Storytelling Tropes: Love Triangles

A series looking at common tropes in storytelling. This essay looks at love triangles and how to use, avoid, or subvert them.

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© 2017 Epytome / Used With Permission

The love triangle is, well, it is a classic. Of all the tropes popular today, this one is the most divisive. Some readers love to actively seek out stories with a harem of love interests, while others find it either predictable and boring, or a tad unrealistic. Sometimes this is because the end result can be seen a mile off, or because everyone seems to be flocking to one character like ants to a picnic, but there are ways to effectively execute a meaningful love triangle. They can be incredibly versatile, potentially open-ended, and prime for subverting audience expectations.

A love triangle requires, at minimum, three people, who are in love with each other. This can be overt or—for dramatic purposes—they could all silently be courting each other. Maybe two are mutually interested and the third is tagging along, waiting. Whatever the mix up, even with an extra character added, this is still known as a love triangle—we’re writers, not mathematicians.

Common setups for love triangles include two distinctly different characters falling for the same person. This is commonly known as ‘Betty and Veronica,’ from the Archie comics. Betty is the safe character—homely, girl-next-door—sometimes loving her love interest enough to even help him pursue the Veronica character. Veronica is the other—the wild card—exotic in nature, maybe a little Manic Pixie Dream Girl, with zero interest in the person drooling after them. These stereotypes can be harmful and predictable, and less satisfying than a fully fleshed out character. In fact, maybe your main character is Betty, instead of the love interest, or even Veronica; though it should be noted that in order to keep Veronica’s allure, this is rarely done.

When there is a flock of females all courting the same man, this is known as a harem, and usually refrained from serious writing as it comes across, quite simply, as a male-centric fantasy. Similarly, when it is a swathe of men all vying for a female’s attention, this is known as a reverse harem. Then there is the Love Dodecahedron, which is simply a multi-layered love triangle with far too many characters involved to keep track of. For the purposes of this essay, however, we will be looking at the love triangle in its simplest form. Once this is understood and respected, applying this to other aspects of the trope should become easy.

Firstly, as with all points in a story’s design, an author must ask themselves whether the love triangle is actually necessary to the plot. Is it there because this is relevant or because you want to shoehorn in a dozen good-looking fellas? If it’s the latter, then going ahead may be to the detriment to the story. It is possible to have too many characters, and not enough time to flesh them out or make them feel valid. This can feel a lot worse, or more obvious to reader, when it is apparent that a character is only there as a love interest. It isn’t necessarily as bad when the piece you’re writing is a romance novel, or erotica, but that’s because the plot calls for it.

If, say, your story is set in a dystopian future where the plot revolves around takedown of a genocidal tyrant, a love triangle may not be considered necessary. Or, in another example, a horror story, where the characters are picked off one by one.

One example of a love triangle in popular fiction would be the one found in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, which can, to some readers, feel terribly predictable but, when inspected, manages to subvert and bend this trope to the will of the plot. For example, Katniss’ love interest—the one she initially shows most interest in—is Gale. Once she is paired with Peeta Mellark in the titular Hunger Games, a fan of the YA genre would recognise the signs that they are destined to be written together. Katniss’ affections for Peeta are portrayed as a survival technique, and not due to romantic interest. She is, of course, playing a very real and very deadly game, and relies on the swooning of a fickle audience to keep her alive. This is carried on through the second book, with Gale’s feelings towards her now apparent, Peeta’s are leaking out, and Katniss’ focus still embedded on the survival of her family. Two men are interested in Katniss and she is either not interested (because she can’t be) or oblivious (because she thinks Peeta is playing a part).

Romance in the Hunger Games is used as a plot device: it helps Katniss survive the first Hunger Games, and it is then used to help gain traction on her return to arena. Gale’s interest is used to build tension. President Snow knows Katniss and Peeta’s relationship is a fake and is just waiting for them to slip up. Gale, being fool-hardy and in love, puts the protagonists in mortal danger. This is a book comfortable with killing children, so anything could happen.

The part where the Hunger Games falls flat, however, is the conclusion of this love triangle, and this is, ultimately, where a lot of audience disinterest or dissatisfaction comes from. With love triangles, it is readily assumed that eventually ‘one must go’. Someone is destined to either fall in love elsewhere or die, or something in the middle of those extremes. In the case of Gale and Katniss (Spoiler alert!), their relationship is, depending on who you ask, doomed the moment Gale inadvertently and indirectly causes the death of Katniss’ sister, Primrose. The importance of Primrose’s character helps explain why Gale cannot go near Katniss again. With this guilt, however, it can feel like Primrose’s death was a tool to help chisel Gale’s character out of the mess of a love triangle. Primrose’s death does have far-reaching consequences beyond the love triangle, but signals the end of Gale’s story arc. The death of Primrose can be seen as the death of Gale, as far as his character development is concerned. At the end of this love triangle, due to the nature of the story told, it can be seen that there really isn’t a stereotypical happy ending for Katniss and Peeta. They’re put together as damaged people, to live on the outskirts of their destroyed District home, and get together because of this shared damage and the fact that they’re the only two people there. There’s a melancholic, bittersweet ending to the Hunger Games—and the love story of Katniss and Peeta—because their relationship has always been driven by the plot of the story.

The end result of a love triangle has to feel earned, not given, much like any romance story. This goes doubly so for a love triangle, as it will need to feel justified as to why one suitor was picked over another; unless it is obvious, with one of them being dead or a villain, for example. In many cases, this can be difficult as the author has been glorifying the suitors since their arrivals, trying to get audiences emotionally invested. With this design, sadly, it means that there will always be someone disappointed with the outcome.

One well-known example of this can be found in the movie adaptation of Scott Pilgrim Versus the World, where two different endings were filmed. The reasons given are simple: test audiences. The issue with the character Ramona is that she is the stereotypical Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and as a result is put on a plinth and set as an object for Scott to win throughout the film. Her apparent interest in Scott is nowhere near as noticeable as the love that Knives holds for him. To the audience (Spoiler alert!), Knives had earned Scott, more than Ramona had, or even Scott had earned Ramona, and therefore were unhappy with the idea that Scott still got Ramona despite everything. Of all the characters, Knives had the most character development, and to some audiences, it didn’t make sense that Ramona (who can apparently have anyone and no one at once) won. Scott’s interest in Ramona was superficial, he had to literally fight off ‘evil’ exes, and that’s way too much baggage for some people. Having Scott win Ramona was, to some, just the cherry on top of her stereotyped persona and not subversive at all. The argument in the case of Scott Pilgrim is that all the characters are stereotypes for comedic purposes. Knives is an ‘axe-crazy’ ex, for example, but she redeems herself at the end of the film and comics when she steps aside to let Scott be happy with Ramona. Ramona doesn’t quite get the same treatment, as her stereotype never really grows beyond Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Not only that, Scott doesn’t grow either. Despite explicitly being told no by Ramona and warned off, he continues after her, going so far as to cheat on Knives for her. To many, this simple fact would put them off him getting any girl at the end, let alone one as highly coveted as Ramona, or even Knives, who one could argue develops beyond Scott’s league by the end of the film and comic series.

This leads to another issue with love triangles: keeping audience sympathy with the main character. Sometimes people make stupid decisions, but some of these decisions aren’t forgiven, like cheating. A character torn between two love interests can be presented with this opportunity and whether they go with it is make or break for the audience. If, say, Character 1 is the main character, and Character 2 cheats on them with Character 3, then the audience will, by design, immediately wish that Character 1 falls for someone else, someone worth their mettle. If, however, Character 2 is the main character—and therefore the one that cheats—we’re expected to somehow sympathise with a decision otherwise detested. That doesn’t always fly, despite it being a common thing in the real world.

Character development is everything when it comes to plot elements such as romance, and it is important to use it to one’s own strengths when trying to suggest a suitable pairing to an audience. It is also important to remember that audiences are allowed to disagree. This brings us back to feeling like we’ve earned the love story we’ve read, and that comes from reading the story that took us from A to B. That means foreshadowing (which I consider key in a lot of nuanced subversion techniques).

So, you’ve just written two crazy in-love characters, but you’ve got a third wheel. This character is hot, the fans adore him, and you know people are going to be annoyed that he didn’t get the girl. It can be tempting to want to pair off characters at the end of a book—this is often called ‘squaring the love triangle’—and in some stories, when done poorly, it can blindside the audience (and feel downright creepy). For example, in the Twilight Saga (Spoiler alert!), Bella and Edward have gotten together, but Jacob is all on his lonesome. As though simply to fix this issue, he is paired with Bella’s daughter. He is ‘imprinted’ on her and, luckily for him, Renesmee ages unnaturally fast, so it’s only creepy if you know she’s two, not eighteen. This all feels like contrived plot devices used just to make a happy ending for Jacob. Another female character just won’t cut it, apparently, and if he can’t have Bella, he’ll have the next best thing: her daughter.

In George R R Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire, a similar situation is found with Petyr Baelish’s love for Sansa Stark. He loved her mother, Catelyn, but she’s married at the start of the novels (Spoiler alert!), and dies later on. The difference here, however, is Petyr’s interest in Catelyn’s daughter is portrayed as creepy, because it is. It means the end result of this love triangle, if to the detriment of Baelish, will be wholly satisfying to the audience.

Subverting a love triangle is tricky business, but with consistency to the plot, proper character development and foreshadowing, it can be richly rewarding. For example, in the Harry Potter series, many people believed that Harry Potter would end up with Hermione Granger; it is the story standard that the boy gets the girl. Many characters, including the ever-but-questionably-wise Dumbledore, had curiosities about their relationship. And yet (Spoiler alert!), Hermione ended up with Ron Weasley, the character that spent much of the series in the shadows of his best friends, while Harry ended up with Ron’s sister, Ginny. Ask a film fan about this and they will say it came from nowhere, ask a book fan and they will argue that ‘Book’ Ginny is millions better than ‘Film’ Ginny, and that you can see the end result staring at you from book one. Some people distinctly dislike the end result (with the author herself weighing in and adding fuel to the dying fire some years after the last book), but many were excited that Harry Potter avoided the predictable end result. It looked like a classic love triangle with an obvious winner. This subversion was mixed, and it could be argued that this was due to the failed development of Ron. Hermione is a near perfect Mary Sue character, and it made sense that her character was suited for Harry’s The Chosen One trope. Ron, however, doesn’t make it out of their shadows. While he did mature greatly in the last book, after 17 years he is described as getting ‘rotund’ with age, and that his ginger hair is ‘thinning’ a bit; meanwhile Harry Potter is sporting threads of silver hair, making him a ‘silver fox’ by some accounts and, according to Moaning Myrtle, gets better looking with age. To some, this could have felt like a little dig at Ronald: that even with age he doesn’t get better. He isn’t Harry, he isn’t fine wine, and Hermione deserved better. This is all superficial but to the audience this is everything. It is symbolic. People may not have felt so divided if Ron had found a skill unique enough to make him equal to Hermione in some way, and in her league. Ultimately, to some audience members, Hermione deserved better. Sure, he won her over with some interest in her passion for elf rights, but to a lot of audience members, Hermione was the heroine of the story and Ron simply couldn’t provide what expectations they had for her husband.

Love triangles are hard to pull off. There is no denying that, and they get more and more difficult with every occurrence of them in literature. The best way to use a love triangle is with subversion, foreshadowing and refusing to fall back into lazy character stereotypes. It requires the author to remember that this is a journey for the reader as well, and like any journey, you want to feel like you’ve earned the end result, not been force-fed it. That means no blindsiding audiences, unless that’s the nature of your comedy piece. It means that a Character 3’s death has to feel warranted for the plot, and not because you had a love triangle you didn’t know how to fix. This is known as ‘the Death of the Hypotenuse,’ and a good example of such a story is the Japanese film, I Give My First Love to You.

Maybe it was all a ruse, and there was no love triangle all along, built up by a character’s insecurity? Maybe the two warring suitors decide the main character isn’t worth their affection and they end up together instead? Maybe it is all unrequited and this is just a coming of age story? Their true loves are out there, but that isn’t the story you’re prepared to tell, such as in the Taiwanese film, You Are The Apple Of My Eye.

Yes, sometimes the romance isn’t central to the plot, but it should feel like ivy, wrapped around it, instead of being an entirely different entity. It should feel natural to the characters and their circumstances, instead of a forced element used to sell merchandise or kick start hashtags on Twitter. It should be about whether it is beneficial, consistent and well-thought out in regards to your readers. They should be as emotionally invested as you—the writer—and without that all you have is a lazy plot device to superficially build unnecessary tension.

Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.

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