Love Triangles, Part 2

A commenter on my last post about love triangles pointed out that various love-angles have been featured in literature since who-knows-when. Cave people probably told stories about dramatic love triangles in grunts and signs, and good for them.

The story of Helen of Troy was a love-triangle of sorts, with Paris stealing Helen from her wretched husband Menelaus. There’s the classic King Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot triangle, one of my very favorite stories of all time, and the accompanying Tristan-Isolde-King Mark tale. Shakespeare loved a good love triangle, and even Jane Austen gives us a variety of love-angles in Mansfield Park, arguably her primmest book—and again, one of my favorites. (Honestly, if there were a Team Edmund/Team Henry debate, I’d be rooting for Henry Crawford. Seriously!)

Downton Abbey happily plays on our interest in love-angles.

But why? I really want to know what it is about being caught between lovers that is so appealing to us. Is it the drama? The exquisite joy and pain of having two people who love someone so much—do we want to experience that vicariously?

Still, today I want to drag into the mix love untried and those rare books in which two lovers unite without much friction. I just finished one: Soulless, by Gail Carriger, a book which probably warrants a blog post about pastiche and steampunk and parasols.

Over the course of the book, though, which is the first in a series, the two lovers are wed—and there are really very few love-related obstacles for them to cross before the wedding. Practicalities like not knowing if you’re writing a series aside, what is the merit of letting the lovers get together right away, especially when we readers love to have the drama stretched out?

I started this topic out with fantasy because, well, I write and read mostly fantasy these days. I do read and love me some historical fiction and classic fiction—Jane Austen continues to be one of my very favorites. But the mix of lovers does transcend genres, just as it transcends the “romance” category generally.

I want to throw this open to you, readers. Which do you prefer: love quickly triumphant or love tried with complications like other lovers? Why do you prefer it? What are your favorite love stories?

As for me, now I just want to reread Mansfield Park.

Freudian Saturday: Triangles of Loooove

Well, yesterday has passed, and today brings a STORM OF DOOM to southern Indiana, but all is well.

So I ask you: what is an urban fantasy or a paranormal romance without a love triangle (or quadrangle, or dodecahedron)? Bella has her Edward-Jacob dilemma, Sookie has Eric-Bill-Sam-possibly Alicide-and, well, anyone else who may pop up. Rachel Morgan has, well, lots of people, including her best friend Ivy. Even Katniss has Peeta-Gale pseudo-love-triangle—which, being one my big problems with The Hunger Games, I will address later.

But why? What is it about love triangles that gets our little hearts pounding? We love to be Team Edward/Team Eric/Team Peeta, but why do we invest so much in these fictional relationships? (Is anyone actually Team Peeta? Though I haven’t finished the trilogy, so I don’t know who Katniss chooses. Or pretends to choose, the selfish minx.)

TVTropes.org assumes that anything greater than your standard love triangle blunders into comedy, and part of the writer’s job is to tie up all the loose ends. Meanwhile, my handy-dandy Penguin Reference Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory (which I used to study for the literature GRE—a test I aced, by the way, though I have no PhD to show for it—and now happily use to discuss paranormal soap opera) says romantic comedy is “a somewhat vague term which denotes a form of drama in which love is the main theme—and love which leads to a happy ending.

But, while most of my examples have or may have happy endings, the love-angles portrayed are anything but comedic.

Let’s look, as we always do, at some examples.

True Blood: Sookie has so many potential love interests, it’s difficult to keep them straight, but—at this stage in the show—Bill and Eric are the main two contenders. One lifted her up out of her ordinary life, a life in which people thought she was eccentric or just flat-out crazy, and transformed her into a powerful, desired woman who can hold her own in the supernatural world. (More or less.) The other actually lets her act as that powerful woman, trusts her to survive and keep fighting, and declines to put her on the shelf. They both trust her at their most vulnerable, but both have lied to her, put her in danger, and done despicable things in the name of “protecting” her—and just generally, as well. There’s no clear answer here. She’s vampire crack to both of them, and they’re both immortal, so neither is really a feasible long-term partner. And yet we True Blood fans have our favorite, and actually care which of these unsuitable suitors she winds up with.

They're both pretty dreamy.

The Hollows: Ah, Rachel Morgan. First she dates a human thief she met when they were both cursed into animals and entered into rodent-fights. Then she dates a pretty-boy, semi-badass vampire. Then there’s a brief interlude with a nice, boring fellow-witch, and another with a reincarnated (though that’s not really the right word) 18th-century demon hunter she had a crush on when he was a ghost. (…huh?) Throughout the whole series, there’s the thread of question about whether Rachel will ever give in to the oh-so-dangerous temptation of her best friend Ivy’s love for her. And for a few weird shippers like myself, there’s her sometime-enemy and occasional-friend-and-ally, bad-guy elf Trent, who seems like the best fit all around. It’s never exactly a triangle, but Rachel has a plethora of potential lovers, and she’s hard-pressed to choose the one who wold suit her best. The point is, though, that Rachel trades up: she’s not human, and there’s no way she could be with a human. She’s more than a witch, too, and part of her character arc is accepting that: choosing a lover who can keep up with her is naturally part of that development.

The Hunger Games: Katniss goes off to the games accompanied by Peeta, who claims to have loved her for years, and leaving being her best friend Gale, a guy who, if you ask me, is far more suited to her needs. He’s strong, he hunts, he fishes, he’s a survivor. Peeta is dead weight to Katniss during the games: she pretends to be in love with him so that they can get the viewer support they need and possibly both survive the games. What troubles me about the love triangle aspect of these books is that it doesn’t seem to add to Katniss’s character development: it just makes her unlikable, at least for me. She uses Peeta, and that’s fine. But why have the guilt and the dilemma of “Which should I choose?” when the answer seems fairly obvious. To me, the triangle is just a ploy to have that Team Gale/Team Peeta aspect and stretch relationship drama out longer.

They're just not as sexy.

So, why the love triangles? Here are my theories:

1. We humans love drama… and since most of us will never experience a love triangle, we get to live vicariously through the soap operas we frequently see in fantasy. Writers can use the introduction of another lover to draw out a relationship conflict and keep us on the edge of our seats, salivating for whichever suitor we prefer.

2. Love triangles allow the writer to reveal and explore different aspects of a given character’s personality by providing her with two opposing lovers. The main character will develop over the course of the work and see who complements her better. To me, this is the better use of the device, because it acts enriches the plot.

What do you think, readers? Why do love triangles feature so prevalently in urban fantasy and fantasy generally?