Whether you genuinely enjoy them, are entirely repulsed by them, or enjoy being repulsed by them(?), it seems to me that love triangles are (and will continue to be) a staple of YA literature.
I’ve been thinking about this trope since it was recently pointed out to me that even if you took away the neat, “romantic” ending from Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay, the story is still about a violent, dystopian regime that is upturned by a revolution*. Plus, I recently wrote a whole thing about the Bad Boy/Bad Girl trope in YA lit, so I think this post ties in rather neatly.
I would like to believe that love triangles arose from a well-intentioned past. That someone– after too many rewatches of Disney’s Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, feeling awful that these young (painfully innocent) girls married the first eligible boy they ever encountered– decided that their girl would learn and grow before making important decisions about love and sexuality.
Even with this sketchy origin story I’ve come up with, I think the reason that the most popular (or infamous, if you like) love triangle in YA lit (care to guess?) does not work is … actually, there are several reasons why:
- When the female character is hardly a character at all, the love triangle cannot function as a way for her to look inside herself and find her agency.
- Joss Whedon once said, in specific reference to this love triangle, that instead of the female character driving the plot, it is the game of “Which Romantic Partner?” that drives the plot. I may have a love/hate relationship with Joss Whedon and his (increasingly) shaky credibility as a feminist writer, but I do think he was on point in this particular case. The female character is not really the Chosen One and instead confers the title to the boy she picks. (And let’s keep in mind she didn’t have much agency to begin with.)
- All this, in turn, transforms the female character into an object for the male love interests to fight over. The winner not only gets the girl but has reinforced his super-fragile-masculinity. The celebration of toxic masculinities is the icing on this misogynistic cake.
- It is kind of a predictable romance, given how much time she actually spends with her preferred guy and how much time she spends thinking about her preferred guy. The other guy, the one she doesn’t really care about, isn’t even given much time to shine, so we just have to rely on our imagination, I guess. Or fanfiction. At best, Unwanted Guy is a mystery. At worst, he is an annoyance. In the end, it’s barely a triangle anyway.
- There are definitely ways to discuss sexuality or the hesitance to act on one’s sexuality, but when a writer uses the “better/superior/chosen” male love interest as a way to curb the female character’s advances or chastise her for having these feeling at all, in addition to implying that sex may lead to death/vampirism … it all adds up to the beginnings of an abusive relationship marked by (emotional and physical) violence and the constant refusal to acknowledge teenage sexuality, empower female readers, or even educate them.
- Ugh, can I just come out and say how super gross it is for Jacob to fall in love with his ex-crush’s fetus? Super gross, okay?
When these are the kinds of love triangles we encounter, I can see why everyone rolls their eyes at the thought of them, or groans out loud, or sets the book (and/or themselves) on fire. While I have long stopped resisting romantic/fluffy storylines (I kinda relish them now), I am hesitant about love triangles. And yet, I’ve stared at my bookshelf a lot, given this trope a lot of consideration and I’ve actually come up with a list of books that have rather well-written love triangles**:
And going from the relationships portrayed in these books, this is what I found worked:
- If you want to place the female character at the centre, first and foremost, you need a female character. She must be written with nuance, well-rounded, with real strengths and real flaws. Got one? Good. You may now place her in any impossible situation and I, for one, am already invested.
- If you’re going to write a triangle, make it genuinely difficult for the female character as well as the readers to choose. So, yes, you must write real male characters too! They must be different from each other in more than just looks and the simple dichotomy of Bad Boy/Good Guy.
- The fate of the world maybe should not rest on her romantic decisions, but if it does, make it truly difficult to choose between what she wants for the world and what she wants for herself. Either way, if she is poised to be the Chosen One, whatever/whoever she chooses should not diminish her own shining role.
- The guys don’t have to hate each other or compete against each other. If they do, however, the person they are fighting over probably ought to realize her position in this relationship. She is turning into a trophy, and maybe that’s not such a good thing. Usually, casual dialogue can indicate to the female character, which of the male love interests actually treats her like a person instead of an object.
- If the guys don’t hate each other, well, that makes things very interesting. The guys could be brothers. Or they could be friends. Or besties. They could even love each other. Your readers could be rooting for the first ever polyamorous relationship in YA lit. A true triangle, if you will.
- You could have a guy at the centre of the love triangle, with two female love interests. This raises the question of love triangles that treat women like crap. Is he treating them like crap? Are there consequences to his mistreatment of these girls? Does it lead to the trope I hate the most: girls hating on girls over the affections of guys? A good writer can handle all these issues well without being sexist and/or seeming preachy.
- You could also go a different route. You could write a LGBTQIA love triangle. If you do, please, please avoid stereotypes. If you are writing some stereotypes, once more, these markers must be coupled with depth of character. Eventually, the stereotypes ought to fade away in the face of complex, well-written characters.
- There should be a focus on the “love” side of the “love triangle” and the convoluted mess of relationships should not affect how the romance reads to us. An intimate (maybe passionate) relationship between equals is what is most appealing to me and, I hope, others. The books I’ve mentioned above strive to portray just that.
- But also, I don’t mind if there is less of “one true love to rule them all” and more of “just a teenage girl exploring her sexuality”. I understand that some readers are content to sit and sl**-shame, but you know what, that’s on them. I hope writers never stop writing characters who are bold and hesitant and powerful in many ways, with sexuality being one of them.
So, what do you like or dislike about love triangles? Any in particular that you love to hate? Any that you just 100% love? Tell me in the comments! And happy weekend, you guys! 🙂
*Which always brings me to the point that Katniss probably should not/would not have really married or had kids with anyone. But I guess if she had to pick, the peaceful baker would be the best choice. EDIT: Also, the idea that romance can be taken out of a plot is sometimes problematic, and I will definitely come back to that issue in another post!
**There has to be a better shape name for some of these relationships!