The Art of the Love Triangle

There are two ways to incorporate romance into a story as a subplot: two people falling in love, or a love triangle.  Straight romance is boring.  If you have two people in love through the entire book, nothing ever happening to change their relationship, it is tedious.  Romance, if you want it to be a plot or a subplot, will only move forward by change.  Thus, if two people have the same degree of affection for one another through the entire three-hundred page book, how successful do you think that subplot was in interesting the reader?  I’ll answer for you– it wasn’t successful.  Instead, it was just a fact, that these two people love each other.  That’s great if you only want to mention romance as part of the setup for the story, but if you want it as an active part, it must be active.  (Surprise…)  The love triangle was invented as a tool to heighten conflict without moving the plot forward much at all.  What a love triangle will do for a story is it takes the romance of a character and puts it through constant contortions in an effort to make it matter to the reader.  If the reader is like me, he or she won’t care at all because he or she absolutely loathes love triangles.

A love triangle is defined as a relationship between three people, where one subject is loved by the other two, or one subject loves the other two.  There is also the type where subject one loves subject two, who loves subject three who is in love with subject four, who loves subject one, but that’s more of a love quadrangle.

The qualifications for a love triangle are these:

  • You must have three subjects
  • At least two subjects must be in love with another of the subjects
  • It must be resolved at the end of the book (optional)

Simple.  Too simple…  You see, love triangles have become just too common in this literary age, and it’s occasionally irksome, especially when someone who has no idea what they’re doing insists on doing it anyway.  That’s true with a lot of things.  There are a few types of love triangles in literature.

The Clam

This first one is quite simple, and quite effective.  It consists of two subjects in love with each other, and one more in love with one of the first two.  Thus, you’ll have a couple and a rival.  This relationship is summed up easily if you think of it as a clam:  Each member of the couple is one half of the clam; they’re glued to each other.  There is a knife trying to pry them apart; the rival.  Of course, the rival’s plan is to eventually get the two apart, then become a clam half himself, glued to the other subject.  You can see how flawed his reasoning is.

Tug-o’-War

This is the most prevalent of all love triangles I’ve seen in modern literature.  One subject has two admirers, which he or she also likes.  He or she cannot decide between them if his or her life depended on it.  It’s annoying.  Through the whole book the subject will be pulled back and forth, first leaning toward one, then the other.  Thus, the tug-o’-war.  Rick Riordan is a fan of this type.  In Percy Jackson in the Olympians, Heroes of Olympus, and the Kane Chronicles, there is always someone torn between two good friends.  The reason I don’t disown him completely is because he also has the most creative ways to make the indecisive subject decide.

Ignorance and Apathy

This is one that I can tolerate.  Two of the subjects are in love with the third subject, who is completely oblivious to their attentions.  The first two subjects feel like enemies and are constantly competing, and the third subject doesn’t even acknowledge them.  It will require the third person to be absolutely clueless when it comes to his or her environment.  Works on especially dedicated characters.  In the right hands, this type of love triangle is hilarious.  Also, if you have one subject in love with another subject, who in turn is in love with the third subject (who is doesn’t know and doesn’t care), that can work too.

The Estrangement

This type is quite simple.  It’s set up quite like the Clam, with the first two subjects and a rival (who could also be just a friend).  The story begins like that, but then as it progresses, one subject of the couple will be estranged from the other, and will lean toward the third.  The story will begin with the first couple, and end with the first couple broken and one part of that couple going to make another couple. It’s simple, effective, has innumerable variations and if done correctly will give the author a great opportunity for sacrifice or suicide.  This one also serves to lead into the Tug-o’-War, especially if you go with the sacrifice thing.  Then there’ll be a scene where the wishy-washy subject sits at the side of the dying first love, crying as he chokes out his last words and croaks.  Also, you could have the first love be clueless about the love of the second couple, and die without knowing.  Or, he or she could be clueless until a suspenseful scene near the middle of the book where he finds out, where he becomes an agent of the enemy.  As I said, innumerable variations.  This one usually goes toward the heartbreaking ending.  Personally, I prefer a straight two-person relationship where one dies, is banished, or goes mentally insane.  That’s much more effective and much more fun, since number one, the surviving subject has no one to turn to, and number two, the romance is completely obliterated from the story.  That counts as a happy ending for me.

As you can see from reading this, I’m cynical about love triangles.  I absolutely hate the Tug-o’-War type, and close following is the Estrangement.  The reason for this is because these two types often become the main plots of books, and that is something I will not stand for.  (And no, I won’t sit for it either.)  I abide Ignorance and Apathy mostly because it’s generally humorous, and I can stand the Clam because it’s a pretty good tool for an inciting incident (as seen in The Count of Monte Cristo and many other stories that I can’t put my finger on, most of which have the spurned rival become the antagonist– you know what I’m talking about).  It’s ironic that I would write a how-to post on something I hate, isn’t it?

Consider this, reader, and be wise.  Don’t put too much weight on the love triangle.

Leave a comment

48 Comments

  1. Rachel R.

     /  June 25, 2012

    I enjoy your thoughts. I am currently writing a book that deals with love. I am a strict critic on other books’ romances, so I am really critical of my own. ;)

    Reply
    • I don’t write much romance. I just thought this would be helpful to those who deceive themselves into thinking that they know how, or to help those who don’t think they know how. I’m also planning a post on love quadrangles, which are slightly less common.
      If I may ask, which love triangle are your characters involved in, if any?

      Reply
  2. Oh, I cannot agree more. Love triangles just aggravate me like nothing can. Every time I think of them, I’m either thinking about Hunger Games or Twilight (Yuck and YUCK!), where there’s honestly more romance than actual substance.

    This post was really interesting, though none of these triangles seem cool to me. Especially Apathy. (It simply doesn’t work like that in the real world. Period.) In fact, I believe that about love triangles in general. I am yet to see real-world evidence of two people loving the same person. (Alright, yes, I’m a bit of a cynic).

    However, I must commend your analysis and classification on the types of triangles. That, like I’ve mentioned in the previous paragraph, was fascinating.

    Reply
  3. Have you read Mark of Athena? It can’t seem to make up its mind about whether it’s an adventure novel or a romance novel. Gonna post a review of it when I’m done reading it. (I’m about halfway through.)

    Reply
    • Yes, I’ve read it– I’ve got a review of it on the blog somewhere. The plot twists were all in the middle of the chapters, which hurt the pacing a lot.

      Reply
      • AND THE MARY SUES! (Technically, the Mary Sue and the Gary Stu: Piper and Jason. Jeez, I can’t STAND those two.)

      • The problem is that Riordan’s already had all these people fall in love, so he has nowhere else to go with that plot line. To make it look like he does, however, he adds a love triangle or two– there was even a love pentagon at one point, with Reyna squarely in the middle– and that makes it look fine. And yes, Piper and Jason are too perfect. Part of it is the perception– since we don’t have Jason’s POV in this book, we can’t see what he thinks of Percy, but we get Percy’s attitude toward Jason portrayed clearly, and we adopt it. It isn’t Riordan’s best work.

      • His earlier series, Percy Jackson and the Olympians? WAY better.

      • Exactly, because it was one viewpoint, first person, and still quite novel. Now we’re seeing Roman gods, Hercules, all these things, and we get bored. We have four to seven viewpoints, all in third person, and we get bored. Boredom is not good.

      • The only character I enjoy is Leo. He’s really the only reason I survived the first HoO novel. I love him. And when it comes to characters, my standards are high. I feel so, so bad for him half the time…Him and Reyna though we don’t know much about her. But I get a good sense of her character too.

      • Yeah, he’s good. Reyna seemed less interesting to me. I got through Lost Hero because of the promise of Percy coming back eventually.

  4. Even Percy seems weird in Mark of Athena, don’t you think?

    Anyway, I’m logging off for now. Pleasure chatting :)

    Reply
  5. My favorite type of love triangle is the ignorance and apathy style, well exhibited in the classic book, Peter Pan. I love how it was used there. I, like you, am rather biased against love triangles otherwise, though. Maybe I should keep an open mind, I don’t know.

    Reply
    • Romance needs some sort of tension, but the best kind is that which arises from the plot, not outside influences like another love interest.

      Reply
  6. I’m DEFINITELY not a fan of the tug of war love triangles. I’ll love a love triangle (pun?) if it’s done right, but I’m very much a HOW HARD IS IT TO DECIDE IF YOU LOVE SOMEONE? person. It’s a reason why I thought “Divergent” (have you read it?) by Veronica Roth was so good. It had no love triangle, yet the relationship was never easy.

    Rick Riordan could get away with anything in the original Percy Jackson series, for me. But the “Kane Chronicles”… That love triangle with the death god and that boy and… Sadie? (was that her name?) annoyed me a little. Because, you know.

    Reply
    • I haven’t read Divergent, though I might in the near future.

      When the character seems wishy-washy about best friends, it’s hard to imagine them being decisive about anything else, and the character loses a little in my estimation. I agree.

      Reply
  7. Isadore Maye Kinner

     /  July 13, 2013

    thanks! I often have trouble with writing romance. This will help me a lot. thanx, Liam!

    Reply
  8. Ah, I had to re-read some of this to understand what you were saying. When you really think about it, love triangles don’t really make sense at all, do they? A blog post I read once mentioned that the likelihood of a love triangle in real life is actually very improbable. Most love triangles have a girl having to decide which guy she likes best. In real life, there are more girls than guys. What is the chance that one girl will find two awesome guys she has to choose between?
    The thing is, what else can you do except a triangle in a romance? How on earth do you make it interesting? Maybe it’s a matter of having a non-human third element. Maybe you have to come up with something other than a person to create conflict. What do you think?

    Reply
    • You may have forgotten that one guy could also fall in love with two girls at once. Love triangles go both ways, and if there are naturally more girls than guys…

      Indeed, you’re absolutely right. Love triangles exist solely to create tension in the romantic subplot. You can create the same tension when a couple is falling in love, or when they’re deciding whether to break up, but it can’t be drawn out so far as with love triangles.

      Reply
      • Yep, the two girls and one guy thing is the other way to do it, but to be honest I don’t like that as much. I don’t know why…

      • Because you’re a girl and you don’t like the idea of one guy having two girls. Let me tell you, it feels the same way the other way around.

      • Really? That makes sense, but it’s never really clicked. Thanks, I need to keep that in mind. :)

      • But, you know, when it’s fiction and morals are already out the window, that sort of thing gets pushed to the side. Though, love triangles are still silly.

  9. Someone...

     /  October 7, 2013

    this is rather fascinating, Liam. Very much so. This will help me. Thank you.

    PS: I found the link to this blog of yours from NaNo YWP ;)

    Reply
  10. I thought of doing a love triangle for my most recent novel, but the more I worked on it, the more I realized that romance was being pushed further on the backburner. For this particular story, I found it better to have just a simple 2-person romance, and let the more epic action-adventure elements take over.

    Reply
  11. I couldn’t write romance to save my life. So I write fantasy instead, and if eventually someone gets married, oh well, call it commitment. ;-P

    Reply
  12. (random stranger enters in conversation late)

    I have to laugh at this post, because, like yourself, I’ve always hated love triangles (and love quadrangles and love octuples or whatever else muddies up what should be a rather simple matter) — and yet, I think my current novel contains one of the messiest love triangles in the history of love triangles. (It involves one girl, an ex-fiance, the ex-fiance’s new girlfriend, a dashing detective, a wise old man, and a toaster.) Is there some unwritten law that an author must base at least one novel around whatever plot device annoys them most? I swear, it happens every time.

    Reply
    • Glad to have you here. Thanks for the comment.

      Isn’t that so annoying? I decided one day that I hated reading shallow YA urban fantasies where the main character is full of angst and has a love triangle revolving around themselves. Then I went and wrote a novel like that. I’ll try harder next time– or at least I’ll pick something more awesome to hate, so that I can write something better.

      Reply
      • Heh… I like that thought. I have now decided to hate everything by Brandon Sanderson. Actually, I loathe Brandon Sanderson. And all of his books. They are downright awful. (Waits for Sandersonesque inspiration to drop on my head.)

        On a more serious note (or not), I actually love my current novel. The love triangle makes me facepalm (constantly), but as it is kind of more or less the main motivating point for the entire plot, it doesn’t annoy me as much as I thought it would.

      • I thought you were serious for a moment there and almost spammed you. How can you hate Sanderson? I’m glad you were joking.

        Good for you! Liking what you write is a must.

  13. See? Love triangles are annoying. And if less love triangles mean less romantic subplots, then so be it. Maybe it’ll make the ones that are actually interesting that much more so.

    Out of curiosity, how many people besides myself go and comment on your old posts? I hope I’m not the only person.

    Reply
    • I’ve got a post on this coming up very soon, actually. Romantic tension and why love triangles get old so quickly. I think you’ll like it.

      A couple people do it once in a while, like DK. But I enjoy it.

      Reply

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