Natalie Girshman | Love on Screen
Love triangles and angles
Published: Monday, January 27, 2014
Updated: Monday, January 27, 2014 08:01
Let’s start with the love triangle, one of the most commonly used (and misused) tropes that appears in popular depictions of love. First of all, the love triangle is not a triangle. Any geometry teacher that asks you to find the angles of Katniss, Peeta and Gale’s relationship is mistaken, though well intentioned. A true love triangle is much more tortured: Person A loves Person B, Person B loves Person C and Person C loves Person A. Despite the greater narrative potential of true love triangles, most supposed love triangles today are actually love angles. Person A is adored by both Person B and Person C — often in an act of wish fulfillment by the author. But for the sake of avoiding confusion, when I refer to love triangles for the rest of this column, I generally mean love angles.
First of all, where do love triangles come from? They seem to have populated our collective cultural imagination for centuries, but every trope has to start somewhere. Classical mythology provides a few examples, such as the love triangle of Helen, Paris and Menelaus that sparked the Trojan War. However, the love triangle probably reached its first glorious heights with the story of Tristan and Iseult. Tristan, the nephew of King Mark of Cornwall, is sent to find the Irish princess Iseult and bring her back as King Mark’s bride. They take a love potion and promptly embark on an affair. Of course, Iseult then also develops feelings for King Mark, the lovers get discovered and banished to the forest and, in some versions, Tristan even marries another Iseult. It’s enough drama to make a modern soap opera blush.
Flash forward a few centuries, and love triangles pop up almost everywhere you look. From teen dystopian trilogies to dramas on The CW to classic works of literature like “Les Miserables” (1862), an enterprising hero is torn between two appealing love interests (extra points if they’re brothers). As diverse as these love triangles may be, there are a few common patterns that emerge.
The love interests are almost inevitably polar opposites: Betty and Veronica, childhood best friend and mysterious new stranger, bad boy with a heart of gold and steadfast good guy. The structure of love triangles in trilogies is a typical example. The hero or heroine meets Love Interest No. 1 in the first book, often through the convenient device of take-my-hand-and-run-now-date-me. By the end of the first book or the beginning of the second, they’re tragically separated by distance, a bad decision or secrets buried deep in Love Interest No. 1’s past: enter Love Interest No. 2. Whether this person is a friend from home or the annoying guy who’s been hanging around disguising his adoration with witty quips, he or she suddenly seems like a viable romantic option. Finally, in the third book, the love triangle reaches peak levels of tension until the hero makes a choice. Then, we deal with one of my least favorite aspects of the love triangle: getting rid of the superfluous love interest. Best-case scenario, the rejected love interest gets paired off with a secondary character or even, as in Richelle Mead’s “Vampire Academy” (2007) series, gets a spin-off of his or her own. Worst-case scenario, Love Interest No. 2 dies, leaving at least half the series’ fans bereft.
Love triangles certainly aren’t perfect. They can be agonizingly predictable and, at their worst, they make the hero or heroine unbearably perfect. But at their best, they make the choice between two different lives physical and immediate, as each love interest represents a different path for the hero. Most of all, they capture the joy and the pain of being young and confused and in love with everything at once.
Natalie Girshman is a sophomore majoring in history and drama. She can be reached at Natalie.Girshman@tufts.edu.