories are set in the future! What, you really think the future is filled with monogamous straight people only? Just bang them both, girl, and get it over with. If they loved you that much, they’d let you keep each other! Hell, while you’re at it, add a fourth person and get yourself a girlfriend, too.
Wendy Browne: Love triangles are on the YA checklist that I am so fond of. Read: Hate hate hate. That said, while I do hate all the tropes that YA authors tend to fall back on or are forced into by publishers seeking the next Twilight, I am not totally opposed to them, if they are done well by serving a purpose for the lead character’s development beyond selling #TeamWhoever t-shirts.
Jamie Kingston: I take love triangles on a case by case basis. Some are well written. Some are cliche, and I don’t invest in either suitor. Some are so well written that I actually wish a threesome was the resolution.
Paige Sammartino: I dislike love triangles for the very selfish reason that the protagonist and I never seem to agree on which love interest is the right one. My heart’s been broken by more YA love triangles than by causes outside of books. Taking personal bitterness out of the equation, I agree with Jamie that some love triangles work really well and others don’t. I always dislike when a love triangle feels tacked on for drama, but I respect when authors put effort into building those relationships and balancing the love stories and plot.
Romona Williams: I am fine with love triangles, as long as they’re done well. Just like two-person romances (a love line) or a rejection of romance (a love circle): If it’s well crafted, it’s welcome on my bookshelf. While it is extremely doubtful that I will ever read a book because there is sexy intrigue, I am totally open to a plot that happens to contain elements of “will they or won’t they?” or “who will s/he choose?!”
Emma Houxbois: I’m into it when there’s a genuine dilemma at work and it doesn’t seem to be perpetuated just to cycle through basic bad behavior and misunderstandings that any reasonable person would talk through with another person.
What do you think makes up a good love triangle?
Ray: About the same thing that makes up any romance. Romantic subtext, sexual tension, a slow build-up. So that by the time the novel reaches the point where the character kiss, the reader wants it so bad they almost scream. Love triangles where both parties aren’t opposite sex to the protagonist are very nice, too.
Wendy: Everything Anna Tschetter describes in her piece, “In Defense of the Love Triangle.”
Jamie: Both characters vying for the affections of the third have to be complementary. I don’t like it when there’s a good boy/bad boy dynamic, and which will the girl choose?? When it’s just about attraction without the relationship having meaning beyond the hormonal surging.
Paige: A good love triangle is one in which the end result isn’t telegraphed. If I can tell after the first book in a trilogy which love interest is endgame, why bother? In those cases, authors should just write the couple they want to write and put aside the triangle gimmick. Jaime hit the nail on the head when she bemoaned the prevalence of the good boy/bad boy dichotomy as well; triangles that rely too heavily on tropes or put a protag between two polar opposites feel formulaic.
Romona: Tension. I need to be convinced that there would be an actual attraction between the characters and that there would be understandable reasoning for each relationship to take place. I’m not a big fan of Janet Evanovich’s writing, but I completely get how Stephanie Plum would be into Ranger (passion, sex, adventure) and also why Joe Morelli would be hot (funniness, comfort, sweetness). That is a successful love triangle. Meanwhile, True Blood didn’t work for me, because Eric Northman was clearly the best choice. Bill was awful, and I found the conflict unconvincing.
Emma: A situation that heightens the emotions involved and feels germane to the story. I’ve been told that there’s supposedly a love triangle in the Hunger Games books, but I’ve yet to actually find it or puzzle out what it could possibly offer that narrative if it really is there.
If you tend to avoid love triangles in literature what is it that makes them off putting?
Ray: Mostly that they’re entirely straight and offer nothing new. I could give you a pass if you write nothing new, BUT a queer love triangle because queer readers don’t have the privilege of getting as many stories as straight people. I’m bisexual, so you’d think that heterosexual love stories would still appeal to me, but actually I’ve been sick of them for at least the last five years now. When straight romances aren’t biased and imbalanced due to friction between gender roles, they’re still boring.
Another thing straight people don’t think of is that it’s quite difficult to find other queer people in real life, to date or otherwise. If anyone needs the fantasy of being able to pick between two extremely tempting love interests, it’s queer readers.
Wendy: I don’t actively avoid them unless that’s all the description of the book is pushing. I feel that way about romance in general in YA books, because the characters seem to so often be reduced to their romantic and sexual parts, as if that’s all there is to young adults. When the plot and character development (or lack thereof) can only exist if the protagonist has to focus first and foremost on their romance options, then I’m going to drop that story like it’s hot.
Paige: If I’m reading a romance-driven story, I’m more apt to seek out New Adult or just plain romance novels versus YA, so I don’t encounter as many love triangles as I did in my reading in high school. The romantic subplot is enough of a YA staple that I still read plenty of triangles across genres, though. The major deal-breaker is when the romantic subplot usurps the actual plot, either in how much time is devoted to it or how much weightier the drama feels compared to the actual plot. I get that experiences like first love are even more heightened for teenagers, but when love blinds them to everything, I feel like the narrative isn’t giving teens enough credit. If the world is ending, a teenager can prioritize the world ending.
Emma: I don’t know that I avoid them so much as I just don’t really encounter them in the novels I read or they’re about straight people and I don’t care! I’ve never been a romance reader because it’s typically a secondary or tertiary concern for me, and the genre is just plain never going to deliver anything that reflects my interests. Queer as it manifests as a political identity is not a sensibility I ever see being reflected in romance writing in any kind of significant way because it actively resists so much of the fundamental building blocks of that kind of writing. The L Word model of sort of aspirational petit bourgeoisie with a dollop of rough trade is what I’ve mostly observed there. What I’m interested in only really manifests in urban fantasy and other genres that don’t really advertise relationship dynamics on the jacket, or if they do, it isn’t a huge part of the story.
Ray: I didn’t think Erin Bow’s love triangle in The Scorpion Rules was perfectly done, yet I still enjoyed it. The main character, Greta, never explicitly states what her sexuality is, but I could easily read her as a fellow bi person. And that’s the first time I’ve ever been able to do that in a published novel!
Wendy: Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle series comes to mind. The book actually starts with Blue’s prophecy about true love’s kiss, which implies that the romance is at the forefront, but the series goes so far beyond that. The love that comes with friendship and family are the priority, and the love triangle develops into something quite interesting and more diverse by the end.
I’ll also add Sarah J. Mass’ Throne of Glass—but only that book. Caelena develops two wonderful relationships with the prince and his captain of the guard in the first book, based on her various interests and involvement with them, and because the two men are good friends, there’s no competitive aspect to it. However, all of this starts to fall apart by the second book, and by the third, when another love interest is introduced, Caelena’s purpose as an assassin and lost queen seem to be a distant second to her need to make kissy face and prance around in lingerie in scenes that are jarringly out of character. When Maas let’s Caelena develop strong friendships with the other characters, it’s a beautiful thing. When she’s just fulfilling all the Tumblr shipping requests, it makes me rage.
Elizabeth May’s The Falconer is on my YA short list, because May takes some of the “necessary” YA tropes, like the love triangle, and subverts them quite nicely.
Jamie: DC for a while had a Barbara Gordon/Dick Grayson/Koriand’r love triangle. That was interesting. Both women were powerful in different ways and complemented Dick in different ways. Plus, they both had respect for each other and there was no pending cat fight over whether he chose one of them or the other.
Emma: As far as proper novels, go, uh, The Millennium Trilogy. Not really a love triangle in the sense of how it typically manifests, but there was a lot of time spent on examining Erica Berger and Mikael Blomkvist’s perspectives on polyamory and how Mikael’s kind of blythe, self serving vision of it alienated and confused Lisbeth.
A situation in comics that I really enjoyed was how Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti handled Harley dating Mason Macabre in the context of her relationship with Poison Ivy. Harley finds out that Ivy reached out to Mason, and after a certain amount of anxiety on the matter, resolves that she doesn’t need to know what was said. It was a fun moment of emotional maturity that saw her call out cruddy sitcom style writing, but it also effectively outed her as polyamorous.
The most recent volume of Sunstone was really unique, because there wasn’t really a love triangle going on, but the appearance of one created this escalating conflict of personal anxieties that translated into a pretty astounding sense of urgency and heightened emotion. I guess in all three examples, the key to them working as compelling stories is that how they explore where polyamory can both work and break down rather a strict binary choice. You see the joke a lot that polyamory is the cure for love triangles and indecision over who to ship, but I treasure stories where the potential pitfalls are embraced just as much as the benefits.