If you’ve read ANY Young Adult fiction at all, you’ll notice more Love Triangles than blueberries in a blueberry muffin. In fact, love triangles, or “triangles d’amour” as the French don’t call them, have been popular for ages. (Not to be confused with ménage a trois. “Ménage” means “housekeeping,” so logically, this refers to the practice of having one man to cook for you and do the dishes afterward and another to sweep and take out the trash. Or something like that.) But not all Love Triangles are equal. (Or equilateral, as the case may be with triangles.) Here’s a handy guide to the Types of Love Triangles. Most of these can be gender reversed.
Sneer Snidely threatens to take the farm if Pollyanna doesn’t marry him. Dudley Doright stops Snidely and wins Pollyanna for himself. In the old melodramas, this was a common set up. Every single James Bond movie also follows this scenario: two hot babes, one of whom is sleeping with James Bone while trying to help him, the other who is sleeping with James Bone while trying to kill him.
But if we know that the heroine is never going to marry Sneer Snidely, does it really even count as a proper love triangle? Maybe, maybe not, it depends on how much we see of the villain. It’s not unusual to have the villain lusting after the heroine even if it’s not the main love triangle. If there are almost as many scenes with the villain pushing himself on the heroine as there are of the hero courting her, and no other competitors, then the villain is part of the love triangle.
The heroine (and sometimes even the reader) might not know one of the guys pursuing her is a villain. Early on, the villain might seem like a viable contender for her heart—only after it’s revealed that he’s the one who killed her parents, not the hero, does she finally dump him and recognize the true hero.
Now, sometimes you find an ambiguous love triangle where it’s not quite clear… is this dude supposed to be a villain or did the author make him a jerkwad by accident? In Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr, for instance, I really couldn’t tell if the Summer King Keenan was supposed to be a good guy or a villain. His motives, actions and the heroine’s aversion to him all screamed “villain” to me, but I haven’t finished the series so I could be wrong. His mix of sexual appeal with reprehensible behavior reminded me a lot of V’lane, another faery man-slut, in the Fever Series by Karen Marie Moning. By the end of the Fever series, it’s obvious whether V’lane is a good guy or a villain, but Moning keeps you guessing right to the end.
Mr. Perfect seems perfect – great hair, great abs, great car, great job. Mom loves him, Dad approves of him. He’s not a villain. So what’s the problem? There’s just no spark. He’s perfect—but he’s not right. Sometimes, this is because Mr. Perfect is only perfect on the surface. Beneath the polish, he’s wimpy, selfish or petty. But sometimes, Mr. Perfect is a truly great guy. This is the Casablanca scenario. When Ilsa is trying to explain to Rick why she ditched him in Paris, she asks him, “Can I tell you a story, Rick?
“It’s about a girl who had just come to Paris from her home in Oslo. At the house of some friends, she met a man about whom she’d heard her whole life. A very great and courageous man. He opened up for her a whole beautiful world full of knowledge and thoughts and ideals. Everything she knew or ever became was because of him. And she looked up to him and worshiped him… with a feeling she supposed was love.”
Later, we see that Laszlo, leader of an underground movement against the Nazis (could you get more noble? Sheesh) is every drop as “great and courageous” as Ilsa thinks when he confronts his rival Rick, not with anger, but with compassion and self-sacrifice:
Victor Laszlo: I know a good deal more about you than you suspect. I know, for instance, that you’re in love with a woman. It is perhaps a strange circumstance that we both should be in love with the same woman. The first evening I came to this café, I knew there was something between you and Ilsa. Since no one is to blame, I – I demand no explanation. I ask only one thing. You won’t give me the letters of transit: all right, but I want my wife to be safe. I ask you as a favor, to use the letters to take her away from Casablanca.
Rick: You love her that much?
Victor Laszlo: Apparently you think of me only as the leader of a cause. Well, I’m also a human being. Yes, I love her that much.
The problem with having such a heroic rival is that there are only two ways to deal with him. Either the heroine has to stay loyal to Mr. Perfect despite being in love with Mr. Right (Bridges of Madison County), or the noble rival has to die. Nobly, of course. Eponine has the best last lines of any noble rival. Like all truly awesome Frenchwomen, she can sing with her dying breath:
MARIUS: But you will live, ‘Ponine – dear God above, If I could heal your wounds with words of love.
EPONINE: Just hold me now, and let it be. Shelter me, comfort me
MARIUS: You would live a hundred years If I could show you how I won’t desert you now…
EPONINE: … don’t you fret, M’sieur Marius. I don’t feel any pain. A little fall of rain Can hardly hurt me now. That’s all I need to know And you will keep me safe And you will keep me close And rain will…
MARIUS: Will make the flowers… grow…
(She dies. Marius kisses her, then lays her on the ground)
* Sniff. *
Ok, this is a lame name, but I couldn’t think of a better way to describe what I’m getting at. In this kind of love triangle, the two rivals represent different ideals, both of which the heroine values. Both ideals are true and good; apples and oranges. Choosing one instead of the other seems impossible. However, the heroine gradually comes to see that what she really needs is….one of them.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins uses this kind of love triangle. Peeta and Gale are not just two hot guys who both happen to be in love with Katniss, they represent two different approaches to life. Now, some readers didn’t like this. By choosing an ideal as well as a person, does it reduce romance to philosophy?
Well, it’s arguable, but I don’t think so. If one of the rivals is rejected because he is out and out evil that is a different kind of triangle (villain vs hero). This is different. Perhaps Prince Apple is the right knight in shining armor for some other princess, just not for the heroine. At the end of The Hunger Games, Katniss is not just choosing the man she loves, but the man who completes her… the one who can make her a whole soul, a better human being.
I admit: I named this one after the Love Triangle in Twilight (and many an homage series to same), but it doesn’t require an actual werewolf or vampire. This is your basic Hottie vs Hottie love triangle, where BOTH are worthy contenders for the heroine’s heart. Both men are heroes and that’s what makes this Love Triangle so delicious and so impossible. That’s what makes Team Jacob and Team Edward, or Team Puck and Team Ash such fun.
This may be the most fun, but also the most difficult kind of Love Triangle to pull off. There are a couple of dangers. One is that half the readers might end up disappointed! This is why most authors hint gently (or not so gently) which hunk the heroine will choose well before the end of the book. My sister-in-law and I were on opposite sides of the Team Edward/Team Jacob divide, but we both knew who Bella would marry.
Again, gender doesn’t really matter. On Being Human last season, the sweet, nerdy werewolf Josh is torn between two women: Nora, the one he turned and knocked up (way to go, Josh), and Julie, the first love of his life. No way to win this one! Man, that story line broke my heart.
The big question is how to deal with the leftover stud? Can’t have studs roaming free and loveless the rest of their days. The usual options are: noble death (see above); something in French which translates to “have your cake and eat it too” that works only in the naughtier genres; or turn up a new love for the Other Guy. I’ve heard rumors that one story has one of the rivals magically bond to his present crush’s unborn daughter, but that’s too weird to be true.
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