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What Makes Love Triangles So Compelling?

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Love Triangles - Dante's Inferno - Novel Conclusions - writing blog

Gianciotto Discovers Paolo and Francesca (Dante’s Inferno) – via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been pretty absent from the blogosphere recently as I’ve been down for the count with that cold/flu thing that’s been going around.  If you get it, hit that Vitamin C, stat!  Anyhow, in honor of the upcoming Valentine’s Day, we’re going to chat about some famous love triangles in literature.  What makes them so compelling?  And why do they seem to be in every other story?

If you take a little tour through past and current popular fiction, love triangles abound like wizards at Hogwarts.  Before all the tween girls this side of Friday were oohing and aahing over Jacob, Bella, and Edward (Go Team Jacob!  Yes, I confess I did read the books…), some pretty justifiably famous love triangles reigned in literature, with a few things in common.

Who can forget Darcy, Elizabeth, and Wickham?  In Pride and Prejudice, while we’re on Elizabeth’s side the whole time, we watch Darcy and Wickham alternately lose and win her favor.  In Gone with the Wind, we’re pulling for Rhett the whole time as Scarlett pines after a guy named Ashley (Scarlett, honey, you should’ve known he wasn’t the one as soon as you heard his girly name.  Sigh.).  Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence gives us a heart-wrenching love triangle with a much sadder ending.  When Newland falls in love with his fiancée May’s married, scandalous cousin Ellen in the 1870s, bad times ensue.  You can go further back to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and even the Arthurian legends of Guinevere and Lancelot falling in love behind Arthur’s back.

We could go on and on here, but what makes these love triangles work?  These love triangles compel us to turn page after page because the emotions feel real and immediate.  It doesn’t hurt that love triangles naturally create tension, an essential ingredient for plot.  When love triangles are done well, when the author upholds the emotional integrity of the story, we as readers can’t put the book down.

Elizabeth Bennet’s original hatred of Darcy and her infatuation with Wickham were as real to us as later her slowly dawning love for Darcy and her disgust for Wickham feel real.  We live through these events as Elizabeth does because Austen upholds the emotional integrity of the story.  She doesn’t step outside the fourth wall to preach at us or to tell us what Elizabeth or Darcy or any of the characters ought to think.  She lets the characters lead the story, rather than letting the story lead the characters.  And it doesn’t hurt that Darcy is pretty hot and pretty rich…

Which love triangles do you love?  Which love triangles stand out to you in fiction?

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About Christi

Writing in SoCal.

11 responses

  1. I guess because the reader or audience is always vying for two of them to be together, it’s almost as if we’re at a pantomime and shouting ‘he’s behind you’ but the main character who is the object of the others’ affections doesn’t understand. It’s what keeps us intrigued, we want the main character to unite with a particular character.
    Recent examples include in the film ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ in which the audience desperately wants Bradley Cooper’s character to forget his ex-wife and fall in love with Tiffany. Another one is in Les Mis, where Eponine loves Eddie Redmayne’s character but he loves Cosette; the audience feels deep empathy for Eponine as we’ve all probably experience unrequited love at one point.

    • You’re right about how it keeps us intrigued (what will the character do next???). I also thought Silver Linings Playbook was really well done — and I was excited to find out it was based on a book!

  2. I can’t think of any love triangles at the moment, but I had to pop in and say how much I enjoyed this post. It’s great!! I think wonderful writing draws the readers in — and love triangles add to the drama of the story, without forcing us to live through the drama in our real lives. (I hope this makes sense. I am typing before my morning dose of caffeine — always a dangerous prospect. >.O)

  3. All my life (apparently) I have wanted to rewrite the Arthur, Guenevere, Lancelot story and did so in my debut novel, even though the characters were Noah, his wife, and a handsome young man. Your comments about characters driving the story ring true. I did not know myself what was going to happen in the relationships, and how I was going to resolve it and that kept the tension high until my characters figured it out. For me the real joy of writing (and reading) is uncovering that surprise.

    • You’re right — uncovering the surprise is part of the fun.

      I first fell in love with the Arthurian stories in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon when I was a teenager. I loved all the intrigue of Arthur, Guenevere, and Lancelot (and everyone else back then, too, for that matter).

  4. Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot (Team Arthur!) was my first experience with the love triangle. It made me crazy as a preteen! Why didn’t Guinevere see that Arthur was the noble one?!?! Why?

    I think love triangles are great tension-inducers, like you said… and also, when we are all grown-up and married and settled down, it gives us the opportunity to get swept up in something full of drama that we probably won’t experience again in our own lives. ; )

  5. Tristan and Isolde. And I agree with your comment above – go Team Arthur! Lies are interesting, but that doesn’t make them good or desirable.

  6. Pingback: Should I Really Read the Classics? AND a Giveaway | Novel Conclusions

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