This month on Trope Anatomy 101, Carlie St. George examines the Love Triangle.
Trope Anatomy 101 is a monthly column in which familiar tropes, particularly in speculative fiction and pop culture, are broken down and discussed by new regular contributor and author Carlie St. George.
Trope Anatomy 101: Team No One
There are no bad tropes.
Okay, that’s a lie: there are plenty of bad tropes, ones that are both lazy and harmful, and we’ve discussed some of them in this very column. But many tropes aren’t so much inherently awful as they are often poorly executed, which generally leads to a kneejerk reaction against the trope itself. And for me, the love triangle has always been my kneejerk reaction trope.
Now, here’s the thing: love triangles are incredibly easy to dog pile on. We do it constantly; in fact, some even use this collective disdain as a justification for dismissing whole genres. (YA, for instance, is often derided for its dependence on this plot trope–although I think it’s worth noting that of the 11 YA novels I’ve read this year, only 2 have actually featured a love triangle.) If possible, I’d like to try to avoid adding to the dog pile; my intention is to attempt to explore why they often fail for me–because if I can articulate what’s not working, maybe I can discover what will.
‘Cause the thing is, I sometimes feel like I ought to enjoy love triangles more. As a rule, I get very excited about character-based stories that build to Big Choice moments, and really, isn’t that what a love triangle is all about? Unfortunately, I’ve found a number of factors have prevented me from fully investing in many of the various love triangles I’ve come across in literature, television, and film.
I’m Team No One
Let’s go back to what quite possibly is the origin of my frustration with this trope.
The year is 2000. (Well, roughly. I could be off a year or two.) I’m fifteen, a sophomore in high school, and seriously obsessed with ER. There’s a whole lot I enjoy about the soapy medical drama; what I don’t like, however, is the irritating love triangle between Abby, Carter, and Luka, because on their own, I enjoy all three characters. Unfortunately, as soon as Carter and Luka begin competing for Abby’s affection, they both seem to transform from decent enough people into raging assholes. They even get into a sword duel (A SWORD DUEL. On ER.) And lest you start imagining some suave, clever, Princess Bride style shit, let me assure you: this is not the case. Carter and Luka get into the pissiest sword duel I have ever seen, one that turns into an out-and-out fistfight, and it’s completely ridiculous… but, like, not in a fun way?
One of the things I found most annoying about this dynamic was how Carter and Luka seemed to take turns playing Good Guy versus Giant Tool, often switching roles for seemingly no reason at all.
Presumably, the idea behind this Great Asshat Pendulum was to make audiences constantly shift sympathies from one suitor to another, thus extending the love triangle itself. And it’s possible this strategy was supposed to heighten the drama; it did not, however, work for me because all I wanted Abby to do was dump both these whiners and find a man who would treat her right more than 50% of the time. A love triangle that makes me hope that both prospective love interests die in a fire is not, in my opinion, a very successful one.
And yet love triangles frequently seem to bring the worst out of every character, at least in my observation. To an extent, this is understandable (an idea we’ll come back to in a minute), but at some point, their crappy behavior makes me stop caring about them entirely. I felt similarly (if less extremely) about the Nancy/Jonathan/Steve love triangle on Netflix’s recent hit Stranger Things, and the Sophronia/Soap/Felix love triangle in Gail Carriger’s otherwise extremely enjoyable Finishing School series.
In the interest of being fair, the Nancy/Jonathan/Steve triangle isn’t actually a terrible one. For starters, their romantic drama never stops the plot in its tracks; for another, I was impressed that Steve was not the total stereotypical 80’s jerk he initially appeared to be. Still, Nancy’s choices in romantic suitors were the dude who helped publicly slut-shame her when he got jealous, and the dude who took pictures of her without her knowledge or consent when she was stripping down. I feel pretty confident that the show wanted me to ship Nancy with the latter dude, but mostly, I just hoped Nancy would stay single until she found someone more worthy of her time.
Meanwhile, the Sophronia/Soap/Felix triangle doesn’t start off so badly, but I became pretty irritated with it during the third book, Waistcoats & Weaponry, as the two boys constantly snipe and hiss at one another. Luckily, neither love interest slut shames or spies on anyone, but it sometimes felt that I couldn’t go two pages without their rivalry (and Sophronia’s indecision) being brought up, even though there were considerably more important things for our heroes to worry about. What made this particularly frustrating was that, prior to this novel, I actually was a Sophronia/Soap shipper . . . but the constant pettiness caused me to lose nearly all investment in Soap and Sophronia actually getting together.
Of course, mileage on what behavior constitutes understandable versus unacceptable is always going to vary, and there’s certainly an argument to be had that, in the words of Willow Rosenberg, “love makes you do the wacky.” I’m not a particularly romantic person, and I understand there isn’t some handy switch that allows humans to shut off their feelings and act maturely. People in love sometimes say hurtful things and make bad decisions, especially when jealousy is involved. Again, that’s all understandable . . . to an extent.
But when jealousy begins to entirely overpower the narrative, and/or becomes a hallmark of the characters’ relationship, I start to have problems, as I find the former boring and the latter unhealthy. And I definitely lose all investment if both happen at the same time, which is something of a problem because that’s the big draw, right, the great potential of love triangles? You want to get invested. You want to be on Team Somebody. It should be fun rooting for them, like football for the feels, because it matters to you, which love interest the protagonist picks. If it doesn’t, if you have no skin in the game, then the story has neither tension nor payoff.
This leads me to another related problem that I occasionally have with love triangles:
Shipping by Default
Let’s begin with Katniss, Gale, and Peeta from The Hunger Games movies. (Specifically, the movies. I haven’t read the trilogy in full.)
My professional opinion as a pop culture nerd and all around critical bastard is that Gale is a douchecanoe of the highest order. He doesn’t start off so bad in the first film (primarily because he has roughly two minutes of screen time), but throughout the rest of the series, he comes across as an entitled weenie who’s outraged that he’s been friendzoned. This behavior is particularly egregious in both Catching Fire (when he petulantly doesn’t want to say goodbye to Katniss because he’s still sulking that she faked a romantic relationship with Peeta–you know, in order to survive), and also Mockingjay, Part One, when he breaks off a kiss and passive-aggressively tells Katniss that she only notices him when he’s in pain, which strongly strikes me as code for “if you’re not sure you LIKE me like me, why are we wasting time being friends at all?”
Peeta is a decent enough guy, brainwashing aside, but his chemistry with Katniss (on screen, anyway) is weak sauce, like mild Tostitos salsa weak sauce, and there’s nothing about the two of them that makes me think, “YES, I ship it SO HARD.” Still, I hate Gale with a fiery passion, so, purely by default, I essentially end up being a Katniss/Peeta shipper. And admittedly, that’s undoubtedly preferable to wanting to set both Peeta and Gale on fire, but I would argue that shipping by default doesn’t make for a terribly compelling love story. Ideally, we shouldn’t vote for a romance the way we vote for political elections. I want to care about two people coming together because I think they work together, not because one is sorta okay, or the lesser of two evils.
A weird, almost inversion of this dynamic happens in Lost with Kate, Jack, and Sawyer. I have multiple problems with this triangle (some of which we’ll come back to shortly), but one of my biggest stumbling blocks is that I actively dislike two of these characters. Kate is easily my least favorite on the show (Bitch Media has a decent article explaining how the love triangle actually weakened the incredible potential of her character), with Jack being a very, very close second. In fact, I disliked these two so much that I actually hoped they would get together, not because I cared about them, but because I didn’t want Sawyer to end up with someone I couldn’t stand. Which I suppose is a type of investment, but not the kind I’m really looking for.
In all the examples we’ve discussed thus far, I either haven’t liked what the love triangles have done to the characters, or I haven’t cared enough about the characters to invest in the triangles themselves. Clearly, character itself is a priority to me when it comes to good storytelling; as my friend and awesome writer Alyc Helms recently pointed out to me, though, not everyone puts such a high a priority on character; what makes or breaks a story for others might be originality or comprehensive worldbuilding or believable plot. I feel I have to consider the possibility that my personal preference for sympathetic characters makes me predisposed to not enjoying love triangles, at least, not generally.
Still, not all of my difficulties with this plot trope are solely centered on the likability of the people involved. Love triangles have a reputation for being artificial, formulaic, and unnecessary; in fact, a quick Google search on the subject pulled up articles from Book Riot, Flavor Wire, and even an entire Goodreads shelf. I’m not sure this reputation is 100% earned, but I do know I’ve had that reaction to specific triangles myself. So let’s dissect some possible reasons for such a reaction, shall we?
The Love Triangle Is All
Love triangles are like any plot device; if the story is going to include one, you want it to actually be doing something. We’ve already discussed a couple of functions a love triangle could theoretically provide: insight into the characters, for instance, or drawing the viewer in by asking them to choose sides. Ideally, I feel like the triangle should also tie into the main story in some pivotal way, so that the actions taken by the characters in said triangle affect the direction of the main plot itself.
When love triangles don’t integrate with the main story, though (or do so very, very poorly), I think it’s easy for viewers to feel that the romantic drama has not only been trumped up but actually takes time away from what they showed up for in the first place. The Lost love triangle, for instance: one of things that especially frustrates me about it is that we spend a lot, a LOT, of time on these three and their angst, and you know what we could have spent more of that time on? SOLVING ALL THE MYSTERIES BEFORE THE SERIES ENDED.
As always, this is tricky because so much of these assessments rely on personal taste. There are certainly people out there who enjoyed the Kate/Sawyer/Jack triangle, who found the characters compelling and fully got what they were looking for. But I know that I, for one, did not, because while I don’t mind the show having some romantic conflict, I felt that (much like ER) the triangle here was improbably stretched out, often to the detriment of the primary plot. So much attention was spent on “who should end up with whom” that by the end it felt like the show forgot it would someday have to solve what many of us tuned in for in the first place. Because I sure didn’t stick around for six seasons to find out who Kate picked; I stuck around because I wanted to know what the hell was up with this magical island.
While Lost’s primary love triangle often felt like it overshadowed the rest of the story, Fringe actually did try to incorporate their triangle directly into the plot. Unfortunately, I think they badly fumbled the execution.
In Fringe’s defense, the triangle itself is both interesting and unusual: we have Olivia of this reality, Fauxlivia (or Altlivia–I entirely reject Bolivia) from a parallel reality, and Peter Bishop, originally from the parallel reality, but mostly raised in this reality, who unwittingly dated undercover Fauxlivia while believing her to be actual Olivia. Clearly, it all got a little complicated, but for the most part, it was fun, exciting, SF spy stuff.
Things became problematic for me, however, when the show tried to extend that dynamic into an actual love triangle after Fauxlivia’s identity was revealed. For starters, I never bought that Peter would seriously consider rekindling his romance with Fauxlivia. I could buy Olivia’s initial sense of betrayal and reluctance to be with Peter. I could buy her insecurity that he secretly liked Fauxlivia more. I could even buy Peter missing aspects of his relationship with Fauxlivia that Olivia couldn’t provide, but I never, ever bought that he might seriously choose the woman who lied to him and slept with him while pretending to be someone he loved over the actual woman he loved. Maybe I’d have gotten there eventually, a season or two down the road, but Fringe asked me to buy into this love triangle far, far too soon, which left it feeling wholly artificial. Especially when the show quickly tried to tie it to the main plot by saying that Peter’s choice of lovers would destroy an entire universe.
Yes. Fringe had a universe-killing machine that would respond to whatever frequency Peter was currently vibrating at. And as Sam Weiss explained, the frequency “depends on his state of mind, which in turn will depend on who he ends up with: Olivia from here or Olivia from over there. Whichever one he chooses, it’ll be her universe that survives.”
I have so, so many problems with this.
For one, it seems more than a little ludicrous to me that we’re tying the fate of roughly seven billion people to whichever woman this dude chooses to suck face with. A love triangle should have stakes, of course, but this seems almost co(s)mically absurd to me. The fact that I don’t buy the triangle that this whole dilemma is founded on makes things seem even more unrealistic. And then there’s the fact that Peter’s state of mind is apparently wholly dependent on his romantic feelings.
It’s great when love triangles are plot relevant, but I also don’t feel like they should be the only motivating factor in every important decision a character makes. And unfortunately, I often get the sense that for the people in love triangles, their romantic conflict is the only conflict that really matters.
Of course, there are other reasons this brand of romantic conflict seems disingenuous to me.
Gee. How Will This Resolve, I Wonder?
Let’s go back to 2000. No, sorry, 2001 this time.
I was a huge Dark Angel fan, back in the day, but the show did come with its share of problems, and the love triangle between Max, Logan, and Asha was definitely one of those problems for me. I recently re-watched some of second season, and one of the things that really struck me was how deeply unnecessary this love triangle was. Partially that’s rooted in character stuff: Asha and Max have incredibly solid reasons not to like one another that have nothing to do with a man. (Max overhears Asha speaking of her genetically engineered Manticore brethren as “furry little friends”; meanwhile, Asha’s resistance group, the S1W, is instrumental in Max’s rescue, yet Max is extremely reluctant to help when the S1W is framed for terrorist attacks as retribution for helping Max’s people out in the first place). Still, Dark Angel always drags their conflict back to jealousy about Logan, and that gets frustrating because it’s so common for stories to make female characters’ motivations, desires, and decisions solely about men.
Another reason that this love triangle feels so unnecessary to me, though, is that there’s really no question about how it will resolve. The endgame was always Max and Logan. I say that with total confidence, despite the fact that the series was actually cancelled before the two officially rekindled their romance. Any love triangle with this sense of inevitability means the third dot feels less like an actual character than simply an obstacle in the way. (For further examples on this, look no further than the majority of James Marsden’s career.) And I find that especially irritating because a) Max already had an incredibly stupid, only Logan-killing disease for just this purpose, and b) nothing makes a love triangle feel more artificial than the sense that it’s merely a stall technique, because years and years later, TV writers are still terrified of the supposed Moonlighting Curse.
Meanwhile, I hate to keep beating up on The Hunger Games franchise, but when it comes to the movies . . . we all knew that Katniss and Peeta were going to get together, right? For a series that’s marketed so heavily around a central love triangle, 1/3 of that triangle gets considerably less screen time. Gale spends so little time with Katniss (and acts like a jerk to her for so much of it) that it’s hard to believe that he was ever really a viable candidate.
Presumably, a love triangle ought to create some sense of anticipation, but how much tension can there really be when the protagonist’s choice seems like such a foregone conclusion? Spike was one thing, but did anyone really believe that Riley was serious competition for Angel in Buffy the Vampire Slayer? How about Veronica Mars: some people might have shipped Veronica/Piz, but who actually would’ve put money down on them getting together at the end over Veronica/Logan?
Actually, Veronica Mars might be worth discussing further, as it echoes other concerns I’ve brought up. The Veronica/Logan/Piz triangle in the show itself is a rather standard setup, with Logan being Veronica’s intense, damaged bad boy and Piz being the classic, nice-but-boring alternative. But Rob Thomas takes it an annoying step further by needlessly extending the love triangle into the follow-up movie, which is set ten years after the show ended.
At the beginning of the film, Veronica and Piz are together, and he seems to represent Veronica’s whole successful life in New York that, ultimately, she leaves behind to pursue her true passion: PI awesomeness. The problem, unfortunately, is that you absolutely don’t need Piz for that, as Veronica is also leaving behind a new job at a huge law firm, and all the work she must have done to get such a job is more than enough to give us a sense of what she’s giving up. And yet it seems to me that the movie ultimately frames this big, life-altering decision as merely a choice between Piz and Logan, which is unfortunate because a) it’s another example of romantic conflict overriding all other conflict in a story, and b) it’s so, so obvious that Veronica isn’t going to stay with Piz that it’s annoying to waste so much time on a character who has no real bearing on the plot. All of the time we spend on Piz drama is time we could have spent on making a more exciting, well-plotted mystery. Honestly, I think Piz deserved better, and I’m a LoVe shipper!
Let us come, finally, to the last reason I think love triangles struggle to come across as genuine:
Oh, Look; It’s You Three Again
Sometimes, it’s not the resolution that makes a love triangle feel predictable; it’s the initial setup. Tell me, how many love triangles can you think of that include a nice guy, a bad boy, and a girl? I’m thinking Adam, Zachary, and Vicky from Madeline L’Engle’s A Ring of Endless Light. I’m thinking Richard, Jean Claude, and Anita from the first, oh, maybe eight Anita Blake books by Laurell K. Hamilton. Not to mention The Vampire Diaries, Dawson’s Creek, Gilmore Girls, True Blood, X-Men, Lost, BTVS, Veronica Mars, and plenty of others I’m certainly overlooking.
While preparing for this essay, I tried to come up with a list of all the love triangles I could think of. I managed about 40–obviously there were ones I missed, forgot about, or am otherwise unaware of. And by looking over my list, I noticed a few things. Like, do you know how many triangles had one guy choosing between two female love interests? 3. (Dark Angel, Fringe, and The 100.) Do you know how many of them weren’t purely hetero love triangles? 1. (Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines.) How about how many triangles ended with an open relationship? 1. (Again, Libriomancer.) How about how many ended with the protagonist choosing someone other than the primary love interests? 1. (True Blood, to my sister’s continued fury.)
Love triangles don’t have to be so formulaic, and yet so very frequently, they are. There are exceptions to this, of course. There are exceptions to every concern I’ve discussed: Hines’s choice to have Isaac, Lena, and Dr. Shah try to navigate an open relationship at the end of Libriomancer is a huge reason I’m interested in continuing with the series–I never would have predicted it, and it’s always exciting to see stories that embrace romantic relationships outside of hetero monogamy. Farscape’s love triangle (consisting of one badass Aeryn Sun and the two identical John Crichtons in love with her) is one of my very favorite triangles of all time. It’s an entirely unusual setup that actually provides a very interesting plot structure for the majority of the third season. Clarke, Finn, and Raven’s love triangle starts out a bit melodramatically for my tastes in The 100, but the triangle never overtakes the entire plot, and I became very impressed by how pragmatically the characters–particularly the women, who ROCK–handle the whole situation. And I felt similarly about the Tark/Okiku/Kendele triangle in Rin Chupeco’s The Suffering. This YA novel has its own unusual setup (a teenage exorcist, his classmate, and a Japanese vengeance ghost) and a resolution that’s handled honestly, realistically, and maturely, a very welcome change.
Overall, unfortunately, I’ve struggled with love triangles, and I think if this essay proves anything, it proves that there isn’t one root cause for that; there’s no single factor that makes this plot trope quintessentially good or bad. There are lots of complicated, personal factors here: how much crappy behavior a love interest can exhibit before you write him off for good, how much of a story’s primary conflict do you want to be based in romance, how much of a problem is it for you if a love triangle’s resolution is obvious from the start, etc. This trope is a bit too subjective for me to say IT’S THE WORST, ALWAYS, and move on about my day. Love triangles may never be something I go looking for in fiction, but that’s a long way from being able to claim that they are objectively terrible or absolutely need to change.
But after looking at what kinds of love triangles generally fail for me, I do think that–more than anything–I’d like to see something of a shakeup: more LGBTQIA triangles, more triangles that aren’t good guy versus bad boy, more triangles that go weirder and wilder places, and help tell new and compelling types of stories. Hell, maybe we could have more love triangles that are actual triangles, where each dot romantically connects to every other dot, rather than what we usually see, which is more like, er, the top of an arrow?
Because, really, this plot trope is old–I’m talking King Arthur, the once and future king old–but there’s no reason for it to come across as boring and formulaic; it just so often seems to. And that’s a shame, really, because tropes don’t have to be clichés. Navigating tropes in fiction is like navigating a bunch of stones across a river: you need them to make it to your destination, but you don’t have to copy every single traveler who came before you. Find your own path. Hop new steps. And, you know. Try not to drown.
Because after all, love triangles are like any plot device; at some point, a bit of reinvention does them, and us, a world of good.