Warning: here be spoilers.
Let’s just get this out of the way: I hate love triangles. Hate ’em. Ask me for a list of my Top Ten Least Favorite Literary Tropes, and love triangles would easily be in the top five. They are overdone, over dramatic, and rarely executed well.
So, after watching yet another otherwise lovely movie with an unnecessary love triangle, instead of getting frustrated, I am challenging myself to make a list of eight love triangles in fiction that actually work for me.
My rules were simple: entries can be from any medium, but they had to be from stories that I enjoyed overall. The love triangle may or may not be at the center of said story, but either way, it had to have involved characters that I could relate to.
For each entry, I had to explain 1) the characters involved in the love triangle, 2) how it resolves, and 3) why this particular love triangle doesn’t make me want to gnash my teeth. Believe me, it’s not as easy as it looks.
So without further ado…
#8: Rick Hunter/Lynn Minmay/Lisa Hayes (Robotech)
The Triangle Explained: Rick is a fighter pilot (IN SPACE!) who falls for a pop star named Minmay. BUT WAIT! As the series goes on, First Officer/Resident Badass Lisa Hayes meets and eventually starts to fall for Rick. Angst (and space battles) ensues.
How it resolves: After their Lost in Space Battleship finally ends up back on Earth (don’t ask) and the planet is virtually wiped out in an all-out war against giant aliens (again: don’t ask), Rick stops being an idiot and realizes that Lisa Hayes is a badass. Minmay takes his decision surprisingly well.
Why it works for me: Admittedly, it has been a long time since I watched this series. It might not hold up as well as I think it does. From what I remember, though, Rick’s relationships with both Minmay and Lisa are developed gradually—dare I say organically?—over the course of the series. I remember these seemed like actual relationships that people involved in an intergalactic war might have.
Rick and Minmay meet under stressful conditions, cling to each other for support for a while, realize that their relationships isn’t working, and eventually they move on. By the time Lisa enters the picture (a few episodes later, admittedly), it’s pretty clear that the Good Ship Rickmay (Minrick?) isn’t holding a lot of water.
But again, it’s been years since I watched Robotech. My memories of the Macross Saga are fuzzy at best, which is why it’s so low on this list. All I know is that when Rick and Lisa (finally!) end up together, it was very much a “well, obviously” moment.
#7: Cloud/Tifa/Aerith (Final Fantasy VII)
The Triangle Explained: Cloud and Tifa are childhood friends (maybe). When they were kids, she made him promise to always look out for her. Then they grew up, he became a soldier/mercenary, and she learned how look out for her own damn self. Enter Aerith, the Mysterious Flower Girl™.
While working with Tifa to blow up a mako reactor (FFVII’s answer to an oil refinery), Cloud meets Aerith after the mission goes south. Aerith is sweet, compassionate, and she has some Mysterious Yet Important Connection to the Planet™. She flirts with Cloud, but it’s clear that his affections are not the most important thing on her mind.
Once Cloud and Aerith meet up with Tifa again, the plot commences, and the love triangle bit is pretty much shoved to the sidelines for a while. Aerith likes Cloud because he reminds her of her first boyfriend, Tifa likes Cloud because he’s an old childhood friend, and Cloud
is obsessed with his old army buddy turned psychopath doesn’t seem all that interested in either party.
How it resolves: Aerith dies. It is sad.
Why it works for me: I’ll be honest, this one is borderline for me. The only reason it works is because 1) it’s not really about the relationships, and 2) irrespective of their feelings for Cloud, Aerith and Tifa are friends.
Over the course of the game, it becomes clear that whatever else the two women may feel for Cloud, they’re more concerned with him as a person. Cloud is a very broken individual. Though it’s not immediately obvious, he is suffering from serious psychological duress. He’s got issues. More than anything else, I would argue that Aerith’s flirting and Tifa’s reminiscing are their respective attempts to draw Cloud out of his shell—to get him to open up about his past and, for lack of a better description, to seek professional help.
In other words, these two women exist to further the development of the male hero. Which is a bit problematic. (Though at least Aerith and her Mysterious Connection to the Planet™ have significance to the overall plot.)
As I said, this triangle barely made the list. The real reason why it worked for me is that Tifa and Aerith don’t see each other as rivals. As soon as they meet, they immediately become friends. (They bond over their reaction to seeing Cloud in a dress. It is wonderful.) At no point does either of them pressure Cloud to make a choice. Playing through Final Fantasy VII, I got the feeling that if Aerith had lived, she and Tifa would have remained friends whether Cloud was in their lives or not.
In other words, female friendship saved Final Fantasy VII for me—at least as far as this list is concerned.
#6: A Midsummer Night’s Dream [pick three]
The Love Dodecahedron explained: Lysander loves Hermia, who is in love with Lysander yet betrothed to Demetrius, who used to date Helena, who is Hermia’s best friend and who is still in love with Demetrius, but then the fair folk get involved and it all goes to pot. Shenanigans ensue.
How it resolves: A triple wedding: Lysander & Hermia, Demetrius & Helena, and the Duke & the Queen. And there was much rejoicing.
Why it works for me: fair folk shenanigans and the bard’s pointed wit.
#5: Rick/Ilsa/Lazlo (Casablanca)
The Love Triangle explained: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns, in all the world, she had to walk into mine.”
How it resolves: “We’ll always have Paris.”
Why it works for me: Look, if you have to ask that, you’ve obviously never seen Casablanca.
I will say, though, that the behind-the-scenes story of filming Casablanca is part of the reason why this love triangle works as well as it does. Can’t figure out which guy Ilsa will end up with until the end of the movie? That’s because the studio didn’t know which guy Ilsa would end up with until shortly before filming the end of the movie. Way to build suspense there, Classic Hollywood Studio System.
#4: Hikaru/Lantis/Eagle (Magic Knight Rayearth 2)
The Triangle Explained: Hikaru likes Lantis. Hikaru also likes Eagle. Lantis and Eagle both like Hikaru
and each other are CLAMP friends have a History.
How it resolves: Implied polyandry.
Why it works for me: Because if any fictional romantic trio could make a ménage à trois work, it’s this one.
Speaking of CLAMP friends…
#3: Watanuki/Himawari/Domeki (xxxHOLiC)
The Love Triangle Explained: In a rare subversion of the trope, Watanuki likes Himawari and assumes that Domeki likes her as well. He does not. Domeki likes Watanuki. Like, a lot. Like, an awful lot. For her part, Himawari doesn’t seem to see either guy as anything more than a close friend.
How it resolves: Watanuki inherits his boss’s wish-granting shop after vowing to remain there until
the end of time she returns, Himawari moves away, and Domeki marries another character who also has a crush on Watanuki. No one is satisfied.
Why it works for me: The greatest thing about this love triangle is that it only exists in Watanuki’s head. He thinks of Domeki as his rival in love. Meanwhile, literally every single other character in the series is pushing Watanuki to spend time with Domeki (*wink wink nudge nudge*).
As I’ve mentioned before, CLAMP is fond of the “true love knows no gender” trope. They’re also not above shameless fanservice for shonen-ai fans. For Watanuki and Domeki, though, the dynamic works. Watanuki’s primary character trait is that he doesn’t realize how much other people care about him. Domeki’s unrequited love is one part of that.
#2: Juri/Shiori/Ruka (Revolutionary Girl Utena)
The Love Triangle Explained: Juri has a crippling, unhealthy crush on Shiori (note: it’s unhealthy because Juri is ashamed of her feelings, and also because Shiori is kind of a terrible person). After realizing this, Shiori enters into a relationship with Ruka (it’s implied that she does this at least in part to taunt Juri, whom Shiori despises [or possibly also has a secret crush on; this series is kind of vague on that point. On a lot of points, actually. It’s vague on most points.]). Ruka, meanwhile, is in love with Juri, whom he later assaults (it’s just a kiss, but still. Not cool, bro).
How it resolves: As with all things in Shoujo Kakumei Utena, it involves a symbolic duel atop a gravity-defying arena in the middle of a forbidden forest. Roses, cars, innuendos, and stock footage are involved. Oh, also Ruka dies off-screen and is never mentioned again.
Why it works for me: Like most of the relationships in Utena, this love triangle is fucked up. I mean that in a good way. Viewers aren’t supposed to feel good about this love triangle. They’re not supposed to think that ANY of these people should end up together. Juri’s obsession with Shiori is crippling her, Shiori’s vindictive relationship with Ruka ends up biting her, and Ruka becomes flat-out deplorable in his attempts to show Juri how much he cares about her.
And you know what? It works. The Juri/Shiori/Ruka Love Triangle is one piece of the amazing technicolor dreamcoat of adolescence, genre deconstruction, and dubious sexual relationships that is Revolutionary Girl Utena.
At its core, Utena is a show about subverting audience expectations. The fairy tale ending you dreamed of turns out to be based on a lie. The person you placed on a pedestal only wants to use you for their own satisfaction. The patriarchy will always ruin everything. Yet despite all of that, if you never lose your nobility and you learn to fight for the right reasons, maybe, just maybe, you will claim the power to revolutionize the world.
Now that that’s out of the way…
#1: Korra/Mako/Asami (The Legend of Korra)
The Love Triangle explained: Korra likes Mako. Mako likes Asami. Mako dates Asami, but then Korra kisses him. Mako breaks up with Asami, starts dating Korra, and—aaahh!
Why it works for me: This love triangle went from being one of my least favorite things about the series (I stopped watching after Season 1 in no small part because of The Love Triangle episode) to one of my favorite things. Neither girl ends up with the boy in the middle of the triangle—they end up together.
I’ve made no secret of my desire to have more well-rounded queer role models in popular media. Last December, Legend of Korra gave me the best Christmas present I could have asked for. Korra is the series’s protagonist. She is a person of color, she’s physically strong, and she’s a superhero. We’ve seen her struggles, her flaws, her fears, her achievements. We’ve seen her grow and change over time. Her friendship (and eventual romance) with Asami was a huge step forward for her character and for the show itself.
I could easily write a post about Korra’s transformation from rash, selfish teenager to wizened, empathetic adult. I could write about how Seasons 2–4 seemed to pointedly and satisfactorily address every single issue I had with the show’s first season. I could write about how even though the show wasn’t quite as strong as its successor in terms of overall narrative, it managed to surpass The Last Airbender as one of the most important animated serials on Western television.
For now, though, let’s just take a moment to revel in the fact that the two girls realized that after all that time they’d spent fighting over a man, what they really wanted was each other.
Honorable Mention: Arthur/Guenevere/Lancelot (Camelot)
Because if you’re going to have a love triangle, it may as well involve Richard Burton, Julie Andrews, and Robert Goulet.