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.

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10 Comments

  1. Hmm. Most interesting opinions you have here! I agree with you about it though and that’s a first 😉 I think you have to know how to incorporate a love triangle well if you’re going to do it at all because some books I’ve read with love triangles were wet blankets. So if you are gonna put a love triangle into your story, you MUST know what you are doing. This post has a lot of good advice!

    Reply
  2. Seana J. Vixen

     /  May 6, 2012

    Ah, love triangles. They make you laugh, they make you cry, or they can make you want to pull your hair out in disgust. If the author is clueless of what he/she is doing, it’s a complete flop. I didn’t think about the love triangles as different types, but now that you mention it, it does make sense. I’ll have to be careful not to do too much love triangle stuff so that the reader widens their perspective to the actual plot. Speaking of one person in love dying, that sounds a bit like Shakespeare…Romeo and Juliet ringing a bell anyone?

    Reply
    • Exactly. Except for the fact that Shakespeare was smart enough not to use many love triangles, especially in his better works.

      Reply
  3. Hmm. Harry Potter might have a love triangle. Probably The Clam.

    Reply
      • …I’m curious to know why you said probably. Which characters are you thinking of?

      • Why? Because I haven’t read the books. I have no idea, so all I can do is echo what you said. You said “Probably the Clam.” I agreed: “Probably.” I haven’t read it, so I can’t speak in absolutes.

  4. Oh. I just wondered if you’d heard any fan-babble about who ends up with who.

    Reply

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