To the dismay of many young adult readers, the number of love triangle plot-lines exploded, in thanks, no doubt, to the success of the Twilight series. Fortunately, it did not become a staple of the fantasy genre, but a reader browsing the shelves still wouldn’t be surprised to find that a book’s synopsis hinted at two love interests. Now, it’s a trope that’s hated on principle alone more often than not. To be fair, it is not a trope that is easy to pull off well.
As per usual, we shall start with a definition. The love triangle, as the name implies, involves three characters. It is most common for the love triangle to involve one woman and two men, with the men fighting over the woman, though of course that is not a requirement for the trope. Of the two love interests, regardless of gender, one is often written as a “good guy” character who is sweet, charming, and considerate. The other serves as their contrast, the “bad boy” who is alluring yet dangerous. Despite the name, the two love interests are usually depicted as enemies, though the conflict over the shared love interest is often not the whole of the issue.
Quite often, love triangles can seem as little more than wish-fulfillment. Gender politics usually end up playing a major role in terms of who winds up chasing whom and even, to a certain extent, why that person is able to attract the attentions of multiple love interests. Usually, it’s the quiet, otherwise unnoticeable (or, as the protagonist would describe herself, “unflattering”) girl who enters a new world only to find, to her surprise, that one boy cannot stay away from her. Then, some time later, she bumps into boy number two, and thus ensues the plot. The girl winds up drawn to the “bad boy,” but tries to stay away because she knows he’s not good for her, but of course the “good guy” is boring in his niceness, and she cannot make up her mind until the very end. And, of course, the boys fight over her as their prize to be won.
That is not to say that a boy cannot be pursued by two girls, although the ensuing conflict between the two girls will probably look catty and problematic. Or, a boy can be pursued by two other boys, or a girl by two other girls, or someone is pursued by love interests of both genders. The options are limitless, but as is often the case for tropes, the set-up for love triangles are often very much the same.
A quick warning: spoilers abound for all books discussed below. Consider:
Bella, a human, attracts the attentions of Edward, the vampire. Her newfound friend, Jacob, warns her away from him, to no avail. When Edward dips out in the second book, Jacob is propped a possible alternate love interest, although it’s obvious from the beginning that Bella will only ever love Edward.
Tessa finds herself thrown into a new city and eventually tumbles into the world of Shadowhunters where she meets an abrasive Will and charming Jem. She pursues Jem, fearing Will does not like her back, but as Jem’s health declines, Tessa is given the opportunity to crack Will’s hard outer shell. Jem and Will are best friends who want the other person to be happy, and because of outside circumstances, Jem is taken out of the picture and Will and Tessa live a happy, long life. And because Tessa is immortal, when Jem finally gets his health back (still young, because Magic), they too get their chance at a happy ending.
A Court of Thorns & Roses.
The series begins with Feyre falling in love with Tamlin. When Feyre is killed by Amarantha, Tamlin is so crazy in love with her that he, with the help of other Fae, manages to bring her back to life. Yet Tamlin is not the only one that loves Feyre; Rhysand does too. Tamlin is depicted as the good guy, and Rhys acts like he’s dangerous. The series switches gears pretty quickly after the first book, however, and shows Rhys actually respects the heck out of Feyre whereas Tamlin is toxically overprotective. Rhys reveals that Feyre is his mate, and together they make quite the power couple, even as Tamlin makes mistake after mistake trying to win her back.
Blue initially falls for Adam Parish, one of the four members of the Gansey gang, of which Gansey is at its head. Yet the book opens up with a scene that suggests Gansey will die in the next year, and because Blue is able to witness that paranormal incident, that implies either she kills Gansey or he’s her true love. Or maybe both. Either way, the relationship with Adam regrettably doesn’t work out, leaving her to pursue her feelings for Gansey. Gansey does not actively pursue Blue initially; he’s actually the one who helped Adam talk to Blue in the first place. He does, however, come to like her quite a lot as she spends more and more time with Gansey and company.
Three Dark Crowns.
This series involves a two girls/one guy love triangle, unlike the others. Jules and Joseph are a couple, but at some point in the narrative, Joseph finds himself in the company of Queen Mirabella with Jules nowhere in sight. Joseph cheats on Jules with Mirabella, though a relationship between the two of them is never given a chance to develop.
When It’s More Isoscoles Than Equilateral
It’s easy to understand the allure of a real-world love triangle, but more often than not, bookish love triangles always end the same way. That is to say, it’s almost obvious which pairing has more chemistry. There is not a more poignant or clear example than Twilight. Edward and Jacob may have both loved Bella, but even when Edward was out of the picture, it was obvious that Bella and Edward were the pairing the reader was supposed to root for.
Things do get a little more complex with some of the other books described above, but complexity does not necessarily make a triangle successful. For example, however admirable Rhysand’s respect for Feyre might be, the romantic plotlines are definitely problematic. In the first book, however, it isn’t “Feysand” that the readers think to root for. Instead, it is Tamlin who Feyre is meant to fall in love with. He’s the classic “good guy” character. He took Feyre away from her home and helped her learn how to read, giving her fine things for the first time in her life. And, when she is killed in the end of the first book, it is Tamlin who will do whatever it takes to bring her back to life.
Rhysand swaggers onto the page with a definite Bad Boy aura, and once Feyre finds herself trapped Under the Mountain with the antagonist, Amarantha, it is only through Rhysand’s help that Feyre survives. Yet there are more than a few questionable decisions on his part. His actions are quite clearly abusive, what with the wine he gets Feyre to drink so she will not remember the events of the night, or the sketchy agreement he gets Feyre to sign off on where she belongs to him one week out of every month. Each action is explained in the second book, putting Rhysand in a positive light, but even from the first book, it’s obvious from the language that he is a potential love interest.
This is all halfway decent set-up. In the first book, Feyre’s attraction to each of the men can be explained, and even by the end, the reader still feels pretty confident that the original pairing, Feyre and Tamlin, are meant to be the endgoal. Where ACoTaR crashes is its character work in the next two books. Tamlin and Rhysand swap good guy/bad boy titles very quickly, and suddenly Tamlin is possessive and aggressive in his desire to protect Feyre whereas Rhysand gives her freedom and trust and unexpected happiness. Feyre chooses Rhysand, although Tamlin continues to pursue her even when he knows he is not wanted.
Essentially, Feyre’s relationships are just like they are with Edward and Jacob, but it’s as if Feyre was with Jacob in the first book, found out he was a complete jerk, and then fell head over heels in love with Edward despie Edward’s own unsavory habits. The pairing is still heavily skewed to one side; it’s just, in the second book, the triangle is flipped inexplicably to the other, to Rhysand and Feyre rather than Tamlin and her.
What Helps Make a Love Triangle Work
One of the best case studies of a solid love triangle comes in the form of Cassandra Clare’s urban fantasy series, The Infernal Devices. And it is not for one reason alone, but for many interlocking pieces. The characters involved are Tessa, Jem, and Will. Tessa meets Will first, and although he is snarky and, on occasion, downright cruel, it’s clear that they have a connection through their shared love of books. But Will has a secret: he has been “cursed” so that any who love him will die. To protect the people he loves, he pushes them away.
While taking refuge with Shadowhunters, Tessa is also introduced to Jem. He is quiet and polite and absolutely adores Tessa. A major part of his character, however, is that he is dying slowly and there is little anyone can do. Furthermore, Jem and Will are what’s called parabatai… it’s like when two friends are so close, they consider each other brother or sister. Will cares about Jem’s happiness, and so does not try to sway Tessa away from Jem.
Eventually, Jem gets bad enough that he must agree to a certain magical solution, one that will isolate him from his friends for the indefinite future, until a cure can be found, making him immortal in the process. At roughly the same time, Will learns his “curse” is not a real thing, leaving him free to pursue Tessa with Jem’s blessing. At the end of the book, they get married and Will grows old with her. Tessa, it turns out, is immortal, and many many years later, a cure is found and Jem is able to leave his isolation, and it is implied they begin to pursue their relationship once again.
In sum, one of the major failings of love triangles is that the protagonist has no reason to choose one love interest over the other beyond whatever their hear is feeling at any given moment. Tessa, however, has reason to pursue Jem first, even knowing that she loves Will too. And when Tessa is given the opportunity to be with Will, it’s not written in a way that feels the two of them are betraying Jem, despite the fact that, unlike most love triangles, the two love interests also actually care about one another. The book could have ended well enough with Tessa and Will, and it’s just icing on the cake that she happens to be able to have her temporary happy endings with the both of them.
It’s very easy to write a love triangle with no sense and little nuance, and for quite some time after Twilight, fantasy, especially urban fantasy, was rife with poorly-written triangles. Fortunately, the genre seems willing to step away from the trope.
That is not to say, however, that a love triangle cannot have its place in a fantasy narrative. It is a more compelling triangle if the protagonist is not stuck between their choice, but rather, they have made their choice and now doubt if it was the right one. Perhaps their doubts are founded from learning more and more about each love interest, whether or not the choice has already been made (so long as you show from the beginning what kinds of characters they might be…rather than change your mind in the second book). Or perhaps they are stuck between a strong sense of duty and passion. More so, the triangle does not need to have the “bad boy” and “good guy” contrasts; it is enough that they are two different people that can provide two different life experiences for the protagonist.
But it would not be a proper discussion of a love triangle if I did not also address one final potential avenue for the characters to go. It is a very Western idea that a person can only have one partner, can only love a single person at any given time. The concept of multiple partners is not new, and in some parts of the world, not uncommon. As Jordan went with Wheel of Time and Rand with Aviendha, Min, and Elayne, a love triangle can be only the first part of the romantic subplot. If the 2+ love interests can learn to get along, it would certainly be interesting to see more polygamous/polyamorous relationships in fantasy.