Well, this is masochistic of me, because if I were just asked to do a rant on love triangles, I could sum the whole thing up as, “1). Don’t write them.”
However, just because I have hated 99.9999999% of all the love triangles I have ever read, and would undoubtedly hate more if I didn’t purposely avoid stories with love triangles in them, doesn’t mean that there isn’t some redeeming feature in love triangles. Maybe. If one looks reeeeally hard.
(By the way, to avoid any definition problems, the love triangle I’m referring to is the one with Character A stuck choosing between Characters B and C, who both love him/her, while he/she loves them both. Yes, those. You see why this transformation is going to take quite a bit of work).
1) All characters must be people.
No, this is not an open invitation to write a love triangle with a human, an elephant, and a dragon.
By “people,” I mean “full characters, rather than one full character, one Designated Love Interest, and one person to be used as a dumping ground for all the personality traits the author has ever hated in someone else/revenge for the author’s high school crushes gone bad.” This means, among other things, that the person in the middle should seem to have an actual choice. This is the problem that kills 90% of love triangles dead in the starting gate. There is never any suspense over who the character in the middle will end up with, because one person is Miss/Mr. Shining and Perfect, and the other is Obviously Not Right/Probably Working for the Dark Lord. (See point 5 if you actually think you are being original with that last one).
This doesn’t make any sense. What author wants her story dead before it begins running the race? Even more, it casts doubt on the sanity/intelligence/observation skills of the person in the middle. You really want me to believe that your protagonist is smart? Then don’texpect me to believe he somehow has a really hard time choosing between someone who complements his weaknesses, is good with other people, is “quietly beautiful,” is devoted to helping him complete his quest, and has no apparent flaws, and someone who jeers at him, tears him down, insults and hurts others, is “darkly beautiful,” and comes up with some stories about where she sneaks off to at night that everyone else tells the protagonist are obviously false (the author is probably also showing, via scenes the protagonist isn’t in, that the Other Woman is cheating or working against him). No, fuck no. No suspense. This is a plot kept alive only by the protagonist’s stupidity/naïveté. It is, in fact, an idiot plot. And I don’t feel like cheering for idiots unless the author shows me that she’s willing to smack them around for being so, and improve them later in the story. An idiot I’m not supposed to regard as an idiot is intolerable.
Fully characterized, all three of them. The two people competing for the one in the middle have to be actual peers or rivals—equals, which is the hardest relationship for most authors to depict. The character in the middle has to seem as if she has actual reasons for loving both the rivals, as well as reasons for not being able to choose right away. (See point 2). Their interactions have to be the way these people would actually interact, which means the author has to watch not only them, but herself, so she doesn’t slip in irritating little digs at the character she doesn’t want her heroine to end up with. If I sense a flicker of the author pushing me in one direction with a love triangle, I dig in my heels and/or go away.
So that, actually, is it: the author has to love all three characters for the love triangle to work, empathize with and understand all three.
That’s asking a lot of most fantasy authors, who make their perfect, flawless couple the center of the book and can’t envision their precious hero/heroine ending up with anyone else. But it’s required to make a love triangle that Limyaael will love. Show me someone who could actually end up with one of two different people, and two different people who could actually end up with him/her. Detach your vision from the perfect couple in the center of the universe. (I actually think this would be good practice for writing any fantasy at all, but I realize I am already asking for the moon, and it might be unwise to ask for the sun, too).
2) Show me why these characters would fall in love, and thus create the love triangle in the first place.
Remember, we are talking about a love triangle that Limyaael will love, here. That means that I do not accept any of the following reasons as the basis for actual love:
- “Well, they were trapped together in a small room/a cave for a day.” (Not everyone tumbles into bed in those circumstances, sorry).
- “Well, they’d always secretly lusted after each other, but they were too embarrassed to let each other know in case the other person didn’t love them back.” (What are they, twelve?)
- “Well, they traveled together and were of the appropriate sexual orientations.” (I will accept this the day the hero/ine happens to fall in love with any two of his/her traveling companions of the appropriate sexual orientations, not just the ones who are fairly attractive and fairly near his/her own age).
- “Well, they bicker, so it’s SEXUAL TENSION.” (I don’t care that relationships like this exist. They are overrepresented in fantasy, and I find many of them bring the characters’ inner twelve-year-olds on stage again, as the “banter” they exchange is neither clever nor interesting, but just annoying. Show me a love relationship based on more than the characters being annoying little twats).
But then, how do you do it, if you can’t set up a contrived little situation?!?
By characterization, of course. Duh.
This is where your careful characterization from point 1 comes in again. Not only have you created characters who could have an actual choice, you’ve made them people who would have an actual choice. They would fall in love with these people, because of X. The character in the middle would have difficulty choosing, because of X about him/her, and X about the characters he/she is interested in. The characters on the sides wouldn’t just abandon the relationship or demand that the character in the middle choose immediately, because of X about them.
It all has to make sense.
Yes, it’s difficult as all hell. Great. I fail to understand why this is a problem, instead of the kind of challenge any writer would relish. But then, I fail to understand why so many authors have one character rescue another and then fall in love because of the rescue, or get locked in a small room and have sex and have it lead to a lasting relationship, or be secretly in love with each other for years and never be adult enough to do anything about it but wallow in self-pity.
So show me why the love triangle exists in the first place, and have it make sense with the characters.
3) Have the middle character’s sexual actions fit with the middle character’s sexual mores.
I swear I can hear the author giggling when she writes “Oh, but Maria would never have sex with either Sam or Jeff,” and then have Maria have sex with Sam in Chapter 4 and sex with Jeff in Chapter 6. Of course, it gets “rationalized” with “explanations” like “Maria thought she was going to die, and she didn’t want to die a virgin,” or “Maria wanted Just One Night to remember Jeff by.” This is because the author has not left high school—no, screw that. The author has never left fifth grade.
Decide early on what the character in the middle will and will not do with regards to sex. Yes, sex, not romance, because if you’ve got a strongly-characterized person who falls in love with two different but strongly-characterized people, I can accept that he/she mightlove them differently. Also, fantasy authors are less inclined to make stupid excuses for their characters about non-sexual gestures than sexual gestures.
But sexual gestures…ye fucking gods. If the middle character was raised a nun and blushes at the thought of even touching a man, why the hell is she groping it up with Side Character A and not feeling a trace of remorse? Oh, yes, of course, because Side Character A is the author’s choice for her Designated Love Interest, and it just “feels right.” And groping with Side Character B feels icky, not because the character’s a nun, but because he’s not the author’s choice.
Here’s news for you, stupid author: you can’t just change a character without explanation, or with liberal use of words like “somehow” and “she just had a feeling that…” That’s fuzzy writing, it’s bad plotting, and it’s sucky characterization. If your character is a hypocrite some of the time, then be prepared to show that she’s a hypocrite some of the time. If her vows of chastity matter less and less to her as time goes on, then mention that. If she’s with Side Character A in a setting where the vows don’t matter as much to her, but with Side Character B in a setting where every single one of her memories comes alive and stalks her chiding her for her sins, then it might be good to, oh I don’t know, just hint at that.
But please. Do not try to tell me that the character “forgets” her “deeply-held” beliefs just because the plot requires her to. That’s stupid in any plot situation, but it’s especially stupid in regards to sex, which most authors make a Big Fucking Deal about. You really expect me to believe that your character doesn’t treat it as something special when you write about it with language like “And then she felt a tidal wave of passion rising relentlessly from the sea of her soul”?
You have to know what your middle character likes and doesn’t like, how far he or she is willing to go, and to provide plausible explanations if he/she has different sexual behavior with the two people he/she is supposedly in love with. After all, if the hero’s sexually attracted to one woman and not the other, and he respects and loves the other woman as a sister, why the fuck wouldn’t he just let the other woman down gently? Why the fuck would he string her along, or steal a kiss and then apologize? Unless he’s just a jackass, of course—but then you’ll have to explain why these two strong, sexy, self-respecting women are in love with him.
When you have a fully-characterized love triangle, stupid gestures like this become much harder to make, not only because you’ve got characters who wouldn’t do that, but because it would just be too much fucking work to have to go back and revise the hell out of your characters for the sake of one stupid teenage soap opera moment.
4) Do not make physical looks have anything to do with the middle character’s final choice.
I am suspicious anyway when one character in a love triangle is described as a “breathtaking beauty” and the other as “plain but attractive.” I am sure it is completely a coincidence that the character in the middle ends up with his breathtakingly beautiful love interest and not the plain but attractive one. Only not.
This irks me on a number of levels:
- If the character in the middle places such importance on looks, enough to make his final choice because of beauty, why was he attracted to the other person in the first place, and for so long?
- It’s making the two characters unequal, often without any corresponding flaw to the breathtakingly beautiful character. See point number 1 for why this is a shitty idea.
- It often leads to more of the inane sexual behavior described in Point 3, where the middle character “forgot herself because [the breathtakingly beautiful love interest] was just so handsome,” but somehow manages to resist having sex with the “plain but attractive” one. As if good looks were some kind of mind power. “Must…have…sex…with…beautiful…character…”
- The author is displaying a stunning lack of imagination in having the middle character choose just because of beauty. I suppose personality has nothing to do with it? Compatibility? Loyalty? Shared experience? Strength of the bond? Shared desire? It’s all because of looks that the middle character makes his final choice? Wow. There’s not much to say to that other than Wow. And then laugh, I suppose, when the author insists that her character is not shallow.
I will not go into further detail. It should be obvious that doing this is a bad idea, and why.
5) NEVER, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, MAKE ONE LOVE INTEREST THE VILLAIN.
In all caps because no matter how obvious it should be, authors continue to think it’s a good plot point.
This is stupid and shallow and stupid and inane and stupid. Of course the middle character isn’t going to choose the woman who was trying to kill him. (Although I would laugh like hell at a story where he did choose the wrong woman, and then she killed him). Of course the two love interests are not really equal, not true peers, if one of them is evil and one is good. Of course the hero is spared a difficult choice if it turns out that, poor widdle protagonist, he was pursued by the femme fatale. It is not his fault that he fell under the sway of her Evil Seductress Powers. He was meant to be with his Designated Love Interest all along.
And, of course, the protagonist is usually an awful idiot if he couldn’t have spotted, long before it was revealed, that this woman was working for the Dark Side.
So, please, please, please. No more love triangles where the heroine is caught between a man who plays her love songs and brings her chocolates, and one who beats her black-and-blue and threatens her with death, and feels she has an actual choice to make. If she’s in an abusive relationship that she can’t leave, that’s something far different, and not, I would think, an actual love triangle. If the woman is a masochist and torn between a lover who treats her gently in bed and one who’s a sadist perfectly matched to her, then we are cooking with charcoal, but most fantasy authors are never ever going to go there. (I wonder why?) But the first set-up that I described is stupid and shallow and stupid and inane and stupid. No more.
6) No more love triangles where the whole thing is the result of “feminine weakness.”
I prefer strong female characters anyway, by which I mean “female characters who have their own minds and do not spend the whole time obsessed with men, either pining for them or putting them down.” They don’t have to be warriors for me to empathize with them. They can certainly be mothers who love their children fiercely. The most important relationships in their lives can certainly be with men. None of that is the same as the fantasy heroines who, oh my god sob sniffle, just can’t live if the man in the middle doesn’t choose them, or just can’t choose between two men because she would hurt their feelings if she refused one of them. (And she’s not doing that by continuing to string them along when she prefers one over the other?)
Also, please, please, please, for the love of fried green tomatoes, no more two women-one man love triangles where the “right” woman is a virgin and the other sleeps around. It’s about time that we got over this sick fetishization of virginity. If it matters that much to the hero, say if his wife has to be a virgin so the heir is of unquestioned provenance, why did he even consider marrying the other woman? I’m waiting.
And finally, no more one man-two women love triangles where the “right” woman forgives the hero anything because she “understands” him. There are some things that can’t be “understood” without an apology of some kind. (I immediately, immediately abandon any fantasy book where the hero slaps the heroine across the face and she rationalizes it away as him being tired or something, and later falls in love with him and insists it doesn’t matter). I’ve ranted before about stupid heroines who can never demand any attention for themselves, no matter what trauma they’ve suffered, because the hero needs attention more. I want equal relationships, thanks, or non-equal ones that make sense for the characters involved. The author unquestioningly sticking gender norms in there, all the while insisting that the “right” woman is strong and sticks up for herself even as she rushes to tend the hero’s wounds, is not the way to go.
That was kind of fun, actually.