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The Love Triangle: Choose Wisely, or Else

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Average Everygirl #10: Average encounters the love triangle | Panel 1: Average stands in the middle, looking at the Hot Guy to her left. The narrator says, "Behold! The Long-time Crush…" The Hot Guy is saying, "Average, I'm your long-time crush, the student body president, and a volunteer kidney donor. And I love you." | Panel 2: The narrator continues, "…versus the Best Friend." Totally Everguy walks in from the right of the frame, saying, "Average, I'm your best friend, the school's quarterback, and I consoled you after your mother's tragic death. And I love you too." | Panel 3: On either side of a deadpan Average, the two boys angrily declare, "You must choose between us, Average! RIGHT NOW!" and the Narrator asks, "Who will she choose?" | Panel 4: Average, smiling sweetly, says, "LOL. No. I'm only 17." The Hot Guy and Totally both look sad. The narrator concludes, "Average does not grasp the importance of love triangles."

I’m not going to say that the Love Triangle is a hallmark of sloppy storytelling, per se, but lately it’s been the Hamburger Helper of plot devices. Don’t have time for full plot development? Try the Love Triangle! Just add one more love interest, and voila! Instant romantic tension!

It’s the fallback used to get a romantic subplot moving, an unsubtle impetus to drive the hero and heroine together. The reader can typically tell which side of the triangle should prevail, which eliminates any true tension, and if the author dares go another direction, every non-hipster reader feels cheated. So, it’s either predictable or “artsy.”

But rather than harp on how underwhelming this trope has become, I’m going to focus on my favorite examples of the Love Triangle instead. Surprise!

A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

Plot: Fairies and humans converge in the forest on a midsummer’s night, with much mayhem as a result.

Love Triangle: Demetrius loves Hermia who loves Lysander, with Helena out in the cold; then Lysander and Demetrius both love Helena, who thinks they’re making fun of her, while Hermia is left abandoned and alone. I love that under the fairy-influence each heroine gets a sample of how the other feels, Helena annoyed by unwanted suitors while Hermia is left to solitude.  With four players, this is probably more like a Love Rhombus than a Love Triangle, but there’s only ever love between three of them at the most, so I’m counting it.

Shakespeare is particularly good at the Love Triangle, and he does it without having a fickle character angsting over which dreamboat to choose. When his love triangle motif makes an appearance, it seems more a mechanism of comic relief rather than romantic tension. See, for example, the Viola/Orsino/Olivia entanglement from Twelfth Night. (Also a delightful love triangle, but I like Midsummer Night just a shade more. At least when it’s staged well.)

Inuyasha: A Feudal Fairy Tale by Rumiko Takahashi

Plot: A modern girl travels 500 years back in time to medieval Japan. There, she instantly ruins a lot of things and has to go around putting the pieces back together (hahaha, literally).

Love Triangle: Inuyasha, Kagome, and Kagome’s dead-but-resurrected past incarnation, Kikyo. Yeah. The heroine’s love-rival is a zombified version of her former self. The hero’s struggle between the two shows just how committed he was to that earlier incarnation, which is really sweet, considering what a rough character he is. This was the first manga series I read, mostly through transcripts because the English translation was so far behind the Japanese releases. I give it points for ingenuity in the love-triangle department, as I’d never encountered this sort of variation before.

Love triangles are a manga-plot staple. For a well-done standard “A must choose B or C” scenario, where both B and C are viable choices, see Natsuki Takaya’s Fruits Basket.

The Castle of Llyr by Lloyd Alexander

Plot: A farm boy escorts his noble crush back to her homeland, where a witch promptly kidnaps her.

Love Triangle: Taran loves Eilonwy, who is engaged to Rhun. Rhun is far too innocent and lovable for anyone to hate. So, instead, Taran resents him, and then resents himself for resenting someone so harmless. Eilonwy, meanwhile, remains oblivious that she’s the focal point of this triangle. After all, there’s no question in her mind how things are going to turn out.

I always loved that Eilonwy knew her own mind. I wanted to be her. That is all.

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

Plot: Cursed by a witch, a young-turned-old woman takes up housekeeping in a moving castle owned by a philandering wizard and powered by a fire demon.

Love Triangle: Sophie fights her growing feelings for Howl, who shamelessly flirts with every woman he encounters. There’s also the whole Michael loves Lettie-Martha issue, as well as Lettie + patchwork Suleman/Justin. It’s not so much a Love Triangle as a Love Scribble-all-over-the-page, and the whole book is entirely delightful.

Skip Beat! by Yoshiki Nakamura

Plot: Spurned by her childhood crush after sacrificing her future to enable his, a young woman joins the entertainment industry to exact her revenge.

Love Hate Triangle: Kyoko loathes Sho and despises Ren. Sho holds Kyoko in contempt, while Ren dismisses her for her vengeful ambitions. Sho hates Ren for being successful. Ren is indifferent to Sho, because he’s beneath notice. As far as I’m concerned, this is the Anti-Love Triangle. All three characters are at odds with one another. Then they grow and the plot twists and turns, and my insides tie up in knots every time a new chapter releases.

I have laughed and cried over this series. I adore it. But then, it’s the tale of a self-hating Average Everygirl whose only path to success and happiness lies in learning to love herself first of all. It’s beautiful and brilliant and hilarious.

(And Kyoko’s finally getting somewhere, thank the stars.)

So, not all love triangles are bad. Have a favorite? Leave it in the comments!