The Problem with Love Triangles


Photo credit: wallyg on Flickr
Now before you pull out the pitchforks and light the stake, let me say I enjoy love triangles as much as the next person. It’s fun to choose a side on the Katniss-Peeta-Gale argument and even though I’m pretty sure I know who won the Meghan-Puck-Ash war (The Iron Fey series, for those of you wondering), it’s been fun to read about it, and it’s no secret that the Twilight phenomenon benefited greatly from the infamous Bella-Edward-Jacob love triangle (hello Team Edward and Team Jacob shirts).

But as of late, especially in YA novels, it seems that love triangles have become somewhat of a prerequisite—a cliché, even. Many novels follow the girl has male best friend/meets new boy/but best friend has loved her all along/oh but the new boy is so hot/but the best friend/but new hot guy!- plot, and hey, I’m certainly not complaining about it—as I said before, love triangles can certainly be one of the guilty pleasures we like to read, but it makes me start to wonder…are they becoming overdone?

I’d like to clarify that I’m well aware there are many YA novels that avoided the love triangle completely—Divergent by Veronica Roth and Across the Universe by Beth Revis are two examples I can think of off the top of my head—but the more I see the best friend/new guy love triangle, the more I’ve started to realize that it has indeed started to become a cliché.

The problem with love triangles, my friends, is that they’re becoming predictable.

I’m not saying that this means we shouldn’t write any more love triangles, or that love triangles are bad in any way. What I am saying is if you do decide to write a love triangle into your story, you might want to ask yourself how your love triangle is any different from the others already out there. I challenge you not to rely on your first plotting love triangle instinct—I challenge you to push beyond the best friend/hot new guy cliché. Ask yourself what the purpose of your love triangle is—what are you trying to show your readers?

A strength, I think, of love triangles is it shows something we don’t often like to talk about—that love is messy. Love isn’t this neat little thing we can put into a box and tie off with a ribbon—love is confusing and exhausting and it has a mind of its own and sometimes love is wonderful but sometimes love is cruel. Love triangles show us all that—they show us that we don’t always know as much about love as we originally planned, that love can create a wonderful relationship, yes, but sometimes love hurts because it doesn’t always strike both ways. Sometimes, (and in the case of love triangles—always) there will be someone left out.

To me, that’s the purpose of love triangles, but until we break out of the formulaic relationships that many novels have fallen victim to, that message—that purpose—gets lost in the mix. Rather than a story about love, it can quickly become another generic boy-meets-girl-meets-boy scenario, and although they’re fun to read, they don’t always hit home.

I like love triangles, and when done correctly I think they can add a powerful dimension to our stories. But don’t let your characters become part of another formula—show us their relationship means something more.

What do you think about love triangles? Are they amazing? Are they cliché? What’s your favorite love triangle from a novel?  

35 comments:

Donald Cribbs said...

Great points to consider, Ava! I'm working on that in my WIP, trying to make sure the complications of love don't present as cliche and love triangle wanna be fodder. Great post as always! :D

Ava Jae said...

Thanks, Donald! The right balance can be hard to achieve, but there are few things more enjoyable to read than a pitch-perfect romance subplot. :D

Mari Stroud said...

My favorite love triangle ever is the one between Richard, Lois, and Clark in the Superman Returns movie.  The screenwriter and James Marsden both took the time to make Richard a three-dimensional person with many of the same noble and heroic qualities that attracted Lois to Clark/Supes.  They made it complicated and messy, always something that I appreciate.

Ava Jae said...

You know, I completely forgot about that movie until you mentioned it, but come to think of it, Richard was definitely pretty hefty competition for Clark in the Returns movie. Nice pick! :)

Daiana_luc said...

I would honestly rather have my characters splitting up or going through a rough time than having them being happy ever after. It's more than seeing the characters happy, it's about giving them what they should have, or what they deserve, whether it's good or bad. Classic love triangles being overdone bore me, so I cannot let myself do the same thing. Maybe that's a good thing when it comes to writing, to a certain extent.

Ava Jae said...

Interesting thoughts! I think being realistic and reflecting the reality of real-life relationships can be much more powerful than assuming it'll all be happily ever after. 

Susan Quinn said...

To me, the most powerful love triangles always represent a choice about who the MC is, not who the guy is.

Laurapauling said...

I think when done right a love triangle is a great way to produce tension. If it's just in there for no good reason, then eh, I could without them.

Ava Jae said...

I really like that! Certainly applies to the love triangle in The Hunger Games. I wonder what other love triangles I can think of that reflect that...

Ava Jae said...

Few things are worth the time if they're there just for the sake of being there, and I certainly agree that that applies to love triangles as well. 

Daniel Swensen said...

The most common problem I have with love triangles is that some authors seem to want to play the "eternal, undying love" angle and the "doubt and uncertainty because that other guy's sooper hot" angle simultaneously. It can't be both, dammit.

Ava Jae said...

So true. Some love triangles work wonderfully well...but others, in my opinion, miss the point of relationships entirely.

Vicki Orians said...

I personally love a good love-triangle story, especially when it adds to the conflict and keeps the main character from getting what he/she wants. Having a love-triangle just for the sake of having a love-triangle is a little dull. But like Susan said: "To me, the most powerful love triangles always represent a choice about who the MC is." So then it stands to ask, how would choosing one over the other truly affect the hero/heroine?

ÆMarling said...

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Ava Jae said...

I really like what Susan said, too. A love triangle that reflects something in the MC not only makes the choice that the protagonist eventually makes memorable, but gives it a much deeper meaning. 

Ava Jae said...

Love ladders--can't say I've heard that term before, but I think I understand what you mean. Those situations can be pretty interesting. 

Chihuahua Zero said...

And when the best friend is one corner of a love triangle, it's a little unrealistic. Especially if they['re pre-school friends.

Ava Jae said...

On one hand I kind of understand the best friend corner, but it's tricky to get right (and make believable). 

AJIHalsell said...

I'd like to see love triangles from another characters POV. Maybe not from the person receiving, but one of the competitors. Or perhaps from some one mostly uninvolved (a la The Great Gatsby). Or maybe even exploring even more complex scenarios. What if a guy was in love with girl who was in love with another girl but not opposed to the advances of guys? What about a "Crazy Stupid Love" situation where one spouse is clearly still in love with the other but there are things preventing reciprocation?


It just seems to me like there are such limitless facets to explore with love triangles that I don't understand the intrigue and obsession of the standard best friend/new guy love story. Maybe they are too messy for YA literature? But most other literature seems to suffer from the same problem so I don't know.

Chihuahua Zero said...

I remember reading this post when it first went up.


Thinking about it, love triangles, or even romance in general, are THE cliche of YA at the moment, since it's something that can be done in all genres. Often, they don't contribute much to the story as a whole. And sometimes, even if it's the main point, it just doesn't click.


I need to remember this for future reference.

Ava Jae said...

I'm honestly not entirely sure what caused the explosion of best friend/new guy love triangles. I suppose they're easy to imagine and the scenarios can vary greatly while still falling under the bf/ng category, but as you very rightly pointed out, there are so many other love triangle options that aren't nearly as well explored.

Ava Jae said...

Hmmm. Personally, I like the romance subplots that are in most of the novels I read (and I read a lot of YA), but as I was talking about in this post, we have to be careful not to throw in a love triangle for the sake of there being a love triangle.


Actually, something I liked about Veronica Roth's Divergent series is that there isn't a love triangle--the romance aspect is a very realistic view of the difficulties and nuances of a relationship that go on between two people. There doesn't need to be a third party for a relationship to be complicated.

Chihuahua Zero said...

I agree with you on Divergent. In the first book, there's that entire problem of it being a student-teacher relationship that isn't out of the question, yet it's questionable.


The relationship is a bit all over the place in the 2nd book, though.

Ava Jae said...

I occasionally got frustrated with the relationship in Insurgent, however I thought it was a pretty realistic depiction, especially considered how stubborn certain characters (*cough* Tris *cough*) are.

Chihuahua Zero said...

Tris in Book Two indeed took a certain turn. Sort of like Katniss. Both characters suffer lots of trauma, changing them as people for the worse.


Although some people don't like their protagonists to have such traits (ie. sociopathy, consistent recklessness), it's interesting seeing a character suffering from them.


And if Tris is lucky, we as readers will root for her once she shakes off the fugue.

Ava Jae said...

I can definitely see the similarities between Katniss's transition from Catching Fire to Mockingjay and Tris's transition from Divergent to Insurgent. Both were saddening (and in my opinion, especially in Tris's case, slightly infuriating) changes that caused a lot of suffering for the characters.

Miriam Francos said...

I find love triangles irritating sometimes (albeit there are exceptions). I think the main reason is that I can often guess who the main character will end up with - usually the 'bad boy' or loner type character, although this isn't always the case. Also, I agree that the best friend and new guy triangle is getting pretty old, and I'd like to see more male protagonist love triangles, though assumptions about him being a 'player' may mean these are avoided.

Ava Jae said...

Shortly after writing this post I actually read a book with a male protagonist love triangle--in that case it worked because there were legitimate reasons for his dilemma and it wasn't a matter of who was hotter or betraying one or the other or anything like that, so the player thing was avoided. However, who he was going to end up with was pretty predictable, so there's that. Love triangles are hard to pull off convincingly (especially because they've become so cliche), but they can work if done correctly and with a real reason behind it.

Nickie McCall said...

Great post! I actually wrote a bit about this earlier this week (http://nickieanderson.blogspot.com/2012/07/best-romances-in-literature.html)

Sometimes love stories can absolutely cheese me off, and love triangles tend to be the worst offenders (in my opinion). Like you said, the current love triangle cliche is boy next door/best friend type pitted against dreamy McDreamboat new guy. Love can run so much deeper than that, and I think it's our responsibility as writers to show love in all of it's many forms. Does the MC have to be romantically in love with her boy best friend? Not necessarily. They could simply love each other as honest and true friends.

Hmm. More love story things for me to think about as I work on my WIP! :)

Ava Jae said...

There are so many possibilities for romance plots and subplots than the best friend/new hot guy love triangle. It makes me happy when I see variations in novels, because it just goes to show that relationships are deeper than choosing between two hot guys. :)

PassionistaForLife said...

Howdy! Were you somehow able to complete all the settings of your website by yourself or you asked for some help?

Robin Red said...

Here I go commenting on old posts again (shame on me). I wrote a love triangle into my WIP by accident. I had a girl meet a boy, and then the girl goes on an adventure, and there was another boy there. Now there are two boys -sigh- but fortunately they're not the core of the plot. Sort of. Okay they are. But the romance is not the core of the plot. Sort of. I'm doomed -___-

Ava Jae said...

Firstly, no need to apologize for commenting on old posts--in fact, I welcome it. Thanks for taking the time to not only dig through my archives, but comment on them as well. :)


Second, as I said in the post, I don't think that there's anything inherently wrong with love triangles--they can work and they've proved to be an interesting added element to work with. You just have to be careful not to let them fall into the same love triangle cliche while you're using it. :)

Kay M said...

The NaNo I am currently ripping to shreds with red ink (Go, December!) has a love triangle. I decided on a different take on it, and decided on choosing a guy for POV, instead of the normal girl POV with two guys. This is the first time I've ever tried writing a love story, much less a novel. Crossing my fingers!

Ava Jae said...

I love when people flip tropes on their heads. I've only ever read one male POV love triangle, and it wasn't a fair one because I knew from the beginning who was going to win. But! It was interesting to read and while I think I was a teensie bit harder on the protag, I think it has potential to break out of the typical love triangle box as long as it doesn't follow the same formula otherwise.


I wish you all the best with your novel and edits! Sounds like exciting stuff. :)

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