Love triangles seem to be all the rage these days in YA literature. Why? Because it gives the reader a chance to pick a side. Besides, what girl DOESN’T want two amazing guys fighting over her.
True confession: I’ve lived the whole love triangle thing. And my family had just as much fun with picking a side as Twihards have picking either TEAM EDWARD or TEAM JACOB (see the hilarious SNL example here). And while I know everyone’s experience is different, I’ve so many read stories with love triangles that don’t quite pull it off. So I found the perfect example of a love triangle — the movie Casablanca — and compiled 5 important tips I think every writer should know when they are bringing the LOVE TRIANGLE into their plot.
Both boys need equal screen time. Just like any competition, you have to weigh both contestants fairly in order to pick a winner. Remember that your protagonist (and your reader!) is also doing this. If you don’t, the consequences look something like: the reader won’t end up knowing one of the guys, and how can they root for someone they don’t know?
In Casablanca, Ilsa is provided many opportunities to be with both Rick and Victor. Rick gets a little more screen time because he is the star, but Victor is by no means in Rick’s shadow. We not only hear of Victor’s bravery through Ilsa’s stories, but we see it through his actions.
(1) You have to give both guys a great personality
(2) Both guys have to have a “winning moment” where the reader has the opportunity to fall in love with them.
In Casablanca, both guys are great individuals. Victor is a war hero who is fighting for the good side. Rick, despite being jaded by life, also proves his personal merit through the decisions he makes. Both guys get to be heroes for the audience — even though they are vastly different. Both guys also have multiple winnings moments. Victor’s first moment comes right when we meet him, and he gets the band to play the La Marseillaise, the French National Anthem (CLIP). You can just see how Ilsa idealizes Victor for his bravery in drowning out the Nazis singing — he really is a hero. Ironically, Rick also shines in this instant. He is the one who nods to give the band approval to play the song. And while Rick seems hardened at this point in the movie, we are given a great flashbacks to see Rick in a more winning time for him. In these memories, we see the Rick that Ilsa fell in love with, and so the audience “can always have Paris,” too.
Make the choice a mystery
This is one area where writers fall short. You may know who your protagonist picks in the end, but that DOESN’T MEAN YOUR CHARACTER DOES. This is just as much an adventure for the reader as it is for the character. Make sure your narrative doesn’t reveal your hand.
No one knew how Casablanca would end. The actors were given script pages sometimes only a few hours before the scene was shot, and not even the writers had determined who Ilsa would choose until that last moment. That made it so the actors couldn’t show their choice before hand, and the director couldn’t adjust camera angles to favor one or the other. We as writers have to remember that even though WE know who the girl will end up with, the CHARACTER doesn’t.
Remember, that sometimes the character has already made their choice early in the story, and that is okay. The mystery remains that the girl can always change her mind, no matter how much it is set. That’s the only reason Team Jacob had a chance.
The protagonist needs to have chemistry with BOTH of the love interests. Period. If one of the love interests isn’t making her heart pound faster, then something is wrong.
In Casablanca, Ilsa loves both men, though in entirely different ways. (post on this coming soon!). And at different points in the movie, her love for one outweighs the other as the events unfold. Then something else comes along, and the scales reverse.
Author Carrie Ryan does a great example of explaining this important aspect of the love triangle:
To me, a love triangle done right isn’t about a female* character’s affections bouncing back and forth between two men, it’s about her internal struggle within herself as she figures out who *she* wants to be and what’s important to her. This internal struggle then gets reflected externally as she wars within herself and grows. And that’s the heart of any book — a character’s growth from first page to the last. Generally, even as a character grows and changes she backslides (what sometimes looks like a flip-flop in affections) and sometimes a character will cling to their old way of being even as the struggle to adopt a new way.
Growth isn’t easy. Figuring out who you are isn’t easy. That’s why I think that a book that ends with a character who knows who they are and what they want is a good thing. (full post)
Carrie hits on a great point that YA is all about the protagonist discovering the world around them — and that includes love. The love triangle presents a choice to the protagonist as to who she wants to become. (And don’t take the easy route and simply kill off one of the guys to make the choice easier.)
In Casablanca, Rick tells Ilsa “Inside of us, we both know you belong with Victor. You’re part of his work, the thing that keeps him going. If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.” So even though it might appear Ilsa doesn’t have a choice, she really does. She can either stay with Rick in Casablanca, thus being with the man she truly loves and facing a possible jail sentence with him. Or she can go with her husband, running from the Nazis at every turn. Both choices would take her down a different path of life. She chooses to be the hero’s wife, helping him carry out his noble cause despite her own heart pulling her a different direction. A noble choice made by two noble characters.
Examination (and grading):
So now let’s look at popular love triangles and see where they score.
Twilight* — Grade: A [24.5/25]
1. Screen Time: 5
2. Winning Moments: 5
3. Make the choice a mystery: 4.5
4. Chemistry: 4.5
5. Choice: 5
Both Edward and Jacob get about equal page time — Jacob even gets all of book 2 to himself. The author also gives both boys plenty of “winning moments” that pull readers to their cause. The one draw-back is that Bella has made her choice to be with Edward almost as soon as she met him. The trick here is that there is still mystery because Edward hasn’t made his choice yet. He refuses to make her a vampire, and even runs away to protect her. On chemistry, Bella’s head is stuffed full of Edward, but Jacob still has his moments. And on the choice factor, there is one moment that makes us realize that Bella still realizes she has a choice of two different lives. Even though Bella knows from the start who her option A is, she still has a realization / vision of a future life with Jacob just before she gets married, but then rejects that future.
Hunger Games* — Grade: C+ [19.5/25]
1. Screen Time: 3
2. Winning Moments: 2
3. Make the choice a mystery: 5
4. Chemistry: 4
5. Choice: 5.5
Peeta far outweighs when it comes to screen time. We hardly see Gale except for a few pages here and there. And while he does take up time in Katniss’s thoughts, the chemistry between her and Gale is practically non-existent so that you think they might truly have started out as cousins in an earlier draft. Sure, we feel bad for Gale when he gets whipped, but the chemistry is still lacking. However, the author uses this to her advantage, and pulling out a bonus point on choice because Katniss is a thinker, not a feeler. In the end, her head is going to outweigh her heart when it comes to a decision, though the heart might have a little say. But Katniss isn’t going to let her emotions pull her around, and this same detail made her a great character for not just girls, but boys as well.
Wings* — Grade: B+ [22/25]
1. Screen Time: 3.5
2. Winning Moments: 4.5
3. Make the choice a mystery: 5
4. Chemistry: 4.0
5. choice: 5
Screen time points go down in this book when Tamani isn’t there for much time during the climax of either book. This gives David one up on Tamani because he’s actually there when Laurel needs someone the most. But points to the author for giving both guys plenty of wining moments, and keeping this a guessing game — even though Laurel’s made her choice, I wouldn’t be surprised if she changed her mind in an upcoming book. Also, the confusion that comes with having feelings for TWO guys is done really well. And for Laurel, it will all come down to the choice she has to make of which life she wants: faerie or human.
The Forest of Hands and Teeth* — Grade: A- [23/25]
1. Screen Time: 4.5
2. Winning Moments: 5
3. Make the choice a mystery: 3.0
4. Chemistry: 5.5
5. Choice: 5
This series, especially THE DEAD-TOSSED WAVES, is an excellent example of a love triangle. While points are lost because you can tell early on who the protagonist will pick, there are some surprises in the reasoning behind that choice along the way. One thing I want to point out that Ryan did is offers a third choice: in this book, the protagonist wants more than either Boy A or Boy B — she wants the world. And in the end, she sacrifices both boys to get what she really wants. Also, the chemistry gets an extra point for being so spicy with BOTH boys without the protagonist looking like a skank!
*I put down the first book of each series, but I am counting the series as a whole.