Love triangulation

Daryl Gregory’s kindly allowed me to share his usual posting day, so you get two Valentine-themed posts this morning: his sonnet (see below) and my musings on that age-old trope, the love triangle.

Back in November I conducted a poll about this topic on the LJ urban fantasy community “Fangs, Fur, and Fey.” Why there? Because rightly or wrongly, they’ve stuck in my mind as part of the standard furniture of the urban fantasy/paranormal romance corner of our genre. Maybe it’s Laurell K. Hamilton’s fault, maybe it came from somewhere else, maybe I’m wrong entirely — but that’s where I most expect to find it. (And usually as M-F-M, though of course it doesn’t have to be that way.)

The poll results showed some interesting patterns — or in some places, lack of pattern. I’m no statistician, but I didn’t see a significant gap between those who adore love triangles and those who hate them; those who didn’t care one way or the other had the lead, but even then not by much. Things sort themselves out a bit more clearly in the second question (good guy, bad guy, neither, or both?): for all that we appear to like our bad boys, most people either want the good guy to win, or don’t particularly like either one.

But when it came down to the third question, one option won in a landslide. It might seem all dramatic and heroic to have one of your candidates die nobly at the climax of the story, but overwhelmingly readers want the heroine to make up her own damn mind. In other words, don’t cheese out of your own conflict; step up and take responsibility for developing your characters, and make them make the hard choices.

Which is apt, since Marissa Lingen ranting about the “kill one off” solution was what got me thinking about the poll in the first place. (Would-be writers of love triangles, take note. You don’t want Marissa coming after you with her stompy boot.)

If the poll were all, I wouldn’t bother posting about it. But the discussion that followed led to an epiphany for me, having to do with what I think of as the Grandparent of All Love Triangles: Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot. Why does that one work for me, and so many others don’t? Why am I invested in that story so much more than most?

Because of Arthur and Lancelot. It’s a love triangle, instead of a “love V” or “love arrow” (both highly suggestive terms, which I find appropriate). Even if you’re not Marion Zimmer Bradley, chucking them both into bed with Guinevere, there’s a relationship there. The two of them are beloved friends. And that’s why the situation hurts: because there’s something at stake on all three sides, and no matter how you resolve it, someone’s going to get hurt. All too often it seems like the same-sex members of the triangle have no connection, or at best hostility, between them. And that way lies a whiff of Mary Sue, because then both of them are only invested in the heroine, and it seems like a cheap way to make her look awesome. See, she’s hot! Everybody wants her! Spare me. That’s a pretty quick road to making me only care about one of them, or neither. But if there’s a bond between them, be it friendship, kinship, or bisexual love, then I’ll pay much more attention.

And if you do that, you open up the possibility that got more votes than I expected in the poll: who says they have to choose? There are more than a few poly folks in fandom, but a dearth of stories which represent multiple relationships positively and realistically. Maybe the genre is just waiting for a breakout poly relationship. (Anita Blake and her Gleaming Orifice That Welcomes All do not count.)

For the record, I’m not against triangles, just against bad ones. When I don’t care about the guys, when the unresolved sexual tension (or “ust,” a term I love) drags on forever and a day, then I roll my eyes. But as one person pointed out in the comments to the poll, a love triangle can provide a way of symbolizing the lives or selves between which the heroine must choose, and certainly it adds in a layer of tension and conflict above and beyond what one relationship provides. And there may be an element of wish-fulfillment, too, imagining yourself as the object of that kind of desire. Plenty of explanations for why readers like them.

But as this is not a specifically urban fantasy-oriented community, I’m curious to see what the feelings are here. Do you like love triangles or not? Why or why not? Other suggestions for how to make them interesting instead of cliched?

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  1. 1. Sam

    “Love triangles” are one of the (many) insipid cliches that ensure that I don’t read “urban fantasy”. Harsh? Maybe, but in my (painful) experience, a love triangle is usually a big warning sign of wallowing mary-sueness. Adolescent wish-fulfilment angst.

    Then again, if the protagonists are angsty adolescents I’m sure it’s in-character and perfectly valid writing, just don’t expect me to want them in my head, or the book in my collection. :)

    With that bile vented out my system, I agree with your distinction that a triangle where all three members have strong attachments to each other makes for a much more interesting story, in that situation it’s not just that one person can’t make up their mind between two options, but that each of them wants what will make the other two happy, but also wants happiness for themselves.

    And of course no single person’s decision is sufficient to resolve matters, making it a much more complicated situation and an opportunity for some REAL character development and agonizing over choices without it simply making you roll your eyes and think that they’re a spoiled brat. (My usual reaction to “oh no, I can’t choose between these two equally amazing opportunities!” self-pitying fools.)

    Basically in a proper love triangle each person needs to choose between their friendship and their love, and possibly their honour and/or integrity, with the possibility that if they choose badly or even choose well but just handle it badly, they will lose it all.

    In a “love arrow” (great term!) one person just has to choose between two fairly interchangable choices either “love A lose B” or “lose A love B”, and it’s about as exciting as a novel as expressing it that way. :P

  2. 2. Marie Brennan

    To be fair, there’s plenty of urban fantasy that doesn’t have love triangles in it; I just happen to think they’re more common there. I’m not sure what your other “insipid cliches” are, and this post isn’t really the place to discuss them anyway, but there’s more variety out there than the butt-shot book covers would lead you to believe. Especially since “urban fantasy” as a term covers a pretty broad range these days.

    Back to love triangles, though, and speaking of angsty adolescents — I just finished the first book of a YA trilogy I’m hoping to sell, and while the situation in it doesn’t break cleanly down into a triangle, it partakes of some of the same issues. The way I’ve chosen to play it there, at least initially, is a choice between friendship and lust, and the question of which one makes a better basis for a romantic relationship. It seemed a natural question for sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds to be asking.

  3. 3. Karen Wester Newton

    I always thought the name “love triangle” was an abuse of geometry (the only math I was ever good at). To me, the term triangle implies the the two guys (assuming it’s M-F-M) have a thing going, too. A triangle has three sides, after all.

    Interestingly, the Washington Post had an article on a Polyamorists convention the other day. Not just “triangle,” but polygons!

  4. 4. Marie Brennan

    That’s kind of what I mean; they should have a thing going. But it doesn’t have to be romantic or sexual attraction to each other, so long as it’s something more than macho hostility and posturing.

  5. 5. Sam

    Yes, I’m painting with a rather wide brush, but it does accurately sum up my experiences with things in the “urban fantasy genre” as opposed to stories that happen to have an “urban fantasy setting” so to speak. As you say though, not really relevent to your article. :)

    i forgot to mention in my previous comment, that I’d also far rather read about someone dealing with the consequences (and learning from the experience) of having made the “wrong” choices in such a situation, than to have them agonise for half the book before living happily ever after, with or without some act of god removing the other person neatly from the picture.

    If the protagonist has a choice between GenericGuyA and GenericGuyB, opts for B and later figures that A was the one she wanted, well that’s got far more interesting outcomes than simply staying stuck between one or the other. Especially if there’s not actually anything particularly wrong with Guy B to justify leaving him in the lurch.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that often these situations are portrayed as if the only thing that hinges on the decision is whether the protagonist will find happiness, which in fiction is fairly obviously “whoever the author decides will make her happy”, it doesn’t add any tension to the story. What makes thinks like the Arthurian love-triangle work is that it isn’t JUST about what will make the people involved happy, but also what they will sacrifice to get it, and the fact that what they decide will make them a different person because it involves ethical compromises.

    And that’s why what passes for “love triangles” in fantasy and sci-fi (not just urban fantasy) tend to annoy me, because it usually boils down to having as much emotional weight as choosing what colour shoes to wear.

  6. 6. Marie Brennan

    Yeah, it can be a real failure of characterization when done badly. I think that’s why a lot of people in my poll voted for neither the “good guy” nor the “bad boy” — because neither option, and neither course of action, carries the kind of depth that really gets a reader invested in it. If there’s no real sacrifice down one path or the other, then the choice can feel very flimsy.

  7. 7. Diatryma

    I don’t think I’d mind a killing-off-a-point love triangle ending… as long as you killed the wrong one. Make the heroine choose. She chooses Bob over Alex, and may or may not make an announcement. Bob is crushed by a meteor.
    And that would be kind of interesting.

  8. 8. Marie Brennan

    ::grin:: I made exactly that suggestion to Mrissa over on my LJ earlier today. (Not the meteor specifically, but you know what I mean.)

  9. 9. Ben Aldred

    I think that’s one of the reasons I love Shakespeare. In my opinion the Orsino-Olivia-Cesario/Viola triangle is perhaps the purest manifestation of the love triangle. The fact that there’s a degree of attraction between all pairings, thus the entire situation is complicated. Plus, Twelfth Night has the best resolution in the whole twin thing.

  10. 10. Anna

    I do love the whole aspect of both the ‘combatants’ (for lack of a better word) having a relationship with each other, be it a friendly sort of thing or just a rivalry. But I find that it makes it all the more difficult to end the triangle when the stakes are so high–when the characters really emphasize with the others, really feel their pain.

    Theoretical case here. Let’s say we have a girl, er, Jane, stuck between her two best friends…oh, let’s just call them Dick and Harry. Dick and Harry do like each other very much, but they are rivaling against each other for Jane. In the end, Jane chooses Dick. But don’t you find it supremely difficult to write a satisfying ending for Harry? How do you find a fulfilling ending for the poor bastard? Is he just supposed to be content, seeing one of his best friends and the girl he loves waltz off into the sunset?

    How do you end love triangles in a satisfying way?

  11. 11. Marie Brennan

    Very true, Anna. As a professional, I have to say that just because something’s hard is no reason not to try doing it — but as a reader, I can sympathize with the desire to avoid an unsatisfactory choice.

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Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.

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