Apr 30 2010 11:56am

Bizarre Love Triangles

One of my students came to class toting a Team Jacob water bottle. Another day, she showed up wearing a Team Edward shirt, which made me think I had misremembered her water bottle. Usually I make it a policy not to comment on my students’ sartorial choices, yet when I was taking attendance I couldn’t help blurting out, “So which team, exactly, are you on?”

“Edward for the books,” she said, “and Jacob for the movies.”

Fair enough. That’s the beauty of being a reader or watcher: you never have to choose (or, at least, a multiplicity of choices isn’t likely to cause any controversy in your personal life). Her answer pointed out how narrow-minded I was in phrasing my question.

And speaking of being narrow-minded, let’s consider the almost excruciatingly conservative nature of the image alongside this text. No wonder the people in it look bored! Though love triangles traditionally feature a woman who must choose between two men, that is not, of course, the only possible permutation. Whatever genders are involved, there is usually a lot of angst and even a sense of mourning—any good love triangle (in my opinion) should make the people involved (and the people watching it) aware that, even if the The One is chosen, it will not be without cost. As the Runner-Up exits stage left, the Judge of the triangle should feel deeply that s/he’s losing something forever. This is what makes Stephenie Meyer’s love triangle in Twilight so compelling. Whomever Bella chooses, she will lose something (if Edward, she loses the chance at a normal, sort of human existence with Jacob; if Jacob, she loses eternal love).

What makes a love triangle work?

René Girard famously pointed out that love triangles in literature seem to be about the Judge’s relationship with his/her two Options, but really the most interesting side of the triangle is the line drawn between Option 1 and Option 2. Take a classic love triangle of Western literature: King Arthur, Gwenivere, and Lancelot. Though we may be caught up in Arthur’s relationship with his wife, and her relationship with the hot young knight of the Round Table, a truly compelling narrative is the relationship between Arthur and Lancelot. The triangle ends up being as much about the love and strife between king and knight as it is about Gwenivere’s torn loyalties. This is why Twilight fans are so sucked into the famous “tent scene” in Eclipse, where Bella, Jacob, and Edward are crammed into a small tent, with Bella hazily sleeping while the two guys talk it out. There’s a great delight in seeing how the two Options relate, under whatever terms (and I’m hoping to see some of this in Suzanne Collins’s final book in the Hunger Games series).     

I have a particular interest in young adult literature, but I’d like your opinion on love triangles, and please don’t feel you have to confine your responses to YA lit just because that’s my interest. So here are my questions:

1) What are the best love triangles in literature, film, and television?

2) What makes them work?

Marie Rutkoski is the author of the young adult fantasy novel The Cabinet of Wonders and its sequel, The Celestial Globe (published on April 12, 2010). Both books have received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, which described the first novel as a “heady mix of history and enchantment.” Her novels have been or will be published in eight languages. Marie holds a Ph.D. in English literature from Harvard University, and currently teaches as a professor of Renaissance drama, children’s literature, and creative writing at Brooklyn College. She lives in New York City with her husband and son. You can visit her at

Austin H. Williams
1. Austin H. Williams
I think I threw up a little in my mouth seeing a New Order song sharing the title for an entry about Twilight fandom.
Liza .
2. aedifica
My favorites are the ones that really are triangles, not just V shapes--where there's a relationship on every side of the triangle.
Leigh Butler
3. leighdb
Really well-done triangles are actually pretty rare. I've been racking my brains for the last few minutes and haven't really come up with one other than the examples you already mentioned.

For it to be a true triangle, as you say, both Options must be equally worthy of the Judge's love, and most of the time in romantic storylines you have the formula instead where it's obvious that two of the three are Meant To Be, and the third is just some poor sap who is nothing more than a temporary obstacle to the other two's True Love.

The only one I've been able to think of at the moment, actually, is the triangle between Mark, Olivia, and Lloyd in Flash Forward. Which is an interesting case, because all three participants basically receive a prophecy that the triangle is going to happen, and all three determine (in open discussion, no less!) that they won't let it, and... well.
Steven Pattingale
4. Pattingale
So is Flash Forward worth watching? I enjoyed the book a lot.
Rob Munnelly
5. RobMRobM
I'm fond of the complex triangles in Robin Hobbs' Farseer and Tawny Man books, where Fitz has to choose between following his own desires and irreparably damaging the pretty darned good happiness of his closest friends; and a secondary triangle of two very different close friend characters romantically and emotionally interested in him. Lots of heartbreak on all sides of the two triangles.

Leigh Butler
6. leighdb
Pattingale @4:

Well, I'm enjoying it. It's yet to be seen whether the show can hold up under the weight of its own plot, but so far they seem to be doing well.

If nothing else, the pilot is worth watching just for the awesome apocalypticalness of the opener, which I personally found chilling to watch (in a good way).
Rob Munnelly
7. RobMRobM
From a YA standpoint, I like the developing triangle in John Flanagan's ongoing Ranger Apprentice series - where Will looks to have to choose between two worthy and very different choices: his oldest friend and the noble with whom he spent nearly a year together keeping each other alive in tough circumstances. However, as of Box 6 anyway, it looks clear which way he is choosing.

Austin H. Williams
8. Wrenza
going back to vampires, there is the triangle with Dracula, Mina and Jonathan Harper. Dracula saves Jonathon who is bitten by female vampires, only for Mina to nurse Jonathan to health. Then she is bitten and that connection used to track Dracula for Jonathan to kill him.

I love the eroticism in the book and how the characters are intertwined together each having some effect on the other. Perhaps not classic love, but the connections between the characters are so strong. Mina may not have to make a direct choice, but she has to resist the lure of Dracula and his bite.
Beth Friedman
9. carbonel
Pattingale @4:

I started watching Flashforward because I liked the book a lot, but that way lies madness, really. You have to watch it as a totally different thing. It's starting to come together. It's actually better where it totally diverges from the book, which it pretty much has now.
Beth Friedman
10. carbonel
The parallelogram that's currently bugging me is the one on Private Practice. Addison loves Pete (and his son, Lucas) and Sam. She's not seeing Sam because Sam used to be married to her best friend, Naomi, and there is much angst about this. Pete loves Addison and Violet, the mother of Lucas. Violet loves Pete (also Cooper, platonically, but that's not important now).

Given that they're all working together, more or less (there are two medical practices involved, but they swap employees as the plot warrants), I wish they could just settle into a nice poly relationship and have done with it except for scheduling issues.
Marcus W
11. toryx
Having experienced a love triangle situation in in my own life, I've pretty much blocked out most of the triangles in fiction form. I can't think of a single one.

(And man, I really need to catch up on the Flash Forward episodes on my DVR.)
Austin H. Williams
12. Ellie Angel
Word, Austin.

Meyer's triangle isn't satisfying to me. The narrative is so heavily weighted to Edward and the vampires that Jacob never emerged as a viable alternative. I would also argue that Bella's attractiveness is so unclear -- her narration is a constant rumination on her relative worthlessness -- that I have a hard time accepting her as compelling that kind of response.

Maybe the centre hinges of a triangle are always Mary Sues. I'm thinking of Rand's love quandrangle with Elayne, Min, and Aviendha in the Wheel of Time. Beyond the ickiness of getting the blond, the brunette and the redhead all at once, his attractiveness beyond his power/destiny/insanity is fuzzy. I get why he's attracted to them, but his own personality has always struck me as particularly borderline.

See also, Daae, Christine, in the Phantom of the Opera. Sure, she can sing and she's beautiful. What else is going on there? Not much.

Shifting tangents, Guy Gavriel Kay had an interesting take on the Arthurian triangle in the Fionavar Tapestry -->"I loved them both."

He also has a good one in The Lions of Al-Rassan.
Fred Himebaugh
13. Fredosphere
Nice mention of Rene Girard. Everybody should get to know what he has to say.
Rikka Cordin
14. Rikka
I'd second Assassin's Apprentice. Poor Fitz.

Also, my library has books two and three of Fionavar but no book one D: I've been wanting to read it quite desperately for some time...
Austin H. Williams
15. Marierutkoski
Austin & ellie angel: to be clear, I don't consider my article to be a piece of twilight fandom. It's cultural criticism. I'm interested in the power of love triangles, and one of the most culturally vibrant ones right now, like it or not, is in twilight. If you think it works, I'm interested in why; if not, I'm equally interested, so thanks, Ellie angel, for that.

For true fandom on my part, see my Buffy posts.

Thanks all, for the comments! I've more to say when not typing on my cell phone!
Emmet O'Brien
16. EmmetAOBrien
I'm not much of a one for triangles, too many of them fail the "this is not a problem if the people sit down like adults and talk about it honestly for fifteen minutes" test. Or say,rather, I'm not much interested in characters who are in some way or other not mature enough to do that.

I would nominate the 2006 Tristan and Isolde as a very good example of a triangle with intensity and emotional complexity on all three sides, very much in the direction of what the post says about the classic Arthurian triangle, and with a real understanding of the Tristan/Marke dynamic and how that is as important as the romance.
17. PoliteNate
I really enjoyed the twist taken by the TV show Farscape: Aeryn Sun and John Crichton and, well, John Crichton.

Aeryn and John's romance is moving along well enough, as far as TV romance goes, but then in one random episode, a perfect clone of John is created. There is no way to tell which is the "original." And the show, amazingly, refuses to hit the reset button at the end of the episode. From that point on in the show, there are two John Crichtons competing for Aeryn's affection.
Austin H. Williams
18. malinarose
No mention of Alanna, Jonathan, and George in Tamora Pierce's Tortall books? Prince Charming or the Honorable Rogue? And even more confusing because they both think she's a boy for a significant portion of the story. Really, it's probably my favorite triangle ever.
Elizabeth Coleman
19. elizabethcoleman
Being poly, I have trouble taking love triangles seriously. (Even though I'm a firm believer in poly not being for everyone. Nevertheless, if you've got two folks in love with one other, and those two folks aren't mortal enemies, you might want to give it a shot.)
I think I like it when
1) the romance isn't the focus of the story a la Twilight. Star Wars is a good example.
2) Everyone communicates and there's no mind games. No "I'll convince Boy B to go to the prom to make Boy A jealous!" (And yes, this makes the Star Wars triangle a guilty pleasure. But Leia frenching Luke is just so hilarious in retrospect.)

I seem to remember liking the triangle in Kushiel's Dart.
Austin H. Williams
20. Cowboy Funk
I would say the 'love square' in Wheel of Time between Rand, Min, Aviendha and Elayne is a good example of how one doesnt necessarily need to choose between one 'best' option and can instead have their cake and eat it too. Well this love square would sound like heaven to most men it actually turns out that the women end up sharing an equally strong bond as they prepare for their true loves (Rand) decent into madness and eventual death.
Austin H. Williams
21. Lynnet1
@18 The love triangle between Alanna, Jon, and George was the first one I thought of, too! I never really thought of Jon as a viable option in that triangle. I know other people disagree. I love the way that Alanna has a relationship with each of them, but then Jon and George have their own relationship away from Alanna. And then the three of them together have an entirely different dynamic.

Although I hated the ending of The Lions of Al-Rassan, it was one of the best love triangles I've ever read. It just would have been an even better love triangle if the ending had been different.

@19 What triangle in Kushiel's Dart are you referring to? I can think of a couple of possibilities.
John Riggs
22. jmvreality
I think the WoT love thing between Rand and Elayne, Min, and Aviendha isn't really a good example.

It's more like predestined polygamy.
Kate O'Hanlon
23. KateOH
The King Arthur, Gwenivere, and Lancelot triangle has always killed me. On the one hand it;s so rich and nuanced and open to interpretation that I love it. And the other hand every version (that I know of) agrees that after they tear apart a nation and destroy a way of life and there are only Gwenivere and Lancelot left standing they enter a nunnery and monastery respectively ans spend the rest of their lives apart. I can never fully decide whether that's narratively satisfying.
Austin H. Williams
24. Marierutkoski
Malinarose: good one!

Hvns2btsy: I'm with you.

Sorry, all, for the terseness. Still typing on a cell phone (traveling).
Alex Brown
25. AlexBrown
Going with the vampire trend I'd say one of the most interesting triangles in pop culture for me has been between Buffy, Angel, and Spike. Though it wasn't "officially" a triangle, I totally consider it one, and, ***SPOILERS*** in the end Buffy chose neither.***END SPOILERS*** (On the non-SFF side, my favorite battle will always be the rectangle of teen angst that was Dawson-Joey-Pacey-Jen...ah, high school!)

Now that I've got True Blood back on the brain, I'm reminded of the really fun and smexy triangles Charlaine Harris forms out of ***SPOILERS*** Sookie, Alcide, Tiger-man, Sam, Eric, and Bill.***END SPOILERS***

Rikka @ 14: Put in a purchase request. Most libraries will have a form you can fill out on their website, or just email the reference desk. Or, better yet, next time you're there hit the Reference Desk and put the request in person. We Reference Librarians love that sort of stuff...keeps us in touch with what the readers want and, barring budgetary restraints (or patently false information therein) we generally buy whatever is requested.
Austin H. Williams
26. mordicai
Love triangle always boor me, because there is usually a pretty clear "right" choice. I mean, there may be "Team Jacobs," but even they know in their hearts that Meyer is never seriously considering Jacob-- he's a rival, a plot point, & certainly not an actual challenge to Edward. I'm trying to think of a triangle that got it "right," & I really am having a hard time, you know?

Also it confounds me why more of them don't just end in polyamory.
Austin H. Williams
27. politeruin
#17 Yes! Wasn't that fantastic. They committed to it, split the characters up and they became different people because of their separate experiences. With the death of John-black i was quite upset, it really felt like the loss of a major character despite there being a duplicate. It added a lot of weight to when Aeryn got back to moya and saw John-green again. Damn it, i miss this show. :(
Austin H. Williams
28. Foxessa
Actually in Bram Stoker's Dracula Minna has 5 men utterly devoted to her, well 4 because the American, the Texan died for her.

Somehow Minna is redeemed despite the vampire entering her blood, whereas Lucy is destroyed by them all, together in frenzied congress of sex and violence. She's a bad woman, who early in her narrative would prefer that she need not choose one suiter over another but to have all of them. And she eats babies. There is nothing more evil in the world than a sexually voracious woman -- and whose voraciousness leads her into the arms of a pervert, the consequences of which she descends even to the eating of -- BABIES!

However the purity of Minna gets all of them -- as well as the love of Dracula himself.

The final words of the novel:

Seven years ago we all went through the flames. And the happiness of some of us since then is, we think, well worth the pain we endured. It is an added joy to Mina and to me that our boy's birthday is the same day as that on which Quincey Morris died. His mother holds, I know, the secret belief that some of our brave friend's spirit has passed into him. His bundle of names links all our little band of men together. But we call him Quincey.

In the summer of this year we made a journey to Transylvania, and went over the old ground which was, and is, to us so full of vivid and terrible memories. It was almost impossible to believe that the things which we had seen with our own eyes and heard with our own ears were living truths. Every trace of all that had been was blotted out. The castle stood as before, reared high above a waste of desolation.

When we got home we were talking of the old time, which we could all look back on without despair, for Godalming and Seward are both happily married. I took the papers from the safe where they had been ever since our return so long ago. We were struck with the fact, that in all the mass of material of which the record is composed, there is hardly one authentic document. Nothing but a mass of typewriting, except the later notebooks of Mina and Seward and myself, and Van Helsing's memorandum. We could hardly ask any one, even did we wish to, to accept these as proofs of so wild a story. Van Helsing summed it all up as he said, with our boy on his knee.

"We want no proofs. We ask none to believe us! This boy will some day know what a brave and gallant woman his mother is. Already he knows her sweetness and loving care. Later on he will understand how some men so loved her, that they did dare much for her sake.


As others have pointed out, the most successful triangle in literature is the most enduring one of Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot.

Love, C.
Austin H. Williams
29. Deirdre Saoirse Moen
TORCHWOOD had more than a few love triangles.

Ianto/Jack/Gwen/Rhys being the main one.
Austin H. Williams
30. marierutkoski
I see I have a lot of reading/watching to do!

I've been thinking a little bit about classic, quintessential romances from earlier periods, and how a woman's choice of her partner becomes so important because it's more than love: for women in the early 18th-century, for example, who to marry was the ONLY real choice they could have in life. When Elizabeth Bennet chooses Mr. Darcy, we're well aware of how, if a woman chooses badly, it can ruin her whole life (see Lydia and Wickham). It occurs to me that Jane Austen presents a very delayed love triangle-- Lizzie must first learn that Wickham is not for her before she realizes that Darcy is, but this process takes a long time, and is better for it.

Maybe love triangles just speed this process up. Of course, the Lancelot-Gwen-Arthur triangle isn't sped up at all, but maybe this example is the exception rather than the rule of triangles, because the dynamic of their love is always about the culture and politics of their world.

Marie Rutkoski
31. Marierutkoski
My friend Sarah says:

"Here are two good ones that come to mind:

1: Lee Adama and Starbuck and Lee's dead brother. Brilliant and unresolvable b/c brother is DEAD.

2: Casablanca. The best I can think of. What makes it so satisfying is that rick is sort of unworthy of Ingrid Bergman until the end, when he becomes worthy of her by giving her up. heartbreaking."

I had forgotten about BSG...the Lee-Dualla-Kara-Sam rectangle was pretty interesting, too.
Hypatia James
32. hypatiajames
I think in the first Kushiel Trilogy, the tension between Jocelyn and Melisande, but both of them knowing Phedre's nature, makes it work. And then, even from exile Melisande can command Phedre's actions through the bond they share. So yes, I think these three make a triangle that actually works, mostly because for long stretches of the trilogy both Jocelyn and Melisande are viable options for Phedre, even though her options are remarkably different. In the end we know that Jocelyn and Phedre have that True Love, but it isn't clear until the very end of the trilogy, and into the next one, I would say.
Francesco Paonessa
33. ErrantKnave
Not fantasy or SF (or even YA), but here are two old-timey triangles:

1) Rick, Ilsa, and Victor in Casablanca. Rick and Victor are both good men, but only one of them can get the girl, and Rick holds the key to Victor's freedom.

2) Scarlett, Rhett, and Ashley in Gone with the Wind. Perhaps this is a twisted triangle. Ashley doesn't exactly pine for Scarlett, and Scarlett doesn't agonize over Rhett like she does for Ashley, but the three are still connected for much of the story.
Austin H. Williams
34. snnc
Ellie Angel @12: "Shifting tangents, Guy Gavriel Kay had an interesting take on the Arthurian triangle in the Fionavar Tapestry -->"I loved them both." "

Whenever I think of love triangles, I immediately think of this one. It doesn't matter how many times I read the book (a lot!), it always breaks my heart when Arthur goes to wake up Lancelot and all the knight asks is "why have you done this to us?"

The way that GGK has written it, there is just as strong a bond between Arthur and Lancelot as there is between either of them and Gwenevere, which makes the tragedy of the necessary "choice" even more poignant.

And mordicai's comment @26 of "Also it confounds me why more of them don't just end in polyamory." has also occurred to me more than once.

Thanks for the great, thought-provoking Marierutkoski!
Austin H. Williams
35. Rowanmdm
Kelly Armstrong actually initially does a decent job of not weighing the choices in her Darkest Powers books. The relationship between Chloe, Simon and Derek (who are foster brothers) is interesting, and you can see why she like both guys, why they like her, and why she chooses the one she does.

I agree that frequently it's hard to see why the fuss over the center person in the triangle (which is more frequently a problem with women than men), which is why I like Chloe. She's smart, courageous and compassionate enough that I can understand why both boys like her, without her being a perfect angel.
Austin H. Williams
36. Jackdaw
There's the triangle in Wilhelmina Baird's Crashcourse series. I can't remember the characters' names, but WomanProtagonist loves ManA who loves GuyB who loves WomanProtagonist .

I liked this series and wish she would write more books.
Austin H. Williams
37. AlexF
As Jackdaw says (and thanks for the example - I can't think of any examples off the top of my head) I'm always a big fan of triangles where the direction of affection is different for everyone.

Person A wants Person B
Person B wants Person C
Person C wants Person A

You get a much more satisfyingly sadness because a) no one really gets what they want and b) if Person A changes their mind and accepts C it's either to "settle for" what they don't want or to hurt the object of the (broken) affection (Person B) to say "nyah, nyah" in some way.
Rob Munnelly
38. RobMRobM
@36. I have a vague recollection that your scenario was the plot of a cheesy R-rated flick back in the 1990s called Threesome, featuring Lara Flynn Boyle. Don't specifically recall how the triangle was resolved in the end, as I deliberately expunged the memory from my mind shortly thereafter, but I believe they all drifted apart.
Invisible Cheese
39. MatOdin
Someone may have said this already, but one, though would it be considered a 'young adult book' is that of Rand al'Thor, in the Wheel of Time.
It's more of a square.
I dunno. I stick by my favorite books.
Cary Thomas
40. FreeRangeAuthor
Forgotten by most these days is Piers Anthony's trilogy - OMNIVORE (1), ORN (2), OX (3) which features a strong love triangle.

Unique is the triangle resolution, only possible in a science fiction setting. I won't reveal the surprise, it's too good to spoil.

I highly recommend this great trilogy. (read them in order for best enjoyment)

-- Seattle
Cary Thomas
40. FreeRangeAuthor
Forgotten by most these days is Piers Anthony's trilogy - OMNIVORE (1), ORN (2), OX (3) which features a strong love triangle.

Unique is the triangle resolution, only possible in a science fiction setting. I won't reveal the surprise, it's too good to spoil.

I highly recommend this great trilogy. (read them in order for best enjoyment)

-- Seattle

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