Love Triangles: [Insert That Overused Line From A Robert Frost Poem]

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.

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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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.)
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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!

26 responses to “Love Triangles: [Insert That Overused Line From A Robert Frost Poem]

  1. You have a good point in saying a love triangle cannot just function as a way for the female character to find herself, and the male characters should be actual concrete characters for it to work. But I actually like when the love triangle works on a symbolic level as a moral or life choice for the main character, as long as it doesn’t come on too strong (maybe because, otherwise, I can’t relate to wanting or being wanted by more than one person?).

    Looking at the Hunger Games, Katniss’s choice between Peeta and Gale doesn’t seem important in the realm of the revolution, nor should it. But, prior to the games, she was entirely uninterested in making a statement, just surviving. Peeta and Gale both get her to think about more than that, and that is very important. They represent a choice between peace and war, between creating a better world and repeating the past. No, she didn’t have to “end up” with either of them for her to make that choice, and I personally think Gale and Peeta are interesting characters beyond being love interests or representations of ideals. But her relationship with Peeta was a major influence in helping Katniss understand that there was another way, along with her relationships with Effie, Cinna, and the prep team (showing her the Panem upperclass, though clueless, were not antagonists), and with Rue (who in life showed her there were other ways to fight than with force, and in death gave her a reason to fight to make things better), among others.

    I dunno, maybe I missed the point, but that’s how I feel. Thanks for this perspective on love triangles!

    • Hello! You didn’t miss the point at all! If anything, you’ve enhanced the first three points of my second list! If the characters are concrete and the romance is well-developed in a way that doesn’t reduce one or more of the characters to stereotypes then, of course, love triangles can and do work as symbols of character development. It would be unwise to have a protagonist who remains unchanged after all the other characters she has had to interact with- romantically or otherwise.

      Thanks so much for your thoughtfully laid out comment! :)

  2. Love this post! It is evident that you put a lot of time and effort into this. I have a strong hatred for love triangles although there are a few books I really enjoy that have love triangles in them. I think my deep hatred arise from those books that the whole story/plot is basically revolving around the love and relationships. I am all about strong females and them being able to hold their own and don’t like when their life and decisions revolve around these males and who she chooses. But those triangles that are a background to the other issues happening can be interesting and help with character development. I just overall believe that the horribly bad done triangle have tainted everyones views on them.

    • I agree. Badly done ANYTHING can affect one’s opinion forever. The first time I tried Eggplant Curry, I hated it- but now, it’s my fave! The trick is to push aside your reservations, try again, and hope that your chosen creator makes a better dish. If it’s genuinely good, you have to admit to yourself that not all Eggplant Curries are made equal. Or in this case, not all love triangles are written equal. ^_^ (Sorry for the food tangent. I think I’m hungry … )

    • Definitely agree with this! I have a pretty strong hatred of them for very similar reasons. I try not to completely rule them out but I avoid them a lot since I’ve read so many crappy ones. It’s very frustrating when that’s all the story is about.

  3. I actually don’t mind love triangles except in all the cases you have mentioned above. What does super-irk me are harem (reverse harem?) cases where girls are suddenly loved by more than three guys at a time and I’m all….whut? Well written love triangles can happen; choices are important but not just for the female protagonist. All the points you make are great ones and I agree whole-heartedly with them. I was considering working in a love triangle in my WIP but it’s too difficult to write romance as it is, I think I’ll abstain. I’m watching this Kdrama and they’re doing the love triangle SO well. In fact, the guys are bonding over their like of the same girl who doesn’t want either of them (so she says). But it’s definitely enjoyable!

    • I’ve never come across any case where more than 3 people were involved. Unless, there was a supernatural case like in Fire? Where everyone was attracted to her?) But yes, there is such a thing as overkill …

      I am excited for your novel! And all the possible romance you’ve written! :)

  4. I also loath when the love triangle is “solved” by having one of the love interests killed off. It defeats the whole point of her having to chose.

    I hated the love triangle in Legend of Korra but loved the end result, which was just getting rid of the triangle and having the two girls become good friends.

    The Raven Boys… yeah, there’s sort of a love triangle, but it’s different than in most YA books in that it just kind of fizzles out. I don’t want to say to much, or I’ll get into Blue Lily, Lily Blue spoilers.
    (On this topic, I have a friend who’s mad because she says all the guys – except Ronan, obviously – are in love with Blue. I don’t think this is completely true.)

    • Hmm. I feel like it depends on the character that is killed off, if that character is three dimensional, if the death is gut-wrenching to the central character as well as to the readers- I can think of at least 3 incredible fantasy novels that pull this off but I am not sure that I should name them in case they count as gigantic spoilers … But I totally get your point about taking the choice and, in turn the central character’s agency, away by killing off one of the “options”.

      I do love what they did with the love triangle (square?) in Legend of Korra! Though I am not sure how things will be “resolved” in this last season. Arguably, this is similar to what happens in The Raven Boys- Adam and Blue just didn’t work together, even if they felt some kind of connection/passion. As for that last point, I do think they ALL care for each other deeply- I would not count that as a romance though. More of a friendship forged in magic and murder! Buut maybe that’s just me.

      Thanks for the comment! ^_^

      • ” As for that last point, I do think they ALL care for each other deeply- I would not count that as a romance though. More of a friendship forged in magic and murder!”

        I think that’s it exactly!

  5. I couldn’t guess what YA novel you were taking about at first, until number six mentioned Jacob.
    FABULOUS points, Yash! Can we make this required reading for anyone who wants to write a novel?
    I will quibble about The Madness Underneath being a love triangle. But maybe that’s just because I was so relieved when she dumped that pathetic and boring Jeremy. :)

    • Aw, Janet. You made my day with that comment! And ugh, yes, Jeremy. He was fine in Book 1 but Book 2 … look, when you can be upstaged by dead people / ghosts, time to give it up buddy!

  6. Pingback: Weekly Recap| Nov 30 – Dec 6, 2014 | Oh, the Books!·

  7. I used to hate love triangles with a passion, but found there are some good love triangles out there as well. I think one of the more important things are like you mentioned that the female characters need to be a character. And it’s nice when the different love interests don’t hate each other, I recently read a book were there was a love triangle, but not in the traditional sense and the love interests didn’t hate each other. Sure they didn’t trust each other either, but they weren’t fighting with each other.
    And I like it when it isn’t obvious from the start who’s going to win, but it doesn’t have to be dragged out till the end of the series either. I guess love triangles really can be a hit or mis.

    • You know, I do like when the love triangle is unpredictable- it comes from having two equally plausible scenarios and that is very hard to pull off- but *sometimes* I think I can do without the stress! I am a terrible reader who sometimes slams books down in order to pace my house and/or flip to the back *just* to see which couple came to be. (I wouldn’t say “win”, I guess, since it negates my point of at least one of the characters being objectified.)

      Thanks so much for your comment! :)

  8. Heya, I see you’ve got ‘Ash’ by Malinda Lo in your cover selection–have you read her ‘Adaptation’ series as well? That also has a love triangle that turns out very interesting and manages to avoid a lot of the silliness they can come with (though since it’s the ending that stands out, it’s difficult to recommend without spoiling!)

    • Ooh! Thank you for leaving this intriguing comment! I will put Adaptation on my TBR list. Though at this point I am not sure I want a dystopian/sci-fi read, I *do* love Malinda Lo, so … SOON!

      Cheers! ^_^

  9. I just started The Raven Boys so look forward to continuing. I don’t like when writers throw in a ‘character sketch’ just to have a body for their main character (s) to ‘fight’ over. I will also say that ‘queer’ is not the best word to use in describing a homosexual triangle.

    • Character sketch? You mean the prophecy that was chosen by the publishers to be placed on the blurb jacket? Sorry. The first book has been a while.

      Also, re: queer, noted! I will make the appropriate change now!

      EDIT(1): Oh, thanks for your comment! :)

      EDIT(2): Oh, wait, I get it. You weren’t talking about The Raven Boys in specific, when you were talking about character sketches. Yeah, I can see how that is annoying.

  10. Wow! You literally just put my immense irritation towards love triangles into words. A perfect description of what drives a love triangle and wha makes it fail. *applause*

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