Love triangles run rampant in romantic fiction. Randomly select a Hallmark Channel movie and there’s a good chance you’ll find a heroine who is engaged to or with someone at the beginning of the story and ends up with “our hero” at the end.
The “will they stay together or won’t they” and “will she make the right choice or won’t she” questions provide story conflict, but there is no secret about how things will all turn out. The only real question is “how long will it take” and “what standard plot device will briefly keep the couple apart before their grand-public-declaration-of-love” at the end.
When done well, stories with a love triangle can be engaging, entertaining, and satisfying. Done poorly, however, and the happily-ever-after leaves a bit of a “so what” aftertaste.
In the done poorly camp are stories where our heroine is engaged to or in a long-term relationship with Guy #1 who is clearly Mr. Wrong. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve read/movies I watched where there seemed to be no reason why the heroine would be with Guy #1. Perhaps the idea is that at the beginning of the story our heroine thinks Guy #1 is all she deserves, but by the end of the story she’s found self-worth, confidence, and knows she deserves better. Or maybe not. All I know is that if the heroine is with a Guy #1 who ignores her or patronizes her or takes her for granted (especially if she is in the midst of planning their wedding), and she gets a substantial way through the story before she kicks him to the curb (or god forbid, she considers giving him a second chance near the end of the story), I have real trouble empathizing with her or being particularly interested in her journey. Besides, making Guy #1 a loser feels like lazy storytelling.
In the done well camp, there was the recent movie I saw that had three potential love interests for the heroine. None of them were jerks; the story didn’t make two of them unappealing so the third was the obvious HEA guy; and the heroine had to do some heavy lifting to figure out what she wanted and which relationship she was willing to go all-in for. It was a very satisfying story (well, to be completely honest, it would have been satisfying if not for the actor playing the hero, but that’s a completely different issue) and a good example of a love triangle done right.
Love triangles aren’t limited to romance fiction. I also read a lot of mystery fiction and I’ve come across two different series recently that included a love triangle. In both of them the main female character in the series fell for a married policeman/inspector. In the contemporary mystery series, the characters were well drawn, the relationship built to a slow burn in a believable way, and I felt for the characters and wanted them to end up together, though I couldn’t see how that could possibly happen. When the author finally resolved the triangle by turning the wife into a shrew and then killing her off so the other two could (eventually) wind up together, I was so disappointed I could barely finish the book. It felt like the author had written herself into a corner and then couldn’t figure out what to do.
In the second series, a historical “cozy” mystery series, our heroine didn’t initially know the inspector in the triangle was married. The fact came out after a book or two and readers were left wondering if the wife was in an institution or dying or something. But eventually, the wife appeared on the scene and, big surprise, she acted like a shrew and the author killed her off, but not before our heroine confronted her inspector and asked him (paraphrasing) “who do you chose, her or me?” and he gave a “but I love you both response.” That was the death-knell for the series for me since not only did the author solve the love-triangle problem with murder, but she turned the inspector into a weak, unlikeable character. There had to have been other ways to handle the situation.
On the well done end of the spectrum there was the mystery series with two couples (supporting characters) who were married in book one, changed/grew during ensuing books, and then eventually wound up divorced for understandable reasons. The man from one of the couples and the woman from the other couple wound up together, went through their own growth/challenges, and got their HEA. That was a far more satisfying resolution than killing off characters or turning them into into shrews/jerks to make the desired outcome easier.
I’m drawing a blank at other examples of stories with well done love triangles. A quick “love triangle” search on the internet turned up a few lists of “most popular love triangle romances” but many of them included Pride & Prejudice, which doesn’t seem to qualify at all and Rebecca which is more of a gothic, psychological thriller.
So, have you read any stories with a love triangle that were really well done that you’d recommend?