Love triangles are a cornerstone of relationship-themed serial drama. Long before anyone was declaring Team Edward or Team Jacob, both daytime and nighttime soaps were making bank on meaty, angsty, sexy wars of the heart.
But triangles are hard to write effectively, and the better ones showcase all the characters involved at their peak awesomeness. The best ones…? Well, those make it nearly impossible to pick a side at all!
In recent years, I’ve been a huge fan of how The CW’s The Vampire Diaries handled the trope…having brothers Stefan and Damon each acknowledge the other’s affection for Elena but not drawing battle lines over her — there have always been more important fights for this crazy cast of supernatural beauties. Unfortunately, the series dropped the ball in their latest season, finally giving Damon/Elena fans what they wanted, but at the cost of what made Elena rootable. The idea that vampire Elena is sire-bonded to Damon is an interesting one, but the execution is terrible.
Sure, TVD has loved flipped expectations on us: It’s Stefan’s fault Damon got turned, Stefan was more of a killer than Damon ever was, Elena met Damon first, etc. And, sure, Damon is funny as Hell, tormented, hot and incredibly entertaining. But that doesn’t change the fact that Damon is still, fundamentally, a selfish, abusive psycho. And Elena thinking he’s better for her than Stefan makes Elena look stupid. I don’t care if their chemistry is hot enough to melt every panty in the Victoria’s Secret catalog, Damon’s a nutjob who requires supervision and Elena used to know that. When your lead character starts ignoring the obvious thing that everybody knows and her friends can’t stop reminding her of, you know you’ve got problems! Rather than following much of the crowd who hates Elena for her wishy-washyness, I’ve basically just washed my hands of the show for the moment.
What’s the rooting value in a story if the heroine comes off like an idiot? Initially with TVD, and also in GH’s infamous Sonny/Brenda/Jax triangle, you had one corner that was a definite bad guy…but still SO compelling you could see why the woman would want him. And where both triangles lost their steam was when choosing the bad guy side undercut the woman’s strength as an individual. (Whether you can choose a baddie and still look smart might have to be the subject of my next rant…) You never want the developments in a triangle to weaken your protagonists! Contrived decisions and out of character behavior are the fastest way to tank a compelling story arc.
Take Haven, a show with three leads, Audrey, Nathan and Duke, who have an incredibly emotionally complex relationship. It’s not a simple love triangle, because the men are Audrey’s best friends who also have a very volatile relationship with each other and they’re all invested together in the show’s myth arc. Competing for her has never been part of the equation for the guys, nor has Audrey been particularly interested in choosing between them. When it works, it works really well. But season three saw shaky footing when Nathan began assuming Duke would endanger Audrey and then turned to shady lady Jordan. It was completely out of character. It made steady, loyal Nathan look petty and irrational. Duke may be a lot of things, but capable of hurting Audrey? No. It was a bad way to try to change a dynamic for the sake of moving a story along…and not even consistent, since Nathan would, time and again, trust Duke with Audrey’s safety and vice versa. The trio works brilliantly together. Why mess with a good thing?
On Lost Girl, bisexual succubus Bo doesn’t have a love triangle problem so much as the basic character trait that she can’t really engage in monogamy. Sexual energy is what energizes her, heals her, basically keeps her going. So, regardless of whether she’s with wolf male Dyson or human female Lauren, she’s never going to “just pick one.” What makes it a good triangle dynamic is that Bo gets something different from each person, and neither Lauren nor Dyson is a bad pick. Dyson gets her wild side, her sexual side. Lauren appeals to her heart. And Dyson and Lauren both understand Bo’s fae nature and have a precarious truce with each other. They don’t like each other, but they know there’s no real competition, because Bo needs both of them in her life. In fact, Dyson’s worst enemy is his nature — his possessive itch to claim Bo as only his when he knows that’s not enough for her. That, more than anything, is what keeps him and Bo apart.
So, what does a good triangle boil down to? It’s pretty simple:
•Rootworthy characters at their peak emotional strength and intelligence.
•Chemistry on all sides, as well as logical reasons why Character A would want to be with Characters B and C.
•Sides pulling together in times of crisis to defeat an outside threat.
•No obvious choices. The object of affection can’t pick easily, and neither can the viewer/reader.
Basically, if your sexy little triad is really working, nobody should be Team Edward or Team Jacob. They should be Team Keep This Going Forever, I Don’t Care Who Wins*.
*or Team They Should Just Move In Together And Have a Ménage. (This is, generally, my preferred solution to most effective love triangles.)