Fans of romance appreciate a well-written love triangle. And it’s no secret that certain love triangles have shaped some of the most enjoyable stories in all of literature. They are wonderful plot devices and can have beautiful, moving results when done effectively.
So, how do you know if the love triangle you’ve created is one that will satisfy readers or if it’s one that will be labeled “predictable” or even worse, “cliche?”
Don’t worry, friend, I’ve got you covered!
In today’s post, I’m sharing 10 tips to help you create better love triangles.
But first, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page about what a love triangle is…
A love triangle takes place between three (or more) characters. Character A (the main protagonist) has to choose between characters B and C, who both love the protagonist, while he or she loves them both and ultimately has to choose. Usually, there is no relationship between the two suitors, but sometimes they are friends, coworkers, or relatives.
So, now that we’re clear on what love triangles are, let’s dive into my top 10 tips for writing better, more compelling love triangles.
Your love triangle will be much more engaging to the reader when they know and care about all three of the characters involved. In order for that to happen, you need to create three well-rounded characters that each have their own goals, motivations, hopes, fears, values, comfort zones, and unique worldviews. All of these things shape who each character is, determines what they want and need, establishes what they offer to those around them, and will impact how each of them responds to the plot events of your story. When you don’t do the work to flesh out all of the characters involved in your love triangle, your reader will probably end up either rooting for only one of the suitors or will not really care about the outcome either way.
Your protagonist should have actual reasons for loving both suitors, as well as legitimate reasons for not being able to choose one over the other right away. If one character is “perfect” for your protagonist and the other suitor is obviously the “wrong” choice, there will never be any suspense over who your protagonist will end up with. In other words, your love triangle will be predictable, and your reader will probably feel less invested in the character who is painted as the “wrong” choice. So, do the work to develop both of the suitors as if they are simply a romantic interest for your protagonist and not part of a larger love triangle. What kind of people would the suitors be? How would they complement and clash with your protagonist? What could your protagonist’s future look like with either person?
There’s no quicker way to stall the forward momentum of your story than to have your main character waffle back and forth between two love interests for too long. Yes, your main character should have a hard time choosing between both potential partners. But drag this indecision on too long, and you’ll likely annoy your readers and make them lose interest in your characters. Imagine if Elizabeth Bennet kept going back and forth between Mr. Wickham and Mr. Darcy over and over and over again. Would you be as interested in her story? Probably not.
At some point, your protagonist will have to choose who they want to be with. If you make this decision too easy for your protagonist—for example, having one potential mate die or suddenly turn evil, leaving only one character left to choose from—your reader will be disappointed. People read stories to see how a character deals with the conflict and changes happening in their lives. When you don’t let your character make an active choice, you’re not delivering the kind of story that readers want to see. There’s no quicker way to squash the reader’s interest than by having some kind of Deus Ex Machina swoop in and make the decision super easy for your protagonist.
In a well-written romance, the climax of the story is more than just an action or decision that determines whether or not two characters get together. It’s also an opportunity for your character to resolve his or her internal dilemma and decide what kind of person he or she wants to be. For example, in The Hunger Games, Katniss has to choose between Gale, representing who she was, and Peeta, representing who she’s become. In Twilight, Bella has to choose between a relationship with Jacob, representing a normal, human life, and Edward, representing a difficult, immortal life. In both cases, Bella and Katniss have to choose what kind of person she wants to be. And choosing the kind of person your protagonist wants to be is far more interesting than simply choosing which guy is better looking or the better kisser, right?
This is completely dependent upon the kind of story you’re writing and how you want to structure it, but your protagonist doesn’t have to be involved with both love interests at the same time as the only way to build tension. Although this may seem more dramatic, there are more subtle ways to create conflict and tension. For example, your protagonist might only have feelings for one suitor at a time like in Pride and Prejudice where Elizabeth has feelings for Mr. Wickham first and then slowly comes to care for Mr. Darcy. We get to see the conflict and tension in Elizabeth as she realizes the man she thought was right for her (Mr. Wickham) isn’t who he seems -- and the man who she thought was wrong for her (Mr. Darcy) is more than he seems. Another example is that you can play around with the idea of familiarity versus instant chemistry like in Gilmore Girls where Rory is torn between Dean who has been her long-time boyfriend and Jess who is new to town and who she has instant chemistry with. These are both relatable situations and can provide some fertile ground for conflict and tension, too.
To keep your love triangle from becoming stale, make sure there’s something at stake for your protagonist. Ask questions like–what’s there to gain or lose when this love triangle blooms? What will happen if your protagonist chooses character B? What will happen if he or she chooses character C? Will there be any regrets that he or she has to deal with following the decision? How will this decision impact your overall story? Yes, all of these questions matter when creating a love triangle! For example, in Twilight, if Bella wants to be with Edward for the rest of his immortal life, she needs to become a vampire, too. That means going through a painful transformation, “losing her soul,” distancing herself from her loved ones, and watching her friends and family grow old and die. Those are some major stakes!
Depending on the kind of story you’re writing, the romantic relationship between your characters will carry a different “weight.” In a romance novel, the romantic relationship will be the main focus of the story, but that doesn’t mean that you get to ignore everything else that’s happening. In Twilight, Bella’s relationship with Edward takes center stage, but there’s still a lot going on around them. Bella is becoming better friends with Jacob, trying to fit in at her new school, dealing with life at her dad’s, and missing her mom, etc. There’s also the whole situation with James and Victoria who want to kill her (no big deal, right?). Compare that to The Hunger Games where Katniss’ romantic relationships are subplots. The main story in The Hunger Games does not revolve around the conflict of Katniss trying to decide whether she loves Peeta or Gale best. Instead, the driving force of the story is Katniss’ fight for survival. As you can see, both of these stories have much more going on than just the romantic relationships, but the relationships within the story carry different weights.
To create a love triangle that your reader will appreciate, it must exist for a reason beyond merely adding in drama. While it does not have to be the sole focus of your story (as we determined in tip #8), it should have a true, solid purpose that supports the message of your overall story. The less petty the purpose behind your love triangle, the more your readers will be invested in what happens. So, ask yourself—why do you feel it must be in your story? What’s the reason for its existence? Why does it matter to your characters? Does the existence or the outcome of your love triangle support your theme? Why should your reader care about the outcome of your love triangle?
In your love triangle and your overall story, you should be able to use all three types of conflict to keep your readers guessing right up until the end. There are three types of conflict– the inner conflict that comes from inside your character, the personal conflict that comes from other people in your character’s life, and the extra-personal conflict that comes from outside your characters such as forces of nature or the circumstances that your characters are in. So, while you’re developing your love triangle, ask questions like–how does this affect my protagonist? How does this affect each of his or her suitors? How does this affect my protagonist’s friends and family? And how does this affect my protagonist’s world? If the effects of your love triangle can be felt throughout your story, then that adds unending value to its existence in your story.
So, hopefully these 10 tips will help you feel more confident about writing love triangles that are compelling and not cliche or predictable. Love triangles can be a wonderful addition to any kind of story as long as they're well-developed and included with a purpose!
👉 Let's discuss in the comments: Which of the love triangle in film or literature is your favorite? Why? Do you have a love triangle in your work-in-progress?
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