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Geometry in Fiction--Writers' Love of Triangles

As Valentine’s Day approaches, I think it’s time to give some thought to what seems to be among the most ubiquitous of plot devices. No, I’m not talking about the omnipresent quest, or even its brother, the Hero’s Journey. I’m talking about something even more widespread still: the love triangle.
This is the love triangle: Girl A cannot decide between Boy B, who she knows as a friend and whom she trusts; and Boy C, who is new, mysterious, and alluring. She loves them both, and they both love her. You know this set-up. It’s the basis for Twilight, obviously. It’s also a major subplot in Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. After those books’ amazing successes, is it any wonder that you can’t swing dead a cat in the YA section without hitting at least six? And it’s not just in paranormal romances or dystopian science fiction. Bridget Jones’s Diary features the title character torn between human-rights lawyer Mark Darcy and her boss, Daniel Cleaver. In Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War, Natalie Jastrow struggles to decide whether she should marry her old lover Leslie Slote or her uncle’s assistant, Byron Henry. Even Shakespeare was enamored of the love triangle. Juliet chooses Romeo over Paris, Hermia marries Lysander instead of Demetrius. Love triangles existed even before The Bard, though. Remember Guinevere, who married the High King Arthur but loves Lancelot? What about Isolde, the Irish princess, who fell in love with Tristan long before she was engaged to his uncle Mark?


Love triangles are old. They are popular. And here’s the secret: I hate them. Whenever I come across a love triangle, I want to scream: “Make up your mind!” at the waffling minx and throw the book across the room. But of course I don’t. I really do wonder how the girl will choose. (It’s almost never a question who she’ll choose; Katniss went with Peeta because Gale killed Prim, Natalie married Byron because Slote was a cowardly nincompoop.) I say I deplore love triangles because of over-exposure; The Hunger Games and Twilight were sensations within a year of each other, after all. Surely, I say, after all those copycat love triangles that followed, the market is glutted? But no, because glutted means overstuffed, and the romance market is going back for second helpings.
So. We’ve created an appetite for love triangles. It’s hard to sell a book these days without some question about love. But then, something comes along that spoils a perfect theory. Veronica Roth’s Divergent is wildly popular, and there’s no love triangle in sight. Why? The main character chooses between two factions, not between two men. She undergoes exactly as much angst as Bella does, but she worries over values and self-identity, not over whether the vampire or the werewolf loves her more. And unlike Bella, she doesn’t come off as a flirt.
People want to read about angst, any kind of angst. And, whatever else you can say about them, love triangles have no shortage of that. But there are other ways to supply it. Divergent, clearly, is filled with the most delicious angst. Lois McMaster Bujold’s Shards of Honor, which is something between science fiction and chick lit, contains Cordelia Naismith, who loves Aral Vorkosigan but refuses to be with him because she can’t stand his life. There. Love, angst, and no shadow of doubt as to the heroine’s affections. Exactly my kind of book.
So it’s demonstrably true that love triangles aren’t the only source of love-related angst. We needn’t ask the heroine to choose between two guys, necessarily leaving a broken heart behind her. We can derive our book sales from other methods of angst-production.
Then again, the love triangle has stood the test of time. It was used by Jane Austen, and Charlotte Bronte, and Shakespeare. It makes for great drama, and it forces a choice. Perhaps, like many things, it is a good thing in moderation. Not the only way, but one. Perhaps I’ll give some of those books another try.




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ninjadragon56 This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Feb. 28, 2012 at 6:40 pm:
Great job,  this is well written, mildly snarky, interesting and brings up a lot of good points. I couldnt agree with you more on the subject. Excelent job. Although, because Valentines day is no longer approaching you might want to change that at the beginning. If this were to get published, then the Valentines Day bit wouldn't do to well in a november issue. Otherwise, excelent work, best of luck!
 
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