Love Triangulation

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]

Back in November I conducted a poll about love triangles on the LJ urban fantasy community “Fangs, Fur, and Fey.” Why there? Because rightly or wrongly, they’ve stuck in my mind as part of the standard furniture of the urban fantasy/paranormal romance corner of our genre. Maybe it’s Laurell K. Hamilton’s fault, maybe it came from somewhere else, maybe I’m wrong entirely — but that’s where I most expect to find it. (And usually as M-F-M, though of course it doesn’t have to be that way.)

The poll results showed some interesting patterns — or in some places, lack of pattern. I’m no statistician, but I didn’t see a significant gap between those who adore love triangles and those who hate them; those who didn’t care one way or the other had the lead, but even then not by much. Things sort themselves out a bit more clearly in the second question (good guy, bad guy, neither, or both?): for all that we appear to like our bad boys, most people either want the good guy to win, or don’t particularly like either one.

But when it came down to the third question, one option won in a landslide. It might seem all dramatic and heroic to have one of your candidates die nobly at the climax of the story, but overwhelmingly readers want the heroine to make up her own damn mind. In other words, don’t cheese out of your own conflict; step up and take responsibility for developing your characters, and make them make the hard choices.

Which is apt, since Marissa Lingen ranting about the “kill one off” solution was what got me thinking about the poll in the first place. (Would-be writers of love triangles, take note. You don’t want Marissa coming after you with her stompy boot.)

If the poll were all, I wouldn’t bother posting about it. But the discussion that followed led to an epiphany for me, having to do with what I think of as the Grandparent of All Love Triangles: Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot. Why does that one work for me, and so many others don’t? Why am I invested in that story so much more than most?

Because of Arthur and Lancelot. It’s a love triangle, instead of a “love V” or “love arrow” (both highly suggestive terms, which I find appropriate). Even if you’re not Marion Zimmer Bradley, chucking them both into bed with Guinevere, there’s a relationship there. The two of them are beloved friends. And that’s why the situation hurts: because there’s something at stake on all three sides, and no matter how you resolve it, someone’s going to get hurt. All too often it seems like the same-sex members of the triangle have no connection, or at best hostility, between them. And that way lies a whiff of Mary Sue, because then both of them are only invested in the heroine, and it seems like a cheap way to make her look awesome. See, she’s hot! Everybody wants her! Spare me. That’s a pretty quick road to making me only care about one of them, or neither. But if there’s a bond between them, be it friendship, kinship, or bisexual love, then I’ll pay much more attention.

And if you do that, you open up the possibility that got more votes than I expected in the poll: who says they have to choose? There are more than a few poly folks in fandom, but a dearth of stories which represent multiple relationships positively and realistically. Maybe the genre is just waiting for a breakout poly relationship. (Anita Blake and her Gleaming Orifice That Welcomes All do not count.)

For the record, I’m not against triangles, just against bad ones. When I don’t care about the guys, when the unresolved sexual tension (or “ust,” a term I love) drags on forever and a day, then I roll my eyes. But as one person pointed out in the comments to the poll, a love triangle can provide a way of symbolizing the lives or selves between which the heroine must choose, and certainly it adds in a layer of tension and conflict above and beyond what one relationship provides. And there may be an element of wish-fulfillment, too, imagining yourself as the object of that kind of desire. Plenty of explanations for why readers like them.