I love love triangles in romantic arcs. Granted, in some circles, this is akin to saying I love Brussels sprouts or chicken gizzards. But as it turns out, I enjoy those things as well, so I’ll own love triangles—and hopefully convince you that you might love, or at least tolerate, the awesome triangles more than you think. (Don’t worry, I won’t try to argue for the sprouts!)
Love triangles often get a bad rap in fiction because of Twilight. The infamous Bella Swan is the frail, doe-eyed teenager who doesn’t know her own mind or heart fully, clearly hung up on vampire Edward Cullen. Yet she strings along werewolf Jacob Black because she’s, well… a frail, insecure, doe-eyed teenager who doesn’t know her own mind or heart fully. Whether or not you appreciate the triangle depends mostly on whether you can identify with her, which can be a tough sell for readers outside the book’s target audience.
Because the Twilight books were so dang popular, now all everyone thinks of in terms of “love triangle” is two very attractive male characters who for some reason hang around so that the main character can choose between them. If this is your particular brand of wish fulfillment, all right then. However, love triangles existed in many forms before Twilight, and they continue to exist afterwards, in a much wider variety that is insanely useful for great romantic storytelling.
Love and Romance are Messy
At their core, love triangles have a sense of realism. They operate with the understanding that love and romance is messy, and that someone can be attractive to more than person. This happens all the time in real life—as anyone who has been “friend-zoned” can attest to. There’s a painful truth to the concept of liking or loving someone who doesn’t reciprocate your affections.
The major growth often occurs in the character of the “love triangle loser.” Whether this growth is positive or negative is up to you, of course—there’s something kind of awesome about a character turning dark because they didn’t get what they wanted. In my steampunk fantasy series, The Ironfire Legacy, it’s revealed that a main villain turned dark because his destined true love was literally taken from him “For The Good Of The Kingdom.” The kingdom overturned their own rules about fated mates and exerted much pressure on the woman, so that the prince could have her instead of her One True Pairing. Major burn there!
And that’s where I find a lot of the emotional resonance of a love triangle—in that beautiful, brutal realism that you can’t always just get what you want, and if you let that fact embitter you, it can poison the very love you claim to have. You don’t have a full love triangle until you know who loses and why they lose.
Of course, all of this requires a great deal of smart characterization to figure out why these two characters are attracted to the same person. What do each of them uniquely see in this individual? Are they projecting their own ideas onto the person? How do they think the person will complete them—and are they right or wrong? Who is the best fit for the character—or the best fit for the story you’re trying to tell?
Characters Grow From Love Triangles
A love triangle should create plot problems and force each character to grow to figure out where they stand. One of my favorite love triangles is in J.M. Butler’s romantic fantasy series The Tue-Rah Chronicles. Such a wonderful mess of twisting fate! I’ll try to limit spoilers, but the heroine is meant to be with Naatos thanks to an arranged marriage that was sealed when she was a child. But then the heroine is turned towards another man because of outside forces meddling with her soul and his. When the truth is revealed, the heroine breaks up with the other man, even though Naatos, her arranged marriage fellow, is pretty much a huge jerk. In this case, our noble heroine is trying to allow the other man to go off and live his own life. But of course, life can’t be that simple—how awful would it be to not only lose in a love triangle, but to lose it because the person you love is married to a villain who is trying to take over all these worlds? And plus, that soul-meddling has side effects, leaving all kinds of loose threads between the heroine and the other man. Cue much angst and anger and hard situations that contribute wonderfully to the main plot!
…Love triangles are a great way to show how love (or lack thereof) reflects on the individual characters and moves them along in their journeys. It’s about making those hard choices, growing up, and everyone learning more about themselves.
Yes, if you haven’t guessed, we love triangle fans love us some angst, feels, and character growth. The best love triangles come not from the main character merely “choosing between two delicious love interests.” Rather, love triangles are a great way to show how love (or lack thereof) reflects on the individual characters and moves them along in their journeys. It’s about making those hard choices, growing up, and everyone learning more about themselves. This is likely why you find love triangles so much in YA stories, because YA is all about coming of age and figuring out your identity. But if your main character can be wonderfully stressed out by two people chasing them, or if they can be flustered by chasing the same individual as another person, a love triangle is a great fit.
And as a side hustle, you could start a t-shirt business for your various love triangle options. If you do, let me know… I might need them for Team Brussels Sprouts vs. Team Chicken Gizzards!
What are your favorite love triangles in fantasy and why? Share in the comments!
About the Author
Janeen Ippolito writes unique words that change our world. She writes steampunk fantasy with shifters, and creates writing resources, including the reference book World Building From the Inside Out and the creative writing guide Irresistible World Building For Unforgettable Stories.
She’s an experienced teacher, editor, author coach, marketer, and is the leader of Uncommon Universes Press, a small science fiction and fantasy publishing house. She’s also the cohost of the podcast Indie Book Magic. Whether brainstorming a plot twist, developing a course, or analyzing marketing angles, she’s happiest when creating solutions that get unique words written, polished, published, and noticed in the ever-changing publishing industry.
In her spare time, Janeen enjoys sword-fighting, reading, pyrography, and eating brownie batter. Two of her goals are eating fried tarantulas and traveling to Antarctica.
This extroverted writer loves getting connected, so find her on:
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A dragon felon, a forsaken prince, and a jaded airship captain walk into a city—and everything explodes.
Dragonshifter convict Kesia Ironfire has one goal: to redeem herself as a soldier in the dragon-human war.
A rogue mission to spy on a new airship is the perfect way to win the trust of her superiors, as long as she collects useful intel. Then the airship explodes into sickening green smoke, leaving Kesia and her tactical partner Zephryn Nightstalker in cold water and under house arrest. Kesia is sure a little more investigation won’t hurt—and her curiosity earns them the death sentence.
Kesia and Zephryn flee to the human military capital, where Captain Shance Windkeeper is furloughed after the destruction of his airship and avoiding a most unwanted countess threatening an arranged marriage. Eager to discover what—and who—blew up his vessel, he helps Kesia and Zephryn infiltrate High Command. In exchange, Kesia must pretend to be Shance’s betrothed. Kesia has never heard of a betrothal, but it can’t be that complicated.
And human social customs are the least of her worries. Dark secrets emerge as Kesia searches for answers in the heart of High Command. Secrets that undermine her criminal status and the war itself.