Who to Choose: The Long-Lasting Rise of Love Triangles

For centuries, love triangles have been a key plot point of many stories. Read on to learn about how much love triangles have shaped literature.

Book Culture Classics Opinions Recommendations Romance
A woman standing next two red hearts, with a man on the other end of both red hearts, with a pink background.

In a dream world, it may sound nice to have two people vying for your affection. However, if the media has proven anything, it is that this situation can lead to a lot of confusion. This situation is commonly referred to as a love triangle. A love triangle happens when two people are romantically pursuing one person, and that one person has to decide who they would rather be with. Sometimes, that decision is simple, but other times, it can be agonizing. The love triangle has been a common trope for centuries, and it is still one that is used quite often. It shows how the stories of today are continuously inspired by stories of the near and distant past.

What Do We Often See in Love Triangles?

Even though every love triangle is somewhat unique, there are some basic traits that are often found in each. For instance, most involve a woman at the center. She has to search deep within herself to hear what her heart says. That’s not always the case, but since romance readers tend to skew toward females, it makes sense that the main character is often a woman choosing between two men. Plus, reading about the two men fighting for the main character’s affection is always a fun time.

Jacob, Bella, and Edward in "Twilight," which has a big love triangle.

In addition, to make the love triangle interesting, most of them deal with a conflict between two love interests who are opposites. The center of the triangle has different things they like about each option, which makes the decision even harder. One can be a bad boy, while the other is a ray of sunshine. One might be constantly reliable, while the other is a total mystery. One can be a character that the center has known their whole life, and the other can be introduced while the story takes place. There are many different scenarios for these opposite love triangles, but one thing’s for sure. The center of a love triangle will be put on a bumpy ride.

The Classics

The love triangle dates so far back that the trope was found in Shakespeare’s work. His most famous tragedy, Romeo and Juliet, deals with the love triangle of Romeo and Paris, both trying to win over Juliet. This is a scenario where the choice is easy for Juliet, but the triangle turns into a deadly disaster for everyone involved. In a more comedic spin, Twelfth Night has a love triangle between the cross-dressed Viola/Cesario, Orsino, and Olivia. There is a happier ending for this triangle, but there certainly is a lot of trouble and confusion along the way.

"Romeo and Juliet" book cover, pink background with a cursive title

Jane Austen also used some love triangles in her work, even if they were more subtle. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet has to choose between two suitors in the form of Fitzwilliam Darcy and George Wickham. While the book is filled with other plot points and romances, the courtship that happens here demonstrates a classic love triangle. Another novel with a love triangle written around this time was Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell. Even in stories that are about murder, a love triangle can appear. The titular character has to choose between Jem Wilson and Henry Carson. It is the classic example of the center of the love triangle having to choose between a close friend or an exciting, rich guy. It is a tough choice, but that is what makes these love triangles so compelling.

20th Century Romance

The love triangles were certainly alive in the 20th century. One of the greatest American novels, The Great Gatsby, has a prominent love triangle. Daisy Buchanan is caught between her husband, Tom Buchanan, and an old love from her past, Jay Gatsby.  While she technically made that choice a long time ago, Daisy seeing Gatsby again for the first time in years sparks up the triangle, leaving her unsure about what she is doing or what she has done.

"The Great Gatsby" book cover, blue background with a crying face and bright lights at the bottom

Another great American novel with a love triangle is Gone With the Wind, which was turned into the highest-grossing film of all time when adjusted for inflation. In this story, Scarlett O’Hara has to choose between handsome Rhett Butler and the boy next door, Ashley Wilkes. While Scarlett’s love may have its unrequited moments, her entanglements captivated many readers and audiences that wanted to see Scarlett fall in deep love. These 20th-century love triangles were reaching wider and wider audiences, which led to even more hearts being captured.

The Young Adult Love Triangle Craze

It was the teen novels of the early 21st century that helped popularize the love triangle trope as we recognize it today. When people read Twilight, everyone had to decide if they were Team Edward or Team Jacob. Would our protagonist, Bella, pick the brooding vampire or the tough werewolf? The two men were so different, and Bella had to choose between them. It was a matter of her own safety. This love triangle with supernatural elements kept millions of readers in stitches. 

"Twilight" book cover, with two pale hands holding a red apple

Following this series, The Hunger Games took over. This time, people were either Team Peeta or Team Gale. Who was Katniss going to choose? She could choose the intriguing newcomer that saved her from starvation or her childhood best friend. Readers were absolutely enthralled by the idea of choosing between these two dashing men, even when the main story was about people fighting for their lives. The shipping discourse and buzzing conversation filled these love triangles with thrills and made it one of the most memorable elements of the novels.

Television’s Love Triangle Frequency

An innovation that made love triangles even more entertaining was their frequent use on television. When that happens, these love triangles become stretched out over many seasons and several years. Audiences become more invested in these stories as they are desperate to see who the main character will pick. Fans of Dawson’s Creek were tuning in every week to see whether Dawson or Pacey would end up with Joey. The Vampire Diaries enthusiasts had to know if Elena was going to pick Stefan or Damon. The more people watch these series, the more invested they become.

Stefan, Damon, and Elena standing in a forest in "The Vampire Diaries"

These days, the television love triangle seems to pop up everywhere. No genre is safe from it. There are the ones in comedies like Robin being caught in the middle of Ted and Barney in How I Met Your Mother. There are also the more serious love triangles, like Blair choosing between Nate and Chuck in Gossip Girl. Either way, these love triangles kept viewers interested. This love triangle enthusiasm is continuing today with Devi, Ben, and Paxton in Never Have I Ever and Jane, Michael, and Raphael in Jane the Virgin. They have become the bread and butter of television, and viewers can not get enough.

The Triangles of Today

It seems like every week, more and more novels are including love triangles. Fortunately, that choice does not disappoint anybody. These love triangles are becoming more popular by the day. In The Summer I Turned Pretty book series, readers were looking to see if Belly would pick the quiet Conrad or the extroverted Jeremiah. The people who read Daisy Jones and the Six were wrapped up in the several love triangles included in the book, particularly between Billy, Daisy, and Camila. Today’s readers are not tired of the love triangles, which is why these modern novels do well.

"The Summer I Turned Pretty" book cover, with a teal background and seashells on the border.

The modern books have also brought forward many LGBT love triangles that were not seen as often in the past. Kate in Waiting has best friends, Kate and Anderson, trying to win over their dream boy, Matt. It’s a love triangle that tests a friendship, as Kate and Anderson are obsessed with this guy. In Cool for the Summer, Lara has to decide if she wants the gorgeous Chase or the mysterious Jasmine. Along with making a decision, Lara spends the novel learning about herself. The love triangle trope is constantly evolving, and these modern novels demonstrate how the trope can be innovated to still feel fresh.

We would not have the love triangles that we have today without the love triangles that were written in the past. This plot point has gripped readers for a long time and has caused billions of page flips around the world. Every writer has had their own spin on the love triangle, and that is what makes every new one even more intriguing.

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