by Whitney Carter
Ah, the love triangle. For the romantically inclined, is there anything more enticing, more gut-wrenching? The passion, the torn desires, the often vastly different futures – it’s simply too much! *back of hand to forehead in fainting gesture!*
Okay, I’ll stop. But in all seriousness, a well-written triangle can have your readers not only emotionally invested in the characters and their struggles, but also in you as the writer. After all, love triangles are so easy to mess up that nine times out of ten, we as readers expect to be disappointed when the possibility of a triangle is presented. But a writer who can pull one off to our satisfaction? Gold.
Love triangles are justifiably difficult to write however and they take up a lot of space, both in terms of actual length and plot. For these reasons, they’re usually not a good idea for stand-alone short stories, which is why we generally only see them fully developed within romance, erotica and YA. That’s not to say one won’t work in a ten-page sci-fi mystery…but you’ve got to understand the basics first and condense and perfect from there.
Let’s assume you’ve given it some thought and decided that a love triangle will enhance your story. Where do you go from there, knowing how many pitfalls lie ahead? Let’s take a look.
Setting the Stage
- Don’t feel confined to the classics. Love triangles are almost always one woman torn between two men, and while this kind of triangle is tried and true, you don’t have to stay here, especially with the growing cultural acceptance for all different walks of life. There’s an audience out there for every variation of the traditional triangle you can think of, and savvy writers take advantage of underserved markets.
- Independent characters. Develop your main characters really well so that later confrontations don’t boil down to snarky comebacks and muscle flexing. Remember that each individual person is more than just themselves; they are their environment, their family, their determination, their level of privilege, etc. All of these things will play into who they are, what they offer those around them, and what they want.
- Their relationships don’t have to start at the same point. This is completely dependent upon your story itself and how you want to structure it, but there doesn’t necessarily need to be a moment when the three of them are face to face with each other and they realize they’re about to be in a triangle. The idea of years of familiarity vs. instant chemistry is a solid starting point as well.
- Utilize the unknown possibilities sparingly and effective. Life is full of questions and blank space that we often have to make decisions around before pushing forward. This could easily translate into a lot of material for your main character to waffle over, but I would recommend condensing these things down to several different, bigger question marks. Try something along the lines of what the MC’s life will look like with each of the potentials, what opportunities the MC will be passing on by choosing one instead of the other or what regrets will s/he have to deal with following a decision.
- Don’t waffle too much: Going back and forth between the two options on whim and emotion every other paragraph will encourage readers to think of your main character as shallow and unsure of him/herself. This will be directly followed by a loss of interest. Instead, try focusing on two or three major (and well established) plot points that have him/her leaning more heavily in one direction over the other. This will keep your plot moving as well as give your characters a chance to better figure out what they want.
- Give readers a chance to love both potentials. You want your readers to be as torn as your main character, and the only way to do that is to showcase both of the other corners as decent, attractive people. Your epic saga will be better if all three are genuinely cool people with goals and lives that just don’t line up well.
- Don’t have one of the corners go suddenly bad. There’s no quicker way to kill reader interest than having this grand reveal. “Oh, guess what? This one’s actually a jerk! Makes the decision easy, doesn’t it?” This screams, “I couldn’t be bothered to write the real conflicts here!” and everything that follows will be based on the shaky foundation you failed to set.
- Pay close attention to which ways attraction and affection are running. While letting your MC be in love with both corners at once might be dramatic, there are more subtle ways to build tension. Your MC might only feel for one potential at a time, but both of them might be devoted to her at the same time, giving you the opportunity for some rivalry. Remember too that love has hundreds of different facets, and no two people are going to be in love the same way.
Crumbling of the Triangle
Real talk time. When you set up a love triangle, the overwhelming odds of it ending badly are hard to ignore. And I know it’s tempting to have your story be that one in a million happy ending because….well, who doesn’t like happy endings? But be realistic. You can’t create these assertive, determined characters and then have them agree to share the main character as if that’s a solution they can all live with for the rest of their lives. You can’t just kill one of them off either, making the choice easy, if accompanied by a few tears. Something fundamental needs to change, and it needs to be painful, likely to all parties involved.
In all actuality, you’re the only one who can determine the best ending for your love triangle, and it will be dictated by both your characters and the rest of the plot and setting. You as the writer need to have a solid understanding of your main character and what s/he wants. Even if one of the corners is somehow taken from the equation, you still want your main character to be actively choosing their partner. Be true to the ground rules and the expectations you’ve established throughout the story, especially if there’s a fantasy element.
When all else fails, ask yourself this question: Are you readers going to be too busy rolling their eyes to enjoy that contrived happy ending?
Guest post contributed by Whitney Carter. Whitney is an avid fantasy writer and blogger currently working on her debut novel, Alpha Female. When not writing, she can be found either under a large pile of purring cats or amid collapsed bookshelves. You can find more of her work here and here.