It’s Time to Talk About Tropes #3: Love Triangles

So many readers abhor love triangles in stories, and yet it’s an incredibly common trope.


We’re going to have to dig a little deeper on this one, compared to the easy fixes for long hair and glasses.

Why is the love-triangle trope so prevalent, particularly in romance and YA?

It’s an easy source of conflict.  Don’t have enough stumbling blocks between your heroine and her one true love? Time to shoehorn in another potential romantic interest.  Bonus points if he’s the dark, mysterious, brooding type, because portraying the second guy as a bad boy gives the heroine (and the readers) an excuse to swoon over him, without him really threatening Mr. Destiny’s chances to get the girl in the end.

It’s an easy way to make the heroine seem attractive without actually developing her personality.  Because she must be amazing if not one, but two men are attracted to, or in love, with her, right?

It’s an easy role to toss onto a character that isn’t doing much else.  Need an extra guy around for some plot point, for whatever reason, then we never have to see him again?  So why was he there at all?  Because he’s got the hots for the heroine, problem solved.

Okay, so here comes the tough love.  How can we, as writers, fix this?

First–do you really need a love triangle?  Deep down, at the heart of your story, is that the point?  Because if it is, it can be done, and it can be done well.  Your romantic lead can feel conflicted about choosing between two partners–that’s a story.  But if it’s not the story, then you probably don’t need it.  So just don’t do it.  Find another minor conflict to throw at your lovers instead of a third wheel.

Second–okay, so the story you want to tell really is a love triangle.  Make both choices equally compelling.  Don’t set it up from the start that Mary and Jim are meant to be together, but that Rick, woooo boy, isn’t he something.  Give equal development weight to both options.  Make their personalities different in ways that aren’t just nice-guy/bad-boy.  Give them different appealing qualities, and give them different flaws.  Maybe Mary is initially attracted to Jim because he never fails to make her laugh.  Rick isn’t nearly as witty, but then, he’s got an adventurous side that makes her want to stretch herself, to try new things.  On the downside, as hilarious as Jim is, he’s got anger issues he’d rather live with than address, and Rick’s so fun-loving he can’t always meet his responsibilities.

See?  Yeah, those are just quick sketches, not actual characters, but neither choice is perfect.  If I sat down to write that story, I don’t even know who Mary would end up with, because neither man is perfect–neither is obviously the right choice.  And that creates real tension.  The guy who wins her heart in the end could be the one who decides to work on his flaws, to be the better person for her, instead of dismiss them–and that could be either one.

Third–Don’t pit the two love interests against each other directly.  No fistfights, please! Again, that’s an easy source of conflict, but a lover isn’t a bone for two dogs to fight over. And if for some reason you just have to have that fistfight…make her disgusted with both of them for acting like angry boys instead of adults, or something.  Let’s not reinforce another horribly-handled trope, that women (and the love/sex that come with them) exist as the reward for men who prove themselves in some way.  Like winning the fight, ugh.

So that’s my take on what needs to happen for a love triangle not to make me rage and throw the book across the room.  I haven’t even come close to covering every angle, so chime in on what else can be done to save this trope from the trash-heap!


2 thoughts on “It’s Time to Talk About Tropes #3: Love Triangles

  1. What a smart post. The reasons you give for why authors use love triangles in their stories make perfect sense. Ugh, isnt it so annoying when the 2nd boy in the love triangle is so obviously never a serious contender for the girl’s heart!

    Liked by 1 person

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