Episode 90: Love Triangles

On April 11, 2020, Kasie and Rex abandoned the COVID-19 talk for some indulgence in silliness. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day

Love Triangles


  • What is a love triangle?
  • Why are they so popular?
  • How to write a really good one
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Photo by Arthur Brognoli on Pexels.com

Link to the podcast

Segment 1

So we wanted to break out of all the bleak COVID-19 stuff we’ve been doing lately and offer a new, fresh topic this week. Weirdly, we picked one of the oldest topics in the history of storytelling: the Love Triangle.

So today we’ll define them, provide examples, talk about how to recognize one, and then talk about how to write a really good one.


Let’s start with “What is a love triangle?” So it’s three people in a conflict around love — or romantic relationships. Three is to triangle as Love is to romance.

So we’re not interested in the triads that don’t include romance. We don’t care about Ron, Hermione, and Harry because Harry never felt anything for Herminone or vice versa. Not every trio is a love triangle. So what defines a love triangle?

Of course it’s three people in a romantic entanglement. We expect romance to be exclusive — two people — regardless of gender and sexual orientation. So the love triangle indicates someone will be excluded. Just who loses out and why is what creates the dramatic tension (or the melodrama depending on the skill of the author).

Here (and here) are a few examples:

Oedipus Rex: in psychology terms, the child (male) has an infatuation with the mother who is, of course, loyal to the father in a romantic capacity. The confusion of romantic love and obsession (possession?) is put on full display when our father/King banishes the son for fear he will usurp his position only to have that occur anyway.

Paris and Helen: not sure this is a triangle exactly since Helen probably never loved Menalaus, but nonetheless young Prince of Troy Paris travels to Sparta on a peaceful mission, falls for and seduces the queen, Helen, and kidnaps her back to Troy. The entire Spartan army follows. Whoops. That’s an expensive crush.

Tristan and Isolde: Tristan is King Mark’s best knight who is seemingly lost in battle but actually washes ashore in a foreign land where he is rescued by Isolde. She nurses him back to health, they fall in love, and then he escapes and returns home. Reunited with Mark, his king and godfather, Tristan is glad to learn of Mark’s arranged marriage to the daughter of their enemy until he realizes that daughter is Isolde. Yikes!

Lancelot and Guinevere: the young queen to King Arthur of Round Table fame, Guinevere is sometimes portrayed as an opportunistic adulteress, and other times as a tragic victim of circumstance. In any case, she falls for Lancelot and his betrayal of his king, not unlike Tristan, is seen to be the fatal blow to the Round Table.

So these stories are ancient, right? What’s the (timeless) appeal? Well, you have 1) the beautiful woman, the one men go to war for “the face that launched a thousand ships” right? 2) the sacrifice of honor — loyalty to King and country, even to the ideal of equality in the Round Table — for love which may or may not be a better trade.

Segment 2

There are basically three types of love triangles: balanced, unbalanced, and progressive.

  • Balanced: either of the opposing sides has an equal chance at winning the contested lover.
  • Unbalanced: heroine has a romantic interest in one and views the other as “just a friend”
  • Progressive: Person A wants Person B who wants Person C who wants Person A.

Examples of balanced include:

The Great Gatsby: Jay Gatsby, Daisy, and Tom Buchanon which seems unbalanced because Daisy is married to Tom, but Tom cheats on her and takes her for granted so really she should be with Jay who loves her more genuinely. 

Examples of unbalanced include: 

Gone With the Wind: Scarlett, Ashley and Rhett which Rhett wants Scarlett but she wants Ashley who only sort of wants her; once she realizes her love for Ashley is flawed and that Rhett’s value is the love she should have wanted, it’s too late.

Examples of progressive:

Threesome: film from the 90s about a gay man who falls for his roommate, a straight man, who desires their female friend, who has a crush on the gay man. So there’s some homosexuality to a progressive.

I couldn’t think of a book that had this set-up but I do read threesome books and there’s a dozen or more romance novels that consider the option of polyamory in order to establish the Happily Ever After.

This makes me think we need more progressives in literary fiction.

Segment 3

Why are they so popular in YA fiction? Speculation here and here.

Here are some easy / quick / basic examples you’ll know (or maybe not):

  • The Vampire Diaries — Elena, Stefan, and Damon (bad boy brother Damon always wants what Stefan has)
  • Riverdale — Archie, Betty, Veronica (this dude played them against one another forEVER, in every iteration of the Archie stories, you get this trio)
  • The Mortal Instruments — Clary has it bad for Jace who might be her brother and barely notices best friend Simon’s got it bad for her
  • Infernal Devices — steampunk YA fantasy that pre-dates Mortal Instruments also known as “The Clockwork Series” — newly-discovered witch Tessa Grey falls for Shadowhunter Parabatai James and William; actually called “The Tessa Decision” for its serious impact on the Shadowhunter world.
  • if you’re keeping score, that’s Cassandra Clare rocking the triangle like it’s her JOB. 
  • Twilight — human Bella loves vampire Edward but also kind of wolf BFF Jacob
  • Hunger Games — Katniss, Peeta, and Gale (be honest, did Gale have a chance? ever?)
  • Throne of Glass — Dorian (prince) and Chaol (his best friend and trusted guard) are vying for Celaena (a thief / warrior that’s too much of a badass for either of them frankly)

Problems with love triangles? Plenty. Here are a few:

  • The evil guy is hot and the good guy is boring
  • Kill a guy to make the choice easier
  • The guys hate one another — grudging respect or even sibling rivalry (TVD) is much better
  • Back-to-back encounters — just kissed one guy and then kisses the next right away

Segment 4

How to write one: here’s one resource

  • You need conflict – what are the desires that will lead these characters into conflict?
  • It needs to be believable – would Christine have ever actually been with the Phantom? Come on!
  • You need resolution, but you shouldn’t tell us what is is right away – so in contrast to the earlier resource that was tired of the “who will she choose?” drag-it-out thing, suspense is good

This resource has a list (yay!):

  • Fully develop each character
  • Make both options viable choices
  • Don’t drag out the decision too much
  • Make the protagonist actively choose – don’t kill one off!
  • Show character through the choice
  • You don’t have to start both relationships at the same time
  • Establish what’s at stake with the decision
  • Explore different kinds of conflict within the triangle
  • Know where the love triangle fits and don’t make it the entire story
  • Have a reason for including it

How to resolve one (another list!)

Want more? Check out this old (old!) column Kasie wrote for the Columbia II chapter of SCWA.

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