One of television’s most reliable #tropes is the love triangle, persisting across all genres and sometimes becoming so iconic they become synonymous with the show itself. Sometimes love triangles are designed simply to separate the couple that are certain to be endgame. Other times, a character will be genuinely torn between two suitors, with an unpredictable and usually divisive outcome. The trope can be an annoying one, but there is a way to do love triangles in a way that both furthers character development and is compelling to watch.
Aside from the necessity of each prong of the triangle being a developed, three-dimensional character, we can look to recent examples from television to help define what makes a strong love triangle. Beware of spoilers!
DO: Make Your Bad Boys Redeemable And Your Good Guys Interesting
Love triangles are, of course, formulas, and the overwhelming majority of TV love triangles are framed as Guy/Girl/Guy, specifically Good Guy vs. Bad Boy. This is repeated because it works, but it’s essential that both options are compelling. Good Guys need to be interesting and well-rounded, rather than boring and one-dimensional. Bad Boys need to have character depth and eligibility for redemption. The Steve/Nancy/Jonathan triangle in #StrangerThings only gets interesting when Jonathan's flaws are exposed and Steve is revealed to have surprising compassion and bravery.
#VeronicaMars masters the balanced triangle with Bad Boy Logan Echolls and Good Guy Stosh Piznarski. Logan is edgy enough to be dangerous, but full of redeeming qualities like his passion and loyalty. His behavior, while not always justifiable, is attributable to his well-developed, troubled backstory and traumatic experiences. Veronica herself is very flawed and in touch with her dark side, which helps explain her connection to Logan. Their unexpected chemistry and understanding begs to be explored.
However, Logan is chaotic and their relationship is tempestuous, so cue the introduction of genuine, fun, thoughtful, and light-hearted Piz, who always treats Veronica well. An effective love triangle often leaves the audience unsure of who they want to end up together and Veronica’s deep connection to Logan was truly rivaled by the sweet and less-complicated Piz.
DON'T: Make Your Bad Boys Wildly Unhealthy
Edgy Bad Boys are one thing. Abusers and murderers are another. Shows like #TheVampireDiaries gloss over characters like Damon's unrepentant violence, painting him as tortured and sexy and desensitizing the initially horrified Elena until she can be with him. A vampire show is naturally going to include lots of blood, but Damon's remorseless, leisurely violence shouldn't be brushed aside for the sake of justifying his relationship with Elena. Allowing a character to go on a violent binge on the claim of supernatural interference is a cop-out that make their actions and agency meaningless.
Worse perhaps, because there is no supernatural rationalization, in its ever-heightening pursuit of drama, #GossipGirl has Chuck, the leading man in the show's flagship couple, verbally abuse and physically threaten Blair, convince her that she deserves to be dragged into the darkness with him, and sell her to his uncle in exchange for a hotel. By about halfway through the series, Chuck has done so many horrendous things to Blair that rooting for them as a couple becomes downright uncomfortable. Though the character's actions should have disqualified him from being a viable romantic partner, the writers kept the popular ship endgame, stuck Blair in an abusive relationship, and called it "epic love."
Don't glamorize violent sociopaths or romanticize abusive relationships for the sake of drama, especially in shows popular with impressionable teenagers.
DON'T: Bow To The Will Of The #Shippers
To directly segue from the aforementioned Chuck and Blair, in the latter half of Gossip Girl, the writers stumbled into creating a far more dynamic and positive suitor for Blair in the form of Dan. Even though the storylines between Dan and Blair were the bright spot in an increasingly ridiculous show, Chuck/Blair were always inevitable, as the majority of the fanbase was rabidly in support of Chuck and disdained the Dan relationship.
But sometimes, you shouldn't give the people the junk food they want — you have to force-feed them something nutritious. Chuck and Blair, aside from being a textbook abusive relationship, were played out, and their reunion in the final episodes was illogical, lazy, and solely for fan service. The potential quality of the show was sacrificed for shipper satisfaction.
DO: Follow The Story
However, the above tragedy doesn't have to be the outcome. Creators may have a particular couple in mind initially, but should allow themselves to be open to change upon realizing that a stronger story lies elsewhere. Dawson’s Creek started by setting Joey and Dawson up to be girl/boy-next-door soulmates, but the writers realized that there was more effortless chemistry and charm to Joey’s dynamic with Pacey. Rather than try and cram the characters back into the original end they had in mind, they followed where the story had evolved.
Likewise at the start of #Arrow, the superhero show aimed to be faithful to comic canon relationship between Oliver and Laurel. However, Emily Bett Rickard’s irresistible turn as Felicity Smoak upgraded her from a quick guest role to key member of the team. What began as a light infatuation on Felicity’s part developed into one of the most popular romances on television, which would have never come about if the creative team hadn’t recognized the value of Felicity and the opportunities including a character like her offered. Oliver and Laurel worked far better as friends and teammates and Arrow's love story became one of its strong points.
DON'T: Spend More Time On The Couple That Isn't Endgame
If a couple is being positioned for endgame, it’s probably a good idea to spend more time solidifying that couple rather than the other side of the triangle. The final choice, even if it isn’t the viewer’s preference, should be understandable at least.
The first few seasons of #HowIMetYourMother are solidly dedicated to Ted pursuing Robin, with the introduction of Barney as a rival for Robin’s affections in Season 3. While the show never truly closes the book on Ted/Robin, it repeatedly emphasizes the defects in their relationship. They try to make it work half a dozen times and always come up against incompatibility and conflicting desires.
Meanwhile, Barney and Robin are consistently portrayed as the stronger couple who understand each other and compromise for each other as they hadn't been able to in prior relationships. For three-fourths of the series, Barney and Robin are prioritized, and the whole final season is dedicated to their wedding weekend — reaffirming their relationship and assuaging doubts. This is all reversed in the last few minutes of the finale, which revealed that Barney and Robin divorce and she eventually ends up with Ted, after the death of The Mother that the show had been building to this whole time.
Ted and Robin, while not necessarily the most compatible, are not such an inoffensive couple in themselves. However, to be chosen as the endgame when they hadn’t been the focal point of the series in years and were both depicted in stronger relationships, felt shoehorned in for the sake of symmetry rather than narratively earned and realistic.
Make sure what you've been building on and exploring for several seasons supports and validates the endgame you've chosen.
DO: Have Each Choice Represent A Different Direction
Love triangles should be more than just plot devices; they should reflect something about the characters involved. Going beyond Bad Boy or Good Guy, each option should represent different life directions or different aspects of the character caught in the middle.
On #Lost, the quippy con-man and the doctor with a savior complex both vied for the affections of runaway fugitive Kate. She finds herself attracted to and drawn in by kindred spirit Sawyer — both are criminals and drifters with tragic pasts. With Sawyer there is no judgement, but rather understanding; however, they fail to bring out the best in each other.
Jack, meanwhile, poses a challenge to Kate. Choosing Jack means choosing to commit, to stay when she wants to run, to believe she deserves the hero, to take the risk of hurting and being hurt. The Jack/Kate/Sawyer triangle evolved naturally, with each relationship explored and tested, until Kate gravitates towards a fresh, earnest future with Jack and Sawyer finds happiness and fulfillment elsewhere.
Similarly, Jane finds herself caught between two different worlds in her choices of Michael and Rafael on #JanetheVirgin. Michael represents home, comfort, friendship, compatibility, and history. A relationship with Rafael means something exciting and passionate but risky, full of drawbacks like his workaholism and crazy family, but with the advantages of being the father of Jane's son. It's more than men Jane has to choose between — it's what she values and the life she wants.
DO: Leave 'True Love' Magic Out Of It
Destined, irresistible, Earth-shattering connections do not work well for interesting love triangles. To have two characters in love to the degree where it’s almost (or literally) a supernatural binding removes any tension that they could ever develop feelings for anyone else.
There is absolutely zero threat of any other person actually coming between any of the couples deemed as True Love on #OnceUponATime. Attributing it to magic or destiny tells (rather than shows) the audience the love between two characters. Compare a couple like Hook and Emma, who are brought together slowly over the course of the series, to Snow and Charming, who are paired in fairy-tale canon and destined for only each other from the moment they meet. As Hook and Emma are not immediately assigned as soulmates, the return of her first love, Neal, poses a viable threat to their slow-burn connection. On the other hand, even though Charming was married to another woman initially, there was never any question that he was going to be with Snow, because they had the title of True Love. A love triangle with no tension is just a nuisance.
Alternatively, if an interloper does successfully gain the attentions of half of a "True Love" couple, the strength of that love is instantly diluted. Stefan and Elena are presented as having a profound connection and it’s revealed they are destined to be together because of some doppelgänger spell. Yet she’s attracted to his brother and — after she becomes a vampire and the sire magic brings them together — eventually forms a relationship with Damon. Both her bond with Stefan and her relationship with Damon come out of some supernatural tampering rather than strictly her choices.
So firstly, leave magic and the supernatural out of love. Build a connection through the writing and let couples come together organically. Secondly, don’t tout a couple as One True Love if there’s any chance in a different love interest on the horizon, either because it’ll invalidate that connection, or poses no threat.
DON'T: Oscillate Too Many Times Between The Two
Tension and the "will-they-won't-they" question is usually at the core of any television romance. Characters will naturally go back and forth a couple of times, but there shouldn't be so much flip flopping that the audience loses interest. Lucas swapped best friends Brooke and Peyton practically twice a season for half of #OneTreeHill (cheers to being the only girl/guy/girl triangle on the list). Between the sincere declarations of love made to both and occasional cheating, Lucas loses his credibility and repeatedly jeopardizes the girls' friendship.
Generally, two solid seasons feels like a fair amount of time to dedicate to a love triangle before a definitive choice should be made. Lyla doesn't agonize between Street and Riggins for more than two seasons on #FridayNightLights. Rory's many overlapping triangles on #GilmoreGirls don't seem to occupy more than two seasons a piece. At a certain point, you just need to pick one, already.
DON'T: Be Afraid To Ditch Them All
That being said, neither Lyla nor Rory end the series in a relationship with any of the boys in question. Neither do Buffy Summers or Sookie Stackhouse. It's OK to leave things vague or recognize that your characters lives might take them in new directions.
Now if only we can see these same rules come into play in The Walking Dead:
What do you think are some other considerations that need to be addressed in TV love triangles?