Writers are often advised to avoid love triangles. The YA market is saturated with them: they have become a cliché, an easy way of introducing and sustaining conflict for the protagonist. But there is something to be said for the power of three, and it is worth considering how best to harness it in our writing.
In triangular relationships, tension is always present: the possibility of becoming the next outsider, or the experience of already being one. Entrenched in our collective psyche, they are worth exploring, and exploiting for their potential.
According to systems theorist Murray Bowen, a two-person relationship is the basis of an emotional family system. However, it is also inherently unstable. Have you ever been drawn into an argument between two people? It’s so easy to take sides. Drawing in a third, paradoxically, stabilises a system while at the same time increasing the tension within it.
Love triangles primarily focus on the relationship between the protagonist and their two love interests. The other two characters exist to serve the protagonist’s desires; typically, their only relationship with each other is one of rivalry. However, what happens if we widen our definition of what constitutes a relationship triangle? Take Buffy, Willow, and Xander, for example. We don’t consider their relationship a ‘love triangle’, even though romance plays a part in it. Instead, we remember their friendship – their individual hardships and triumphs – because all their relationships with each other were fully, and equally, fleshed out. In this sort of trio, everyone is on an equal footing, and while romance may on occasion take centre stage it can just as easily fade into the background, given that it is not the only factor in the relationship dynamic.
Harry, Ron and Hermione
Harry, Ron, and Hermione – HRH – really are royalty when it comes to famous trios in literature. J.K. Rowling made the most of the inherent conflict in this triangle, first in the characters’ younger years and then in the romantic entanglements that arose later in the series. The tension of the two-one dynamic between these three led to trust issues and misunderstandings. At the same time, the stability of the triadic structure helped keep their friendship solid throughout the series.
Triangular relationships can also be viewed in terms of TA – Transactional Analysis Theory. TA proposes that we all swing between between three primary states in our day-to-day lives: parent, adult and child. No prizes for guessing who the parent was in the HRH trio: Hermione, at her bossiest, meted out enough advice to raise an orphanage. Do you have an advice giver in your story? Add in a couple of characters who fulfil the roles you might be missing, and a natural (and long-lasting) dynamic will form. Harry and Ron often switched between the roles of adult and child, although at some points it felt like Hermione shouldered both parent and adult roles both efficiently and effectively!
Thinking laterally is the key. Avoid insta-love, and make the romantic angle only part of the story. In The Hunger Games, the choice Katniss makes between Peeta and Gale has more to do with her own character arc than just the chemistry of pure attraction. Peeta and Gale parallel her own development, as she leaves what’s left of her childhood behind (Gale) and learns to survive the trauma of the arena (Peeta).
In The Raven Cycle, Maggie Stiefvater sets up potential trysts from the very first line of the story: “Blue Sargent had forgotten how many times she’d been told that she would kill her true love.” By the time the eventual love triangle forms, each member is a fully formed character – and other factors, such as the consequences of the socio-economic divide between rich and poor, come into play. My fond memories of this series are more about the friendship bonds formed between all the main characters, and less about their romantic attachments, which may have been the author’s intention. Try weaving triangles into stories by incorporating wider themes such as these, or others like redemption, or betrayal.
And not all of the characters in a three-way relationship even need to be human! In The Fault in our Stars, illness and death in effect played a third wheel, always ready to impinge on the romance of Hazel and Augustus. One could say the same of fate in Romeo and Juliet – or any other classic romantic tragedy.
These stories held my attention from start to finish because of their fresh delivery of a tired trope. Playing on an over-used trope requires effort and planning, but putting such perspiration into our stories, is, after all, what we (hopefully) get paid for – to surprise and enlighten in a creative and entertaining way.