I've been doing a lot of YA reading lately, and I've come to the conclusion that the love triangle is a real problem for most writers. So here are Jay's Rules for an Effective Love Triangle:
1. Each love interest must be a viable choice for the protagonist.
I know I don't usually talk about specific examples here, but I'm going to now, just for a minute--Twilight.* Actually, it's not so much Twilight I want to talk about as New Moon, the sequel, because that was where the love triangle went off the rails, in my opinion, and when I stopped reading the series.**
New Moon is where the love triangle between Edward and Bella and Jacob really takes off. Jacob's not much of a presence in the first book at all, and we don't find out about his feelings until New Moon. But once Edward leaves, Jacob jumps in and here's where the love triangle both starts and, in my opinion falls apart.
Because Jacob is never really a viable alternative for Bella. Sure, he's hot, and sweet, and can turn into a werewolf and whatnot, but it doesn't matter. Bella's never going to love him. She's so head over heels for Edward that she barely sees Jacob, and when she does, although she feels awful, she still doesn't love him. You can be Team Jacob all you want,*** but Bella's never going to be into him. Ever. And that's clear from the very start of the their relationship.
2. Each potential love interest should offer something different to the protagonist.
Sometimes I read books and the distinction between the two love interests is that one is a blond and one is a brunette. But that's not a difference. If I can change it with a box of L'Oreal it is not a difference. A protagonist should be attracted to two different people at the same time because they appeal to two different sides of her (or his) personality, because they offer two distinct possibilities.
3. Each love interest must have adequate "screen time."
If only one of the love interests gets to show up, then there really isn't much point in being invested in the other guy -- he's not getting picked. Think about it: if Bella had chosen between Edward and Jacob at the end of Twilight instead of...much later, would anyone have cared? No, because Jacob's hardly in Twilight. He's a tertiary character. It's not until we get to spend time with him in New Moon, that we really see him as a possibility for Bella. Until New Moon, the Twilight Saga doesn't have a love triangle, it has a love straight line.
4. The protagonist MUST CHOOSE.
And not after 350,000 words.
5. The protagonist should not be a jerk.
This is a corollary to rule 4, because part of the choosing process is that the protagonist has to weigh his (or her) options, and then decide between the two.**** If, during the course of this process, the protagonist starts acting like a jerk -- leading people on, vacillating between the two, doing inappropriate things with one (or both) of the romantic interests -- then it's hard for the reader to be happy when the protagonist picks someone.
Any other Rules of Love Triangles that I'm missing? Let me know in the comments.
*I know. It's been critiqued mercilessly, for writing, for characters, for you name it, but it's a good example because so many people have read it that almost everyone knows what you're talking about when you say the name.
** If it's any comfort, I stopped reading Harry Potter at book four. I don't read things that I'm not interested in. That's not a quality judgment or anything--some books do it for me and some don't and I don't read the ones that don't. It doesn't mean they're not good books, and I'm sure J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer couldn't care less.
*** I was.
**** Sometimes, very occasionally, the protagonist can get away with deciding not to go out with either of the love interests -- choosing herself, in other words (aka the 90210 Option). But this option has to be handled carefully and is hard to make work. It didn't even really work on 90210, if you want the truth.