I know this is kind of unrelated, but the thing I always think of is 'Love Conquers All.' I agree, but what exactly does it mean? People die in wars, love doesn't conquer that. People get married to please their families, love doesn't conquer that. People choose loyalty over romance, love doesn't conquer that. What I mean by 'love conquers all' isn't that everything works out all right in the end. When love conquers, sometimes you wish it wouldn't. The tears and well-tended flowers by the grave, the blown kiss out the window before returning to a spouse's bed, the knowledge that you will never, never fall in love again, because love has conquered you utterly and completely, and will not release its hold. To me, the best love triangles are the ones where it doesn't necessarily work out. Not just because it's deliciously tragic, but because you can see the love so much more clearly. Sometimes, loyalty or platonic love is deeper than romance. Can I love a character, root for them, when in the end they make the ultimately selfish decision because 'love cannot be denied?' Maybe, but I'll like them less in the end.
Beth, this is such excellent discussion. I would add that the depth in Tristan and Isolde includes more than the love affair. Tristan and Mark are linked by blood, history and the desire to make their homeland stable. For Tristan to weaken Mark is to weaken his country. And Mark loves both Tristan and Isolde, so he is not only hurt by discovering their actions, he suffers for hurting two people he cares about. Isolde, too, is torn between loving one man with passion and the other with respect. So the story works because it is about more than passion, it's about real love and honor and what that means beyond the scope of their individual lives.
Okay, first of all, thanks to Deva for pointing me to this great discussion! I think the point made about everyone involved in the love triangle needing to be aware of the pain they will cause those they love is absolutely essential. There needs to be an emotional cost to their choices. Another thing that I think makes love triangles work is when the choice of who to love or end up with echoes the protagonist's own internal journey and mirrors the the two selves she is choosing between as she moves toward the end of the book. That's why I think the Dale/Peeta choice works so well--who Katniss ultimately chooses will reinforce or cement her internal decision on who she is going to be and what sort of world she lives in. A world where love is hard and often silent, or a world where love is front and center and costs much. The choice of who to love also reflects a fundamental decision on who she wants to be. If that makes any sense...
I don't usually weigh-in on this kind of thing, but I feel like I should. Jamie Harrington over at www.totallythebomb.com made a good point the other day about love triangles not really being triangles at all. But, really, I think the issue here, for both you and Jamie is that you like REAL love triangles, not the love-V's that we see sometimes. It's all in the depth of the story and the connections between characters. That's what makes a love triangle a triangle and not a point. Or a bow-tie (ask Jamie).
I'd say likable main characters for all three participants in the triangle -- otherwise you're rooting for one of them to lose out anyway, and that takes away all the tension and pain as a reader. I think that's one of the things that makes the "love triangle" so effective in fiction. I hate the Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot triangle, but perhaps only because my first name is Guinevere, and that whole story ends in nothing but tears (and a nunnery for poor Queen Guinevere, in most traditional versions).
I think the key element is true love. Too often you see stories where it's a triangle of "You're hot. I want to get with you," against "Dude, she was totally with me first," paired with the reaction "Well, you're both really great guys, and I'm totally into you all being into me, and I just don't want to make up my mind." I love good love triangles, but there should be love in there or it's meaningless.
Thanks for contributing guys! This is exactly what I love about blogging: sharing a conversation.