Love triangles are essentially double-no, triple edged swords. They are tricky to begin, even harder to keep interesting, yet are incredibly easy engage the audience with. So many of these love triangles fall flat, but writers keep turning to them every chance they get. I have yet to see a single love triangle that didn’t do at least one thing wrong, but at the same time, I have yet to see a single repeated trope that gets as much as a response as these do. As terrible as they often are, people love love triangles. Everything about them just draws you in. They involve characters you care about, they incite dangerous shipping instincts in all of us, and they are so damn divisive. There is nothing in this world that unites us more than an enemy, and love triangles create them in spades. This is why when love triangles are introduced, people tend to classify their preferred choice for the fought over party with teams (Ex: Team Peeta vs Team Gale). Its that adversarial aspect that initially draws people in, but its also the ways people can relate to them in real life that strikes such a cord. Not everyone will be locked in a three-way love or death struggle, but whether you like it or not, someone’s going to end up on the wrong side of a choice between two suitors. However, even with our natural desire to be invested in romantic entanglements, they still tend to fall apart a lot for a few big reasons.
One of the main problem with love triangles is how predictable they have become. The predictability comes from the archetypes they now fall into. For example, when a romantic plotline is stagnating, writers love to throw in a random asshole to keep viewers engaged. Said “obviously terrible person” somehow ends up in a threatening romantic relationship with a protagonist’s love interest. Usually they’re rich, incredibly rude to waiters for some reason, vaguely racist, and hilariously self-centred. When they aren’t introduced midway through a story, they’re already dating a main character’s love interest and play the role of a dragon that is to be slain before the hero or heroine can claim their richly deserved “prize”. The main issue with these types of love triangles is that they always suggest some negative things about the main love interest; I mean, you have to wonder about someone who finds some clearly horrible person acceptable as a potential romantic suitor. The alternative to this, which I imagine was a solution to this issue for when the love interest is a woman, is actually worse since writers often stick them with someone that is somehow worse than an obnoxious ass hole: A really boring person. I mean, dating an objectively terrible person is one thing, but at least that’s believable; no one’s going to buy or be invested in the leading lady dating the “boring guy”. These types of love triangles featuring one clearly undesirable choice can be either Male-Female-Female (MFF) or Female-Male-Male (FMM), but the main character must have a chief romantic rival of the same gender. Situations where that’s not the case are a different story entirely.
When it comes to writing love triangles between two men and a leading woman, the writing is often the same and pretty painful to experience much of the time. Guy 1 is the straight-laced nice guy who’s kind of geeky (Hollywood geeky, not real life geeky), Guy 2 is this bad boy who is super good looking but emotionally scarred and irresponsible, and Girl can be pretty much anything but you better believe she’ll be worshiped by these guys no matter what she does. Guy 2 is in desperate need of “fixing”, but he’s always pushing Girl away due to his emotional ordeals, Guy 1 is always on her side but notices something is amiss, and poor Girl just can’t decide what she really wants (spoilers: She wants Guy 2). Guy 2 tends to be infinitely more likable, more interesting, and all around more engaging, while Guy 1 just ends up being a sad sack the fanbase hates for reasons that essentially boil down to “he’s so booorrrriiiing”. The actual reason they hate him though is that he’s not Guy 2, because everyone loves Guy 2. Just look at Veronica Mars.
Veronica Mars is this awesome neo-noire mystery television show about a super sleuth teenager who had her life wrecked due to the events surrounding her best friend’s murder. The main draw to the show was obviously the strength of the characters, and as a result a huge section of the fanbase became devoted to shipping them together. Veronica Mars had two Guy 1’s over the course of its 3 season run, and one Guy 2 who should be worshiped throughout the ages of how to make a Guy 2 that’s actually a great character in his own right. Seriously, his name was Logan, he had the best lines, the best chemistry, and the best character arcs of any Veronica Mars love interest. The Guy 1’s on this show did not even rate. Guy 1 number 1 was Duncan Kane, this boring young man that really had no right to be this boring considering his placement in the plot. Guy 1 number 2 was Piz (yes, this what he wants to be called, since his first name is the equally stupid “Stosh”), who is pretty much your quintessential Guy 1 archetype right down to his “adorkability”. Nobody liked these guys, Veronica clearly wasn’t intended to end up with either of them (the recently released movie rectified any Piz related grievances the fans had, for which there were many), and all the time spent developing these potential suitors as legitimate romantic partners for Veronica was wasted. We were all just waiting for her to get together with Logan again, so a love triangle in this case served no discernible purpose other than to frustrate viewers. And that is what most FMM love triangles really end up being and its gotten annoying.
Romantic drama involving one leading man and two women (or one guy and 9 girls if you’re watching an anime) are a little more varied, but essentially boil down to the famous Betty and Veronica paradigm. Clearly based on the Archie comics (as most things are), this paradigm features the hapless but lovable goof Guy, the nice and generous but uptight Girl 1 (Betty), and the more attractive but mischievous and self-centred Girl 2 (Veronica). With these love triangles, Guy could end up with either one of these girls, but not before they display traits from their counterparts. For example, Girl 1 can’t end up with Guy until she stops being such a stick in the mud and learns to have some fun. Conversely, Girl 2 does not end up with Guy until she reveals she actually does have a heart deep down (with Girl 1 often being revealed as a hypocrite in these cases). While MFF love triangles aren’t as infuriatingly tedious as FMM ones, they come with the fatal flaw of almost always having a boring main character. Weirdly enough, MFF love triangles tend to have uninteresting men who are stupidly indecisive. Female leads picking between two men are also indecisive, but at least they articulate their thoughts, these guys just run around in circles and get way too stressed out about their situation (“OH NO 2 BEAUTIFUL WOMEN ARE FIGHTING OVER ME!!”). Writers spend so much time developing their distinct Betty’s and Veronica’s, they leave poor Archie to the curb, making him as dull as possible. Often this is intentionally done so viewers can more easily insert themselves into the “Archie” role, but the negative impact this has on the story remains the same. While FMM and MFF love triangles are problematic in their own ways, there are issues that taint them both equally.
By far the biggest problem with love triangles of any type also happens to be what draws people to them in the first place. Love triangles draw from the romantic entitlements of real life, and as such, they often feature otherwise rational people behaving in deplorable ways. Cheating, stealing, and physical violence is all fair game in them, and no one truly comes out a winner. If “All’s Fair in Love and War” leads to dramatic glares that make us snore, I’m not sure if its worth it. Heroes we respect and even admire being reduced to backstabbing connivers or spineless sycophants can really destroy ones perception of a series. Part of what we enjoy so much about fiction is the ability to escape from reality, not embrace its ugliest and most unpalatable parts. Look, I love seeing characters I love face despair as much as the next guy, but if I have to sit through them gossiping among each other like school children first, then I’m not sure its worth it.
Every love triangle plotline contains a misstep somewhere, but that isn’t to say they’re all terrible. Some of them happen to rely on subversion, and the best thing about these plots is that we don’t know how they’re going to end. Much like a good mystery novel, they could really go anywhere, which is why I’ll be discussing a very strange case very shortly in another post (which can now be viewed here). Until then, please enjoy this offering.