So You Want to Write a Love Triangle
Today, I’m going to discuss the good, the bad, the ugly, and the truly vomit-inducing aspects of the oft overused love triangle. Fair warning before you read this article: I’m not a fan of the love triangle. In fact, I generally despise them to the point that reading one makes me want to spork out my eyeballs. So this article may be a tiny bit, minuscule really, prejudiced in favor of never using of a love triangle, ever. Seriously, never. (Don’t make me hunt you down with my red pen o’ doom.)
So what’s wrong with inserting a love triangle in a story?
Besides everything, you mean? 🙂
Before I get into the reasons why a love triangle is apt to destroy an otherwise good story, we’re going to have a little science lesson first. Do you remember Newton’s Third Law of Motion? No? Well, it goes something like this: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Remember that. Equal and opposite.
There are certain events in a story that cause ripples that push backward and forward in equally positive and negative manners. Out of all the events you can insert into a story, there are two that cause the biggest ripples so to speak. The first is character death and the second is addition of another love interest. And while a love triangle can have a positive effect or “push forward” in relation to the plot, it also causes an equal negative effect or “pull backward” in other aspects of the story. This causes inherent conflict, but on levels that are deeper than the surface struggle between the characters. When you incorporate a love triangle, it causes the very elements of your story begin to war with one another and once this happens, it’s almost impossible to reassert peace or even recover the story until the battles have run their courses.
Using a love triangle is the equivalent of fighting with a knife. Even as you wound your opponent, you are likely to be injured yourself—either by your own hand or that of your adversary. And make no mistake; the addition of a secondary love interest will cause huge, gaping wounds in your story. And those wounds will mean one of two things for your plot: death or a long, restorative convalescence that may or may not sit well with readers.
Also, while technically not a character, a love triangle tends to act like one, and it’s usually in the role of a never-seen-but-always-there godlike antagonist or an antihero that asserts its will and power over the various characters in story. Thinking of a love triangle in this way will help you to keep it contained, somewhat. But as a character this plot device is a monstrous, egomaniacal diva (not in the good way). And it will demand center stage in any story that gives it a home.
A love triangle is an agent of chaos. Essentially you aren’t adding drama or delicious eye candy (though that is a nice side effect), you are adding a bitter war that will touch every level of your story—technical and creative.
So am I equating a love triangle to a huge, voracious Godzilla-like creature that is just waiting to be unleashed upon the unsuspecting village of your story? Yeah, it’s an overdramatic analogy, but…a duck is a duck and a destructive and chaotic plot device is a destructive and chaotic plot device. Enough said.
Still want to use a love triangle?
Okay then. Here’s what you need to know: love triangles DESTROY characterizations.
I can’t state it any plainer than this.
In fact, I suspect that destruction is the true purpose of this plot device. Tearing down one house so another can be built. Just think of them as the bulldozers of the literary world. Any other purpose, especially revolving around the concept of adversity proving a character’s love is true, is BS. This isn’t the Big Bang Theory. Destruction doesn’t equal creation in this instance. Any rebuilding is done in the aftermath of the destruction and by whomever survived the conflict. Ultimately, a love triangle has little to do with love when properly used. It has more to do with the rebuilding/redefining of a character and the destruction of the existing perimeters of the story. Love is just used to drive that growth or destruction. It’s secondary.
So let’s talk about characterization. While adding a love triangle may up the drama and angst in the story, it will also tear down your characters in the same proportion that it built up the story on the opposite side of the plot fence. The undermining of the characters in this way affects the plot, which in turn affects the characters. It becomes a never-ending spiral of destruction in which characterization clashes swords with the established story line. And here’s the secret of the war: the characters always lose. Always.
Imagine your story is a trip. Your plot is the car. Now generally, your characters are sitting inside the car. But when you put a love triangle in a story it bumps the characters out of the car (remember, love triangles are the worst sort of divas). Essentially, you have scattered pieces of your characters on the highway to act as speed bumps. So rather than moving your story forward and taking the characters with you, you are moving the story forward at the expense of the characters, and eventually you will have to go back and retrieve the pieces of your characters and Frankenstein them back together. That doesn’t sound pretty, does it? Trust me, it’s not, but it can serve a purpose if a author is savvy. Character destruction is a useful tool. Don’t be afraid to use it. Just don’t use this tool unknowingly. “Whoops! I accidentally turned Character A into a complete douchebag! My bad!” isn’t an apology your readers are going to accept. “With great power comes great responsibility” and all that.
There are two types of love triangles. The first is one in which a character is choosing between two men when she is not in a relationship with either of them. And the second is one in which a character who is in a relationship is attracted to another. While both types of love triangles have their problems, I find the second type to be the worst.
When you insert a love triangle into an established relationship, it tends to make a liar out of the main character, at best, or the author, at worst. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to expose the deceitful heart a character possesses, unless it will completely undermine everything you’ve built. Let’s take the Twilight series for example. The author set up a scenario in which the character Bella is desperately in love with Edward. He leaves. She’s still desperately in love with him. When he comes back, she’s still desperately love. And then comes book three and suddenly, it’s as if her body has been possessed by a Jacob-loving alien. What happened? The author threw her character under the bus to add drama and conflict.
If you take nothing else away from this article, remember this: don’t make a liar of your character without good cause.
Whether or not the author of Twilight had good cause to make a liar out of her character is something I will leave for the fangirls to argue… um, discuss. 🙂
Do people in committed relationships feel attraction for others? Of course they do! And you can use that to grow a character and improve them, or you can use it to destroy if the story is an object lesson or cautionary tale. The problem with secondary attraction is when it is justified. You’ve seen this plot a hundred times. My boyfriend’s a jerk or he’s ignoring me or he’s probably cheating on me, so it’s okay for me to run off with Character B. Um no. It really isn’t. It makes her a skank. Nothing more, nothing less. And there’s nothing wrong with a skanky character. If she owns it. It’s when justification comes in that things become eye-roll inducing.
Another facet of secondary attraction gone wrong is when the attraction is overpowering. Of course we romance readers love the inevitability of attraction. But when characters cannot control themselves, it’s a moral flaw. It makes them weak and powerless against their hormones. That might lead to a great sex scene, but the characterization takes a hit. And if you’ve spent a story or series building a kick-ass heroine who is strong and independent and in love, having her fall panting and desperate at the feet of Bachelor #2 is a mistake. The character is turned into a victim of circumstance. She is shown to be pathetic, weak, and inconstant. If you intended to destroy a character like this because it’s essential to your plot, great, don’t change a thing. But if you are just trying to prove the wonderfulness of fated love and soul mates, stop writing and rethink your story. You can do that without a love triangle.
Also, love triangles redirect the focus of the story. It’s a huge distraction. Everything becomes relationship this and relationship that, which is fine if the relationship journey is the story. But if it’s not, the subplot involving the love triangle will supplant the main plot and drown it. This means the story will become scattered and everything will be secondary to whether Hawt Lustfulson is better for the heroine than Broody McMuscles. Do your readers a favor and just don’t go there.
Basically, what I’m trying to get at without making this article a book is have a purpose when you use a love triangle and control how it affects your characterizations and story focus. It can be a great tool to ruin or grow characters. Agent of chaos, right? But if chaos isn’t what you intend, then this plot device isn’t right for your story. Love triangles expose the hidden heart of your characters. It’s Pandora’s Box. And when you open that puppy, lots of horrific story destroying things can tumble out. But a lot of wonderful story building things can as well.
Jealousy, strife, envy, amoral behavior, moral weakness… Yes, ma’am. Great elements in a story. Patheticness, inconstancy, weak will, victimization, psychotic behavior, and a need to be rescued… Not so much.
So the next time you intend to strap a fiery red pair of hooker heels onto your heroine’s feet and push her down temptation alley, stop and take a moment to think it through. Because for every action you take in your story, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The results just might turn out to be more than you ever expected. Be that result good or bad.
Now back to writing! 🙂