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?
I got curious, so I googled “romance love triangles” (leaving out the “most popular” description), and I got many, many hits on books I didn’t know, plus “Gone with the Wind” (Rhett, Scarlett, and … Ashley Wilkes? Must be—that makes more sense than Scarlett, Melanie, and Ashley Wilkes), Hunger Games, and Twilight, which I haven’t read or seen, although I’m ready to believe the triangles in those books are as strong—so not—as the one in GWTW. Also, I’m trying to think of the triangle in P&P: Darcy, Mr. Collins, and Elizabeth? Mr. Collins, Elizabeth, and Charlotte? So hard to tell, when there’s no real triangle, just intersections.
I’m terrible at remembering titles and authors, so I’m no good at recalling love triangles done well, or poorly, for that matter. However, long ago, a college professor of mine asserted that one of the most significant love triangles on film occurred in the 1946 “Duel in the Sun” (nicknamed “Lust in the Dust”), starring Jennifer Jones and Gregory Peck. According to my prof, the triangle involved Jones, Peck, and Peck’s horse. And when I went to see the film, I saw what he meant.
I hated the way the author resolved the triangle in Twilight. So much so that I immediately put (threw!) the books in the recycling bin (though given the series’ lasting popularity and stellar sales, clearly I was in the minority).
I also quit on Stephanie Plum after a book or two of her dithering between Morelli and Ranger. You might remember, Kay, that we went to a signing by Ilona Andrews (in Orlando a few years ago) at which Gordon Andrews suggested that perhaps the solution would have been for Morelli and Ranger to get together and forget about Stephanie. That’s brilliant. It still cracks me up.
I never read to the end of Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series either, but I do remember lots of readers getting very upset that they thought Sookie ended up choosing the wrong guy.
The thousands of people who were mad at Charlaine Harris were WRONG. There was NO OTHER GUY. Sookie could have chosen Sam, or she could have ended the series alone. There was NO OTHER CHOICE.
Now I feel better. 🙂
I do remember Gordon Andrews suggesting Morelli and Ranger should get together—what a hoot! An excellent solution to that triangle.
I’ll have to look up Duel in the Sun; I don’t think I’ve ever seen it, but apparently I should.
It’s probably wildly racist, just a warning. Jennifer Jones is cast as a half-White, half-Native American woman who goes (is forced by circumstance?) to live with her White relatives (Joseph Cotten, et al), and Things Get Bumpy. I don’t remember the racial politics, about which I was sensitive at the time I saw it. but I remember the horse!
Lol on the triangle with the horse!
I’ve always thought the main love interest for Scarlett was Tara.
Good point! I think you’re right.
It’s been a long time since I read the book, but I really enjoyed Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, set in newly independent, post-partition India. The central plot is Mrs. Rupa Mehra’s efforts to arrange her nineteen-year-old daughter’s marriage to “a suitable boy.” University student Lata is determined not to let her domineering mother or brother make the choice for her, and the story is about which of her three suitors will win her hand.
I also love Georgette Heyer’s Cotillion, in which country mouse Kitty becomes fake-engaged to kindly, wealthy Freddy, in order to win swoon-worthy (but not at all kindly) rake Jack. It’s so clever–at the beginning the reader feels sure Jack is the hero. Then Freddy starts to gain the reader’s affections, just like he gains Kitty’s. And by the end of the book there’s nothing to do but hope against hope that Kitty will see the light in the nick of time and not break Freddy’s heart. I think the big final scene is absolutely brilliant. A Stealth Hero. So good.
Oh–and if we’re talking movies, what about The Philadelphia Story, or High Society? I love the musical version, and Grace Kelly’s wardrobe is to die for.
I can’t believe I didn’t think of Cotillion. That’s a great example, as is The Philadelphia Story (regardless of what name it goes under). I have always loved that movie, especially the photographer with her “belts will be worn tighter this year” way of looking at things. I think I know what I’ll be watching this weekend.
Great suggestions from Jilly!
When I sent The Demon Always Wins to my editor, the long-ago hookup between Belial and Lilith was much more front and center and Belial still found her attractive. My editor strongly encouraged me to cut that, saying that romances are about a relationship building between two characters, and not about someone making a choice between two possibilities. I have no idea where love triangles fit into that.
I like the idea of focusing on the budding relationship, rather than a choice. It eliminates the need to turn someone into a bad guy.