Discussion: When a Love Triangle is not really a Love Triangle

Yes. Today I’m going to talk about love triangles. Dun dun DUUUUUN! 

But I’m not going to talk about whether or not love triangles are good or bad (it really depends), or whether or not they’re overused as plot devices (they are). Instead, I’m going to talk a bit about how people are starting to call any story with a romantic [sub]plot and 3 or more featured characters a love triangle, and how I think this is madness.

So, first off, what is a love triangle? I realize there’s a lot of definitions out there, and mine is not necessarily “right.” But since this is my blog, I get to define it today.

[DISCLAIMER: For the purposes of this post, I’m going to use the one-girl-two-guys formula for love triangles, because I don’t feel like saying “him or her” constantly throughout the post. But obviously, these gender roles can be reversed.]

[DISCLAIMER #2: I give some examples below. This is by no means meant to be an exhaustive list. Just some illustrations.]

“Real” Love Triangle:

In my opinion, a love triangle is a story in which a large portion of the plot centers around reciprocated romantic feelings between a girl and two potential suitors. In a real love triangle, the girl must be romantically attracted to both guys, and must seriously consider each of them as a viable romantic candidate. They must also be romantically interested in her. She can favor one over the other, but she must at least give thoughtful consideration to both. The deliberation must also last for a prolonged period of time, not just for a couple chapters.

Illustrations of “real” love triangles:

Twilight: New Moon*GlitchThe SelectionClarity

NOT a Love Triangle

So what isn’t a love triangle? Oh, so many things. Basically, any story which does not fall into the above classification. But I will break it down.

Example #1

Girl is in a relationship that starts either before or very near the beginning of the book, then realizes she doesn’t actually want to be with that guy. She then moves on to someone else.

They may both be interested in her simultaneously, but she doesn’t spend a lot of time agonizing over which one to choose. There may be a slight amount of overlap, but she mostly moves from one to the other. In this example, the defining characteristic is the fact that she is not interested in/does not seriously consider both guys simultaneously, or at least not for more than a couple chapters.

This is not a triangle. This is a linear progression, and with or without the overlap, it’s how most relationships go. One doesn’t work out. You break up. You move on to someone else.

I think the confusion comes when in books, the moving on happens immediately after the first relationship ends (or even right before it ends), because it would be boring in a book for there to be months of singleness in between relationships. But you have to realize that in the mind of the protagonist, she wasn’t ever simultaneously falling for two guys. She was just moving on.


Before I Fall, Pushing the Limits

Example #2

Two guys are interested in the same girl, but she only ever really considers one of them as a viable option. Again, the other may be given brief consideration, but her feelings toward him are probably not very romantic.

Raise your hand if you have ever been in a relationship, then found out one of your other friends (who you were not interested in) has a crush on you. Did you consider yourself to be in a “love triangle?” Or did you consider your relationship separate from the crush, since you never really considered the friend romantically?


Catching Fire**Everneath, The Princess BrideHourglass

Example #3

Two characters are attracted to each other/in a relationship. There is also a third character present, who shows no romantic feelings toward either of them, and neither of them show romantic feelings toward this character. Yet some readers of the book somehow decide that the third character should be involved romantically, despite the complete lack of romantic context in the book itself.

Again, let me put this in the context of real life. For the purposes of this example, let’s assume you’re a girl (since most of you probably are). And you’re dating a guy. And you also have a friend who’s a guy, but you’ve never been interested in him and he’s never been interested in you. In fact, he’s dating someone else, which you’re totally happy about.

And then some random person who doesn’t know you comes up to you and says, “Hey, I know you’re both dating other people, but I think you would be SO GOOD together, and I think you should give it a try!”

What is your thought process? “Oh heavens! I appear to be in a love triangle!” or “You have no idea what you’re talking about, crazy person.”


…do I actually need to give one? I think we all know what I’m talking about.

How to Spot a Love Triangle:

1. Are there 3 or more main/prominently featured characters who are capable of being attracted to one another?

2. Are two of them romantically interested in the same person?

3. Is that person honestly romantically interested in both of the others?

4. Does this interest prompt a need for that person to make a choice between the other two?

5. Is the choice difficult?

6. Is the decision-making process lengthy, and does it provide a significant conflict for the person making the choice?

If the answer to ALL SIX questions is yes, congratulations! You’ve found a love triangle!

What does it all MEAN?!?!

I think us readers need to take a chill pill when it comes to the whole love triangle thing. Yes, lots of books have love triangles, possibly too many books. Yes, sometimes they’re used as pointless plot devices, and the story could be just as strong, if not stronger, without them (although with real love triangles, many times they actually are central to the plot, because the love triangle is the conflict. Or one of them.)

But a lot of books don’t have love triangles. They have characters who interact with each other, and they have conflict, but the point of the book and the dilemma of the characters is not supposed to be “Who is she going to choooooose?” That’s not what the author intended, and it’s kind of a lousy thing to take away from a story where the focus was supposed to be something else.

I think everyone needs to put down the “Team Whatever” button makers, take a deep breath, and back away slowly.

So what do you think? Do you agree that a true love triangle only exists when the main character is significantly torn between two romantic interests? Do you think that any sort of romantic interest with 3 characters, reciprocated or not, constitutes a love triangle? Do you think that a romance that exists entirely in the heads of the fans, completely outside the context of the book, should still be considered a love triangle? Let me know!

P.S. This is my first pure discussion post. Thinking of doing more of them in the future.

* Yes, Edward definitely has the edge, but Bella spends a good period of time trying to make something work with Jacob, and it is one of the central conflicts of the story.

**I realize that a LOT of people think there is a genuine love triangle in the Hunger Games series, but I maintain that Katniss never really considers one of the contenders romantically. She tries to convince herself to think of him that way, because she doesn’t want to hurt his feelings, but that’s about it. If anything, the “triangle” in that book is between Katniss, the guy she eventually ends up with, and being alone.

P.P.S. So far everyone in the comments is behaving themselves admirably, but I just want to ask that no one spoil the end of any of these, or any other, books for anyone. Believe it or not, there are still people out there who haven’t read Hunger Games. Or Harry Potter. *faints*

20 thoughts on “Discussion: When a Love Triangle is not really a Love Triangle

  1. I think these are all EXCELLENT points! I completely agree that a love triangle only truly exists when there are two people interested in the third party, and the third party is genuinely interested in both of them. Hence, decisions and choices and confusion.

    And you are so spot on with Catching Fire. I don’t think it was every truly a love triangle. I think they both were interested in her, for different reasons, and she felt that she had to at least consider both of them. Even though she already knew she couldn’t see one in a romantic sense.

    My biggest pet peeve (as you already know) is when people try to claim that there’s a love triangle in Harry Potter. Did you READ the book? Just, stop. Ron and Hermione are meant to be and Harry and Hermione have only ever had a brother-sister relationship. There was never anything that even remotely hinted at the two of them having feelings for each other.

    Um, okay I think I’ve rambled enough…Clearly i have ALL THE OPINIONS on this topic.
    Sarah @ Breaking the BInding recently posted..[Guest Review] Two Rings by Millie Werber and Eve KellerMy Profile

    • I have a friend who goes around telling people not to read Mockingjay because “it’s too much like Twilight and all about the love triangle.” And I follow behind him screaming “WHAT LOVE TRIANGLE NOOOOO!”

      Of course, I know many people who dislike Mockingjay for valid reasons too, but that one drives me nuts.

      And HIGH FIVE on the HP pet peeve. I can’t take people seriously if they tell me there’s a love triangle in those books.

  2. FANTASTIC post! I agree with pretty much everything here — especially the very last point about Katniss and her “love triangle.” I was genuinely confused when I saw a “TEAM THIS GUY” thing even HAPPENING, because to me, the other choice was never more to her than a long-time friend. And sometimes when you have a long-time friend of the opposite gender you wonder, “Maybe?” SOMETIMES it works. But most of the time I think you think through it and realize that you’re just friends for a reason. And to me, that was clear in the Hunger Games from the very beginning. I think movie marketing had a lot to do with that, though.

    • I did the same thing! I read the trilogy before I ever visited a book blog, but after I finished it I went and looked at some online forums about HG and my mind was honestly BLOWN that “Teams” were happening. It did not even occur to me that there was a choice in those books.

      I want to throttle the movie marketing people for making that a thing.

    • It’s easy to get swept up in the fanatic Team hullabaloo (I feel like every book I pick up nowadays has some sort of “Team” division, even if the author absolutely never intended for it to happen), but I think if we all just asked ourselves, “if this was happening to me, would I consider it a love triangle?” we’d realize they’re really not quite as pervasive as everyone seems to think.

  3. Thank you for Example 3. Thank you, thank you and thank you.

    I still thing Twilight: New Moon falls more under Example 2, but that’s really neither here nor there overall because you make a great point that, in a lot of cases, the “triangle” is in the heads of the readers. Which – free interpretation yay! But also sometimes – seriously, chill the heck out.

    I’m just, in general, not a huge fan of the whole love triangle trend, but then again, the romance is oftentimes the last thing to attract me to a novel in the first place. So maybe I’m not the best person to ask…
    Becca recently posted..Get Ready for a Query Letter Workshop!My Profile

    • I think New Moon can probably go either way actually (which is, in and of itself, kind of crazy. I mean, the franchise that spurred ALL THE LOVE TRIANGLES does not, at its core, contain a love triangle? What the heck?) I include it in the first category because if she’s not trying to convince herself to be with Jacob instead of Edward, what is the point of the book? I mean, that’s about 90% of the content right there, right alongside fighting depression in the most self-destructive way possible. So because the central conflict of the book revolves around “I want to be with this guy, but I want to want this other guy,” I’m including it as an example of a genuine love triangle.

      But you’re right, when Edward graces us with his presence again, there’s really no contest for Bella. So in that case, it should fall under Example 2 and not be considered a love triangle.

      I think the thing that gets to me the most is when people make a book about a love triangle and that’s so obviously not what the author was trying to write about. Especially when it’s a book where the characters obviously don’t feel romantically toward each other in the first place *coughharrypottercough*

  4. I agree that people are usually too quick with creating teams or trying to make a love triangle out of something that isn’t romantic. A love triangle in itself isn’t enough to drive a plot, which is one of the reasons why I hated ‘New Moon’. There should be more to a character than just who they are or aren’t in love with! I also think Twilight is a really confusing example because on the one hand it’s Edward all the way and on the other hand Jacob’s always there! In Harry Potter, I think, there is never such a thing as a love triangle!

    I love discussion posts and sometimes do them myself! They are a great way of seeing what others think about a subject! 🙂
    Juli @ Universe in Words
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  5. Oh, I’m so glad that you posted this! I COMPLETELY agree with you about what does and does not make a love triangle. It has always frustrated me when people want to call everything that, ESPECIALLY regarding the girl + guy + friend with a crush. People always want to call that a love triangle, but is it really? I tend to think no. Guilt at hurting friend-with-a-crush does not = attraction. Great post!
    Jenny recently posted..Review: Seraphina by Rachel HartmanMy Profile

  6. Yeah, I think you covered it well! I think sometimes we react to things that aren’t *really* a love triangle like they are. Maybe we’re just so sick of them we make them exist where they don’t really.
    I think that they can be okay sometimes, but most of the time they are frustrating. I mean in Twilight I kinda wanted to scream at Bella to not string anyone along! And I hate when they don’t want to make decision, or absolutely deny themselves their true feelings, trying to convince themself that they *don’t* like so and so because the other so and so is better for them. ARG. But yet sometimes people rage at triangles that I think actually work okay. I guess we all just have our own opinions.
    Very fun discussion post!
    Candace recently posted..Saturday Situation- Link Up Your Reviews & GiveawaysMy Profile

    • I agree with you, and I also think it’s funny how people say they’re sick of them, and then start projecting them EVERYWHERE. “I hate this and wish it happened less often, so I’m going to pretend it exists when it doesn’t!” How…is that sensible?

    • You and me both! I read so many reviews of books I enjoyed where the reviewer says “I liked it except for the love triangle,” and then I have to browse through my book going, “wait, what love triangle?”

  7. I like this post… I may have been guilty of wanting a guy to be part of a love triangle (Example 3 ) and I did think Hermione and Harry would have made an AWESOME couple (but I never thought of them as a romantic couple till I saw an awesome post telling why they’d be perfect for one another :P)

    Krazzyme @ Young Readers

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