Young Adult Love Triangles: Stop the Scalene Madness

Remember the top ten Tuesday I spent talking about my book turn-offs? Well, I’m back and ready to rant. Young adult fiction has a love triangle problem.

Scalene triangle

That whole issue with the unequal angles is just the beginning.

Love triangles have become a viral trope across so many young adult books, to the point where I sigh in relief when I read a book without one. This is not to say that all love triangles are bad in and of themselves (I’ll get to that later). A love triangle is a conflict like any other; it can be written well or poorly, and it can reveal something interesting about the characters or not. The issue with love triangles in young adult fiction is that a) they seem to have become almost a requirement to throw in, even when they have nothing but pointless and predictable conflict to contribute; and b) they overshadow the rest of the narrative to the point where the rest of the story is obscured.

Edward/Bella/Jacob is obviously the iconic one. The force of that love triangle overshadows anything else that happens in the books. And although what Meyer wrote is a romance series at its heart, all supernatural creatures aside, the romantic conflict at the heart of the series is fundamentally flawed, because the love triangle is achingly one-sided and thus generally pointless. Which tends to be how most young adult love triangles are poorly written: they seem to have taken their cue from the Twilight saga, so the person the protagonist will “pick” is obvious partway through the first book, but you have to wait two more for the author to bang the gavel. And when your protagonist spends a large amount of their time thinking about the choice between their romantic interests to the point where it clouds over the rest of what’s going on, that wait seems awfully long.

Not all love triangles are written that poorly (or are written poorly in that exact fashion), but consider how many there are. Here are the love triangles I’ve read in this year alone: Chaol/Celaena/Dorian (Throne of Glass), Cal/Mare/Kilorn (Red Queen; props to this one for throwing in Maven for a love…star?), Maxon/America/Aspen (The Selection; also further complicated by Maxon’s suitors, but barely), Mal/Alina/Darkling (Shadow and Bone; also later becomes a bit of a love star), A/Rhiannon/Justin (Every Day), Annalise/Nathan/Gabriel (Half Bad, but really Half Wild), Paul/Marguerite/Theo (A Thousand Pieces of You), Erik/Zoey/Heath (Marked), Joe/Lennie/Toby (The Sky is Everywhere), Jace/Clary/Simon (City of Bones), Khalid/Shahrzad/Tariq (The Wrath & The Dawn), and Josh/Lara Jean/Peter (All the Boys I’ve Loved Before; also later, John). I don’t know how all of these end up, because most of these have sequels and I haven’t read all of them. And not all of these are the worst of the worst; at least one has a twist to it, and hey, a bisexual character! (It ends badly but I’m going to cling to this.) But based on the books/trilogies I have finished this year and over time, there’s a typical structure and I can predict 99% of what I’m going to get.

The worst (and most trope-loaded) young adult triangles: drag on forever, are usually imbalanced so heavily in one direction that they’re obvious from the start, take over the rest of the narrative with angst, involve a protagonist not being honest and/or waffling back and forth between people, create cycles of endless male posturing, make the person who had feelings for the protagonist first lose every time, have the losing suitor be a dick in some way before the end, pair off the losing suitor with someone they were into (generally off-page) so we feel better (unless they were an unforgivable dick), never end in poly-relationship happiness (come on!), and so on.

So here’s how two of the most iconic YA book series avoided this: the best young adult love triangles are the ones that aren’t key to the book. What makes them better? Well, they act as one conflict among many conflicts, one piece of plot that the story isn’t relying on. Since they’re part of but not the entire scaffolding of the story, they don’t have to drag out unless they have a reason not to be resolved, and since they’re not a character’s main/only source of angst, it doesn’t become extremely annoying that they haven’t made a decision yet.

So basically, the best young adult love triangles aren’t really love triangles the way we’ve come to recognize them, because a good love triangle that isn’t pointless and predictable conflict is either Dealt With in short order or deferred because something more important is going on (and thus it’s background noise). Hear me out on this. (Spoilers for Harry Potter, the Hunger Games, and Twilight ahead, since it’s easy to use these as standards. You’ve probably read them or know this?)

Harry’s never into Hermione. Hermione, so far as we know, is never into Harry. Yet the tacit expectation within and without the book is that the hero gets the girl/the most important girl gets the hero. Which is why it makes sense that, with a little evil magic nudging and some extenuating circumstances, Ron worries that that’s exactly what’s going on. But that conflict only takes place in one of seven books in one character’s head for part of the book and gets resolved. It happens, it’s a conflict that causes strife between the characters, then once everyone’s feelings are clear, it’s over. (Except in fanfiction, because Harry/Hermione shippers will never be done. But that’s another story.) It’s a non-love triangle that could’ve been the most dragged out love triangle of all. It’s beautiful.

Here’s a curveball: The Hunger Games trilogy. It’s a love triangle in that Katniss likes both Gale and Peeta, who are both into her. They’re even “best friend, dreamy” and “newer, more charming, richer love interest, also dreamy.” But although this has the shape of a young adult love triangle (and certainly a lot of press in the films), it doesn’t take on any of the usual qualities of the trope.

For example: It’s the least thing on Katniss’ mind when one of the guys involved hasn’t just brought it up. It’s an unconflict, a backburner issue as far as she’s concerned. She’s not spending much time considering it—and she’s pretty explicit about that, too. Other than her required acting (and subsequent misunderstandings), she’s very honest about her feelings and where she’s at with them off-camera. And unlike other trilogies where love triangles cause endless male posturing, this one doesn’t really get in the way of the characters cooperating or shape the way that Katniss acts. Katniss will try to save and comfort either of them; either of them will try to save her or each other for her sake. She’s drawn to whomever is most hurt because it’s not about love just then, even if she might love them both in different ways; it’s about being there for someone she cares about until she has time to breathe and think about what more it could be. (With the exception of the beach kiss, I would argue.) She’s not running to the one she “needs” in any given moment—she is looking after the people who need her until she can figure shit out.

And that Katniss loves these two very different people reflects the different aspects of herself. It’s actual insight into her character, and the narrative acknowledges it. Counterexample: Bella chooses Edward on the basis of…who she loves more, basically, which is sensible. (She puts it to Jacob as who it would kill her to give up, I think, but it’s another spin on the same concept.) And that story doesn’t really acknowledge what it is that Bella values in a relationship and thus for and in herself. She values Edward’s brand of obsessive, eternal, overbearing love. The happiness Jacob does (and could) bring her isn’t as important as that. The why of this is unclear (and/or reeks of an abusive relationship cycle), which is probably why a lot of people find the resolution unsatisfying.

Conversely, the values Katniss holds help us understand her decision. Throughout the books, her impulses compete within her: anger and a strong survival instinct (that she shares with Gale, shutting others out) vs. compassion and hope for the future (qualities she shares with Peeta and extends outwards). Both are necessary through the course of the series, but in the end she decides the latter is what she needs. While the metaphor is sketchy (fire vs. dandelions?), the choice makes sense. I do wish it had come without quite so much demonizing of Gale—he really comes off as a jerk at points, and I don’t actually mean for making bombs. The Hunger Games is definitely not perfect, and it echoes that impulse to undermine one of the suitors in the clinch so that we can feel good about the pick. (Although it doesn’t just pair Gale off with someone he suddenly magically is into so that we can feel less sorry for him just in case we still care, thank everything.) (Also, although I think it seems obvious that Katniss/Peeta is endgame through the books because he just gets so much more time, I do like that the trilogy threw my expectations/love triangle theorem by having Peeta be the one who has and expresses feelings for Katniss first. Though Gale is still the best friend who loses, which is usually a safe bet.)

So that’s it; that’s my pitch. The best young adult love triangles are either resolved in short order by people using their words (as Captain Awkward, a geeky Internet advice guru I love, would say) or only extended/deferred as a backburner conflict, but contribute something meaningful to how we see the character—like insight into their values. Take the rest out. Stop with this nonsense rambling on and on about nothing and just make out with your appropriate relationship choice, I don’t care anymore. 

(Also, YA books that resolve one love triangle just to introduce another, what are you doing! No! Put that down! Unless you are going to have the new competing love interest win, which they never do because they would’ve shown up sooner if they were endgame, we don’t care how charming and attractive and perfect they are. It just makes us feel dubious about the end pairing. Why would you do this.)

Are there any love triangles in the young adult you’ve read that left you in real suspense? Do you have your own theory to solve for the missing angle? Let me know in the comments!

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