Warning: If you haven’t read the Twilight Series, The Mortal Instruments, The Host, or The Infernal Devices and don’t want to be spoiled for some things, stop reading now!!
It struck me the other day, after reading something that Cassandra Clare wrote about her character’s relationships, that the term ‘love triangle’ doesn’t really do what it says on the tin. In books and films and TV shows, love doesn’t feel like the main focus of a love triange. In fact, the amount of hatred and jealousy that goes around when people are interested in more than one person causes so much animosity that love can be lost in the negativity. I’m not saying that this is the case in all pieces of writing, for whatever medium, but it’s how I felt about love triangles up until the last year, when I was finally introduced to some examples that buck the trend.
If you want an example of a proto-typical love triangle, I would ask you to look at Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series; I know this is painful for some of you, but bear with me. Bella Swan, sufferer of low self esteem and other teenage neuroses, becomes the object of Edward Cullen’s gaze — this is the Vampire that proceeds to lust after her for most of the film while his pale white skin is tinted by a blue hue that almost makes him look like a Smurf. Thing is, there’s also Jacob, not yet a Werewolf, but his hormones take care of all the rest. He sort of, maybe likes Bella too. It’s not immediately clear till he turns up in New Moon on his bike, looking substantially more like mating material. While Edward is away, having taken himself out of the equation because he believes it is what will keep Bella safe (this whole thing never ends well), Jake comes out to play and suddenly it’s a two horse race for Bella’s affection. This is if you ignore Mike, who never really stood a chance in the first place.
All of this behaviour is amplified by the constant conflict between Edward and Jacob, though Edward is more passive in these situations and quite often trusts Bella’s love for him is stronger than her love for Jacob. He’s older, wiser, etc. he knows how this stuff works. There still isn’t any love lost between the two. Fans then get into ship wars over who is better for Bella and the reasons why, who they think she should be with even though the whole thing is out of their control. Bella, of course — spoiler alert — ends up marrying Edward. And Jacob imprints on Bella’s kid, which I’ve always found strange. It’s a soul mate sort of thing. “Oh, it wasn’t you I loved, it was your future child! That tiny little egg in your ovary yet to be born.” In that case, why didn’t he also love Edward’s… you know what? I’m not even going to go there.
The point is, the whole situation is very little to do with love.
Another example of this sort of love triangle, though it is much less confined to the three characters, is Clary, Jace and Simon in the beginning of Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments series. I say less confined because I don’t find the same animosity between the three of them because of the way the relationships are/have been established. Simon has been Clary’s best friend for the longest time and therefore been ‘friend-zoned’, somewhere he doesn’t want to be and Clary hasn’t particularly realised she’s done. Then in swoops Jace, dressed in black and killing Demons left and right, which catalyses the love triangle. Both boys actually have a real shot at making a relationship happen because of certain circumstances throughout the first three books. There is also always this other smaller possibility in the background of Isabelle and Simon too, meaning that you know he could always move on if he is ditched romantically. Yet, because the boys don’t like each other and both want Clary, there is still this tension and lack of love between them till it’s all resolved (in a less strange way than Twilight). It’s the old: new guy gets the girl, best friend remains that way trope. It happens the other way around too.
Now we delve into the realms of the love triangles of actual love. I’m going to stick to Stephanie Meyer and Cassandra Clare because they are the best examples and it’s interesting that they have written both types of love triangle.
I will freely admit that I have only seen the film of The Host, not the book (by Stephanie Meyer), so I can only discuss that and not the way the relationships play out in text — I’d hope they were sort of similar, otherwise they might as well have written a whole new story. Anyway. Melanie Stryder is on the run, protecting herself and her little brother from a race of aliens who assimilate themselves into the populations of planets by taking over their bodies. They say it is to learn and experience, but it’s still taking control away from the host. She falls in love with Jared Howe, things are pretty straightforward till she’s captured and taken by the aliens, one of them inserted into her body. She’s strong enough to fight back, meaning that there are two consciousnesses in one body. This makes things complicated when they escape into the desert and find Melanie’s family and Jared. He can’t see her past the alien, so shuns her. Instead, the alien, Wanda, forms a relationship with Ian Shae, someone who shows her kindness when others don’t.
Once Jared comes around to the fact that Melanie is still alive in her body, there’s this sort of tug-of-war, a love-quadrangle of sorts (thank you Max Irons and Jake Abel for the terminology). However, while there might be some discomfort in the beginning and misunderstanding, the four of them actually come to a fairly amicable agreement. All of them understand who they are truly in love with and they all have an appreciation of each other’s wants and needs, even if it can still be weird sometimes. Wanda’s eventual decision to die, and their dismissal of this wish in favour of keeping her alive in the body of someone who would die without her life force, actually solves all of their problems and they move out of the ‘love triangle’ and into two proper relationships where everyone is happy.
That example was a bit out of the box. However, if you want a love triangle entirely based on love, it’s the three main characters in Cassandra Clare’s Infernal Devices. I actually messaged the lady herself about this relationship because it’s one of the most refreshing love triangles I’ve ever read while still having its drama and heartache. Based in Victorian times, Tessa Gray comes to England from America expecting to meet her older brother there and live with him now their Aunt and sole guardian has died. Instead, she founds herself wrapped up in a world of the Supernatural and that she herself has special powers which no one quite understands, except the mysterious Magister. She meets two boys about her age, best friends and Shadowhunters — each other’s Parabatai, a bond which transcends all others in the eyes of their order.
Although Will Herondale is the one that naturally seems like the obvious choice for her affections at first, as their banter and attraction would lead you to believe, Tessa also begins to build a relationship with the kind and gentle Jem — James Carstairs. Tessa falls for them both and loves them for different reasons, though both always fight fiercely to protect her from others, if not themselves. Timing is the thing that causes the tension in this case and their mutual love amongst them causing them to keep secrets and make sacrifices. But not once do they ever stop loving each other and they are all happy in the end, with both men getting their chance to be with Tessa in their lifetimes, however long they may be.
I think the problem I’ve had with love triangles in the past is that they’ve become this clichéd mess of a storytelling device that doesn’t fill you with any sort of real gratification or satisfaction throughout the story and at its outcome. I enjoyed the Host because of the way the men and the women manage to deftly navigate something that would be otherwise complicated and could go horribly wrong, and are rewarded for it later. And I adore Tessa, Jem and Will because of the sheer amount of love that exists between them, and how Cassandra shows that it is possible to love more than one person and to find happiness in that in the end. It also proves that when the conflict comes from sources outside of their control and not themselves, it makes the heartbreaking moments even more devastating.
In my opinion, I think the latter is something to be rejoiced and beheld as something that other love triangles should aspire to be. All the tension and none of the bitter jealousy and spite. If you’re going to write a love triangle, write it with love.