He loves her. She loves somebody else. That somebody else doesn’t love her back. Somebody’s heart gets broken. Somebody kisses somebody in some exceedingly overdue moment. We’re then left with an ending that satisfies some, outrages others, and confounds many.
I just described the most basic formula for a love triangle, also known as one of the oldest, most predictable tactics in all romantic narratives. It’s right up there with the classic will-they-or-won’t-they narrative that Ross and Rachel drew out for way too long over multiple seasons of Friends. As an aspiring writer who specializes in romance and erotica, I can’t ignore its presence so let’s talk about it.
First off, let me acknowledge that love triangles have their place in popular culture. I understand that they’re part of a tried and true formula in romance that goes back to a time when our ancestors were washing their hand in cow piss and calling it hygienic. They tap into a powerful set of emotions in all of us. Unless you’re born rich or have the body of Ryan Gosling, you know what it feels like to see someone you love choose someone else. That said, they can tap into more annoying emotions and that’s what I’m going to focus on.
As anyone who hasn’t slept through English class knows, love triangles have been part of some of the most iconic stories in history. The most famous is probably the one that plays out in the legends of King Arthur. That affair involved King Arthur, his wife Guenivere, and the perpetually friend-zoned Sir Lancelot. That love triangle is a small, but important component of that whole mythos and it did not take away from it in any way.
Flash forward 800 years, throw in reality TV and vampires, and the whole concept of the love triangle has been overdone, over-used, and twisted to a point where it’s more of an annoyance than a plot device. At its worst, it derails the larger story that’s supposed to be unfolding. We all know the kinds of stories I’m talking about here. Do I really need to remind anybody of this?
I’ll try to limit my references to vampires in this post, but they symbolize just how bad love triangles can get. From a writer’s perspective (and I am trying to be a writer, mind you), it often narrows the narrative considerably. It immediately ascribes roles to certain characters that limits their development. When a character’s sole purpose is defined by who they want to bone and who is standing in their way, that effectively overrides every other trait of that character.
It plays out in way too many ways in every kind of media. Characters like Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer dedicated 90 percent of their energy towards winning someone else’s heart. The same thing plays out in books like The Hunger Games, movies like Tron, and even video games like Final Fantasy. Think of any form of media, new or old. At some point in the past or at some point in the future, a love triangle will infect it and its characters.
This doesn’t even begin to touch on the extent to which love triangles permeate comic books. As some of you already know, I love comic books and I’ve crafted entire posts about them. If there’s one non-vampire medium that abuses love triangles more than most, it’s definitely comic books. I’d love to get into specifics, but rather than risk derailing this entire post into a personalized rant from a message board, I’ll save that for another discussion.
Why do these stories persist? Well, as I said earlier, they do tap into some very basic emotions that are fairly universal across cultures. With this appeal in mind, maybe we should ask another question. Why do these stories about love triangles have to be so god-awful?
The biggest problem, in my opinion, stems from another problem that seems to be ingrained in our culture to some extent. When we tell love stories, we have this ideal in mind. One person finds their absolute soul mate. That soul mate is 100 percent in love with them and returns 100 percent of their affections. That’s all well and good in terms of romance. I certainly have a soft spot for those kinds of fluffy romances. I think those of us without personality disorders all have some affinity for those kinds of stories.
It’s that same affinity, though, that makes love triangles so untenable. A love triangle is often used as an obstacle. It’s a wedge designed to prevent two lovers from coming together. It can make for a good story, but it also comes at the expense of another character along the way.
Sometimes that works because the character in question is a total asshole. There’s no effort to make Biff Tanner in Back to the Future on equal footing with George McFly. He’s supposed to be an asshole. The problem comes when we want that character to develop dimensions other than being an asshole and that can be a problem.
The way a love triangle works essentially makes it so there’s always one character that gets screwed over and not in a good way. Someone is going to have their heart broken. Someone is going to come off as the loser and the bad guy. In some cases, as we see in Back to the Future, it works out in a way that’s satisfying. In others, especially in vampire-themed stories, it turns the character in to a sacrificial lamb of sorts. It means they never get a chance to stand on their own and show that they have worth.
I find that kind of approach troubling because it throws away opportunities to create quality characters. It also ensures that the character that loses is going to be flat, boring, and dull. If it’s a male character, he’s some sort of bad boy, Dirty Harry wannabe who just needs the right nudge to being a full-blown asshole. If it’s a female character, she’s some sort of Mean Girls uber-bitch who generates as much sympathy as a hungry shark.
That makes the outcome of the love triangle fairly predictable. Before it even has a chance to get sexy, we already have a pretty good idea of how it’s going to play out. The nice guy/nice girl is going to win. That’s all well and good in that it plays into our innate sense of justice, but it doesn’t make for very good stories.
It’s for this reason that I’ve generally tried to avoid using love triangles in my books. The closest I ever came was “Skin Deep” and even in that, I made a concerted effort to give each side sufficient depth. I’ll let those who take the time to read the book to decide whether I did a good enough job, but I think love triangles in general need to be either retired or overhauled.
How do we go about that? Well, I have a few ideas. I’m not going to share them just yet because I want to turn them into books first. I believe this is an idea that can sell if done right. If I can’t sell it, then I hope others figure out a way as well. A bad love triangle is the easiest way to turn quality characters into trophies/obstacles. It turns women into prizes to be won, men into powerless tools of their passions, and everyone else into overly emotional vampires. I think we can do better.