And I’m not against them on principle. There have been many great love triangles in literature over the centuries: Marianne, Willoughby, and Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility; Romeo, Juliet, and Paris from Romeo and Juliet; even Elizabeth, Mr. Darcy, and Mr. Collins from Pride and Prejudice would fit the term (though theirs would quickly become a pentagon, as Caroline Bingley and Mr. Wickham deserve to be added to the mix).
But not every love triangle is a welcome addition to a novel’s plot. Some feel staged or contrived, and others feel like they take away from the action–like in many fantasy novels out there. So here are four things to avoid in love triangles:
No Competition. Ideally, you should be able to see the girl going for either guy (or the guy going for either girl). It shouldn’t be a no-brainer, where it’s obvious who’s going to win–they’re just outclassed in looks, personality, age, etc. If you can write the novel both ways, or can see the struggle going on right up to the last minute, so much the better.
This doesn’t mean that they both have to be equal: equally gorgeous, equally amusing, or the same age, height, etc. It actually strengthens the plot if they’re different. When, for example, one is less-ideal but available, as in the case of Mr. Collins vs. Mr. Darcy, or when one seems perfect until you realize a great big flaw, as in the case of Willoughby and Wickham. (Gentlemen, you don’t want your last name to start with “W” in Jane Austen books.) 🙂
Nothing at Stake. It often feels like the girl (or guy) has all the time in the world to make up their minds as to which person they’ll choose. They spend time with both, they enjoy being friends with both, and there never seems to be anything forcing them to make a choice (which makes you wonder why they ever make a choice at all…let’s just be a threesome forever!). Up the stakes and give them a reason to choose now, before they’re ready: give them a need to get married, have one move out of state, a death in the family, the end of high school/college/their journey together, finances preventing one from ever being a choice and so he or she bows out, etc.
Fate Deciding. When the girl hasn’t made up her mind, and then, suddenly, one of the two guys dies, that is not a proper resolution. We never get to know which she’d chose, and she never has to make a real choice. Frustratingly, this does happen, but ideally, it’s best to wait until after the choice has been made, like when Marianne chooses Willoughby only to get somewhat-jilted by him when he goes to London and never returns. Or when Jane Eyre is all ready to marry Rochester only to discover that he already has a living wife. Removing the power to chose doesn’t add drama or conflict. It eliminates it.
The Author Picking for the Character. This one is debatable, but sometimes, it feels like the author favored one character over another, and thus, he gets the girl (like with Paul Montague in The Way We Live Now; Trollope seriously showed some favoritism, as Hetta Carbury ends up with a wimpy jerk instead of Roger, the honorable man, who she even admits is the best man she knows). This doesn’t mean that the good guy has to always get the girl, or that the nice girl will get the guy, but the choice should make sense, based on the characters involved (even though we, as readers, may deplore it).
So there you are. You don’t necessarily need to have a love triangle–basic conflict and a romance always works, too–but if you find that you have a character with more than one romantic candidate, try to make sure you follow these four guidelines to create a strong, believable story that will have readers taking sides (and hopefully, arguing about who “should’ve won” for years to come).
Copyright Andrea Lundgren
Photo by elsiehamilton, Creative Commons