Tuesday, July 5

Long Live the Literary Love Triangle?

I can sniff out love triangles in a book store. There are novels I have not read a word of where I already know of one's existence. I even know the names of the love interests.

I think that a well-written triangle is golden but when does the line get crossed? When does the moment come when it feels like love triangles are being incorporated into plots just to play with the reader?

I'm finding that the more love triangles I come across in books, the less engrossed I become in the character dynamics. I stop caring about any of the romantic aspects and it begins to irk me.

Do two love interests with an equal opportunity at the protagonist's heart make for an automatic thrilling romantic dilemma? No. Does a one-true-love and a possible-other-match-that-will-never-measure-up triumph always? No. Am I too picky when it comes to these things? No. Well, I guess that's debatable.

I don't want to read the same story where a character's dilemma over which man/woman/zombie/teletubbie they want to be with usurps the entirety of the plot and makes up nearly every emotional aspect of the novel.

Give me a book with great characters and story and I'll eat it up any day. That includes ones with love triangles. The tip to a triangle setup is that each individual must be a character first and a love interest second. If your characters have no point in the story but to be part of a love triangle, then please, annihilate them all now. Too many times I see a character enter a story and I think, There's Mr. Love Interest or There's Mr. Have-Your-Cake-and-Eat-it-Too. It just won't do.

Let me give you some examples of love triangles and how they are incorporated into novels.

'Pride and Prejudice' by Jane Austen is the model for many literary love triangles today. Elizabeth is drawn to two men, although at separate points in the story. One infuriates her and provides conflict and shows off her character flaws. The other is a façade she falls for with a very different interior. She thinks she knows both men, but their true characters are later revealed to have hidden depths.

In 'New Moon' by Stephenie Meyer, Jacob holds the potential to be a love interest but he is presented as a character first. Seeing him interact with Bella was such a refreshing break from her romance with Edward. I wasn't sitting there with the book going, Pick Jacob, pick Jacob, pick Jacob... It was just something different and I enjoyed the contrast. His role may have changed later on but I still remember how he was written in New Moon.

One of my favourite relationship dynamics is in 'A Room with a View' by E.M. Forster. Not to mention (okay, I just did) the brilliant character monologues in the book, one by George to Lucy and my favourite by Lucy to Cecil, there is so much insight into Lucy Honeychurch's growth. Her relationships with both men are important. The book isn't just about the romance between two people but the romance of an individual with life. Lucy needs to discover the difference between what is "proper" and what is right for her. George and Cecil help tangle these confusions but neither represent a cut-out ideal.

My favourite read of 2010 was 'The Sky is Everywhere' by Jandy Nelson. In the book, Lennie Walker's sister has just died. Lennie is emotionally muddled and seeks answers about her sister. She finds a closeness in her sister's boyfriend because they have something in common. They grieve together. There is an emotional connection there that isn't flat-out romantic or lustful. Then, of course, there is another boy. The one who brings Lennie out of the darkness and into the sunshine...but he isn't perfect and he isn't unbreakable. When I think about the story, I think of the characters, not a sharp love triangle protruding into all sides of the novel.

In the four books I have read of the Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris, Sookie has not been without an admirer or two and never without several people who want to see her as far away from them as possible. What I liked about Sookie was that she was aware of other men's attraction to her but she didn't string them all along like a dog-walker gripping several leashes. Also, there is a real moral grey area in these novels, so Sookie doesn't have the opportunity of choosing between a rugged bad-but-just-misunderstood guy and a nice one with a tiny streak of bad guy in him. At least, not in the first four installments I've read.

The Confessions of Georgia Nicolson by Louise Rennison is another series where I have only read the first four books but I am keen to keep going. Georgia's love life isn't a triangle, it's a tri-tangle-ton. She's always getting herself into different shenanigans in the name of love but it's humerous and fun to read.

I've read novels where I've disliked the two love interests equally, despite the fact that the protagonist was torn between them. I just wanted to yell at her, 'Girl, get yourself a man-o-meter! These guys are the pits.'

Someone write me something genuine, where men aren't cardboard cut-outs of brooding sex and cheesy compassion.

Someone write me a twist. What is Narcissus going to do in a maze of mirrors? Or staring at his reflection in a one way mirror, with a real person – a cop – on the other side?

Your protagonist doesn't need her libido tugged at from all sides. She just needs some genuine romantic tension. Not a cliché.

Not that all love triangles are male/female/male, I just find that the massive flood of them where I find these aggravations are.

Don't be timid if you have a love triangle in your story. Just because it's part of the flood, doesn't mean it won't be the current that sweeps me away.

Just remember, when it comes to character roles: Person first, love interest second.


Kristie Cook said...

I'm not a fan of love triangles, either, especially when the entire book is about the girl in the middle whining about how to choose, such as in Eclipse. And I disagree about Jacob - I thought he was annoying throughout the series and pretty flat except for certain parts in Breaking Dawn. I do agree that the triangle in The Sky Is Everywhere was beautifully done. The one in The Hunger Games was done well, too, although it could have been even better if we'd gotten to know Gale better sooner. Anyway, I agree that story and character first makes for a better triangle...if it must be there at all.

Trisha said...

I think two people can create more than enough drama on their own, without having a third added to the mix ;) I am not into love triangles.

Emma Michaels said...

Hmmm... Now I am in the mood for a novel where there is just a love line, not triangles or squares involved. hmmm... Time to search my shelves. Great post!

Myah said...

I love triangles. I really do. Especially when they come in a series by an author I enjoy.

It usually means more books are on the way. And if they're not, fanfiction is my friend.

Still, I agree that it can be annoying when the MFC and love interests just mope over the situation for half the book. Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum novels kind of dance close to the point: as far as I've read, she's had these two guys hovering over her. Both are well-developed characters, with a past and issues of their own. One's good for her and supports her, the other seems to need her and teaches her to support herself. But it's a comedic romp all through, with both guys trading off over keeping an eye on the disaster-prone "bounty hunter", and her focusing more on surviving her job and her screwy life than "oh-my-god-who-am-I-going-to-CHOOSE?!". So it works.