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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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