Love Triangles in YA

There has been a lot of discussion recently on the state of love triangles in the current crop of YA literature. Most of the discussion has focused on how gosh darn prevalent it is, with a lot of the usual refrain of “I’m so sick of love triangles” or “do all YA novels have to have love triangles in them” and etc. Some of the discussion has raised the point that there seems to be a particular focus, in love triangley books, for there to be a girl choosing between two guys, rather than the other way around. Others have pointed out the fact that book publisher publicity departments get a lot of mileage out of pushing a “Team X” vs. “Team Y” campaign on readers (I’m looking at you, Hunger Games).

While I will not deny that there are a lot of novels out there that have borrowed the love triangle formula (in the mathematical sense) that worked so well in Twilight, it’s not a singular occurrence. Also incredibly popular after the worldwide, game-changing, publisher-floating, industry-saving and genre-creating success of Twilight? Books about EVERYTHING that Twilight was about. Books about vampires, books about beautiful immortal people, books about unusual families of paranormal humanoid creatures living amongst us, books about girls with paranormal boyfriends, and books in which high school girls fall into extraordinarily quick and everlasting love. All of these are available in ready supply right now, all of them owe at least some part of their current popularity to Twilight.

This is a good thing. People finding new things they like in books and then reading more books about those things? Wonderful.

And one of those things, yes, is “a girl in love with two boys” love triangles.

I have only published one book with that kind of love triangle in it: My first novel, Secret Society Girl, which came out in 2006, right when Meyer was lighting the world on fire with New Moon. Like Bella, my character Amy has to make a choice between two boys she likes who both like her.

However, I have written two books with this supposedly rare “two girls one guy” love triangle: Rites of Spring (Break), in which Amy competes for the affections of a guy, and the upcoming For Darkness Shows the Stars, which is based on Persuasion, and therefore includes the Anne Elliot — Captain Wentworth — Louisa Musgrove triangle so beloved (or beloved-to-behated) by its fans.

So, having published one of these and seen years worth of reader reactions (and read enough reactions to the Persuasion one to know it’s the same), I can tell you right now why the Twilight kind is more popular:

  1. most of the readers of these types of novels are girls
  2. These readers are moved by the “tough decision” facing a heroine with two fabulous guys after her.
  3. Which leads to “team” formation, by individual readers, in fan circles, and by publicity departments.
  4. Whereas the heroine competing for the affections of a guy against another girl gets one reaction: beat the “other woman.”

(Note: this is very typical Louisa Musgrove treatment in Jane Austen fandom.)

If the other woman is a normal woman with faults like the heroine, she is labeled an irredeemable b****. If the other woman is a saint, she is allowed to be pitied, but we still root for the heroine to get the man. Why? Because to do otherwise would mean the reader is rooting against the heroine. And, almost without exception, that ain’t good.

In Rites of Spring (Break), Amy does not win her love triangle. And despite the fact that I very clearly demonstrate that the guy at the center of it is NOT the one for her, and soon after I embroil her in a fabulously delicious romance with a new guy, you would not believe the number of emails I get demonizing both other parties and wishing that Amy had won. Even though, if she HAD won, she would not have going on to her wonderful romance that they also say they love so much.

The way I look at it is like this: even if you know your ex or the guy who would never ask you out in high school  was TOTALLY wrong for you now, you still want to look drop-dead gorgeous at your high school reunion, right? Just because you’re better off without them doesn’t mean they shouldn’t still pine for you. It’s not the most enlightened of all feelings, but it’s a fantasy.

(Hello, exes. Yes, this is what I Iook like every single day. No, I do not currently have bags under my eyes because Q was up half the night or applesauce in my hair because, well, see previous.)

And it’s that fantasy — of having multiple people madly in love with us, that is so compelling to so many readers.

But here’s the problem: because it’s so compelling, and because publisher publicity departments (understanding this visceral response readers have to this storyline) have pumped it up, its prevalence in the book on the shelves and, perhaps more importantly, in the marketing material for books on the shelves, has trained readers to expect a love triangle in their novels When people complain “why does there have to be a love triangle in every YA novel” they are often complaining about things that a few years ago would not have been considered a love triangle at all.

How do I know this?

Because there was no love triangle in Twilight.

Bella loved Edward, and Edward loved Bella. There might have been a few other people who were interested in dating Bella, just like there was some lingering resentment on the part of Rosalie that she hadn’t good enough for Edward while Bella was, but neither of those things weighed particularly heavily on either of these characters’ minds (and Rosalie has been long since happily matched up).

But if that book were published today, with the microscope readers have been trained to place on any whiff of something that might be a love triangle, they might see this:

And maybe that’s a compelling story, told from the point of view of Mike or Jacob. Poor guys, they secretly love Bella, but she only has eyes for the vampire. Indeed, as the series progressed, Meyer chose to dwell on this facet of Jacob’s story. But that’s as the series progressed.

I read reviews of books all the time where they talk about love triangles that range from a stretch to completely non-existent. I have received emails about the “love triangle” in Ascendant. At first, I spent a lot of time scratching my head. Then I realized they were referring to the fact that Astrid is pursued by one boy while dating another.

To me, that was no more a love triangle than the fact that every boy in Forks instantly goes ga-ga over the “new girl” Bella is somehow indicative of a love tetrahedron.You kinda need love to have a love triangle. Or at least the idea of choosing one over another. The love triangles in my friend Carrie Ryan’s books (The Forest of Hands and Teeth, etc.)? LOVE. TRIANGLES. Mary is in love with Travis but betrothed to his brother. Gabry feels enormously guilty over her growing attachment to Elias after her old boyfriend got infected with the zombie plague… for her. Angst galore! What will she choose? Who will she end up with?

If you’ve read Ascendant, you know that’s not Astrid’s problem. And not in the sense of “she has bigger problems” (which she does), because girls on the run from zombies ALSO have bigger problems, but more in the sense that those questions are not on the plate for her.

However, I also agree with Carrie’s point in her own post on love triangles, in which she says:

“To me, that’s the essence of a love triangle — each man is a viable choice for the heroine but each speaks to a different part of who she is.  The heroine isn’t choosing between two men, she’s choosing who SHE wants to be and that will dictate who the right match is.”

I first read about this conceptualization of a story’s love triangle in a screenwriting class in 2005, and it really stuck with me. When I looked at the love triangle in my first book through this lens, I realized not only why neither prong would work but who, in fact, it was that was right for my heroine.

(When Meyers claims in interviews that the books are anti-human, this is what it means. If you can swing your vampirism the way the Cullens do — going off and eating venison in the woods — there is absolutely no downside to vampirism. Bella’s choice reflects the fact that, very reasonably, she’d rather be an eternally healthy, beautiful, young, powerful, awesome vampire then get old, get sick, get hurt, and die in a frail human form.)

But of course, all choices a character makes is reflective on who she is. The choices that Astrid makes in Ascendant regarding her love life have very little to do with the boys involved, and everything to do with her depression, isolation, and eventual nihilism. And though you can argue that Giovanni is a reflection of one facet of Astrid’s character, choosing him would not magically make that Astrid manifest, and Astrid knows it.

One of my favorite scenes in Buffy the Vampire Slayer comes from season five. Buffy and her friends have just overcome a spell that was meant to split Buffy into her component parts: normal girl and vampire slayer. Her boyfriend Riley tells her that he loves all of her — both parts. That to him, she is indivisible.The tragedy comes when later in that same episode, he posits that it is this elemental wholeness of Buffy that makes her unable to love him. (And where he goes from there is truly tragic.)

(I know a lot of people dislike Riley because of the things he did AFTER this revelation, and I used to be right there with you, but upon repeated rewatching, I’ve come to the conclusion that Riley’s mistakes — and he makes plenty — are not so much him having a problem with a strong woman — since he ends up marrying another — as him deciding, maybe or maybe not falsely — that he’s not good enough for Buffy without magical powers. To be discussed in detail later. People often liken Astrid and Giovanni to Buffy and Riley, though I think a more apt corollary would probably be Buffy and Xander, which never happened on the show.)

Buffy may have chosen Riley, but choosing to have a relationship with this nice, normal guy (instead of her occasionally sociopathic vampire ex-boyfriend) doesn’t make Buffy a normal girl. Over and over in the series, Buffy is forced to make a choice between her love life and her job, often explicitly. Save Angel, or save the world, etc.? Again and again, they ask Buffy who she is, and her answer is “slayer.”

Sometimes, the triangle doesn’t even involve another guy. Sometimes it’s about the heroine choosing not to be with someone, full stop.

Posted in boys, Carrie, feminism, other writers, PAP, unicorns, writing industry, writing life, YA

8 Responses to Love Triangles in YA

  1. Marissa says:

    My anti-spam word was “Poe” which I love b/c CLEARLY your website knows how infatuated I am with him.

    That aside, I suppose I never considered the “triangle” theory in that way. I love your diagrams. Simple & clever. Definitely put a light-bulb over my head. Most certainly something to keep in mind the next time I have that “Oh hear we go again” thought about romance in books.

  2. Elissa says:

    My anti-spam word was “cavador” which is apparently a dog breed. Who knew?

    Like Marissa, I really love your love triangle diagram. Lately I’ve found myself bristling when presented with a female protagonist that describes herself in such unlovable terms, who has the cute best friend obviously in love with her and then immediately meets the super cute bad boy who is also obviously in love with her. I’ve found that I don’t really mind love triangles, as long as the heroine is someone who feels lovable.

  3. Amy says:

    I LOVE the Buffy reference!

  4. Pingback: Diana Peterfreund Blog | The Love Diagrams of Jane Austen

  5. Tiff says:

    Fascinating. I love Carrie Ryan’s idea that the heroine is choosing who she wants to be and that dictates her choice of partner. I completely agree, and I’ve never been able to put that into words. Thanks for that.

    I never thought of any of the SSG books as love triangles. Same with the KU books – that’s not the point. But that said, if there’s a love triangle, it SHOULD be about the heroine choosing who she wants to be first, and about the boy afterwards. What I liked most about the SSG books is that you presented each boy to us, and Amy’s choice about who she wanted to be reflected who she chose. And sometimes it wasn’t a good or right choice – sometimes she was just being an idiot (Brandon the second time? Oy). But what I found really interesting was that when Jamie was presented as a viable option, I think very few people doubted that he was right for her. And the reason for that was because I think the reader saw who she wanted to be before she did, and we saw what Jamie could bring out in her that neither of the other boys could.

    Even in Hunger Games, both boys fully admit and accept that it’s Katniss’ choice, and she will choose the person she can’t live without. Her choice had to do with who she wanted to be. It wasn’t just that Gale messed up or the consequences of that. It was the fact that Peeta offered her a life that she wanted to live.

    Frankly, I don’t see what the big deal is. Love triangles happen because choices happen – in YA, in adult novels. Sometimes it’s the focus, sometimes it’s not. Either way, I don’t think it’s a bad thing. What matters is the writing and the telling of a great story. One of the things that Stephanie Perkins said at ALAN keeps coming back to me. She was on a panel with a couple other wonderful authors, and many of them kept saying, “Well, yeah, they’re romances, but there’s also something more here – it’s not just about that.” Stephanie went up and the first thing she said is that she wanted to reclaim the word “romance” because it’s become like a dirty word. She was proud of the fact that she wrote romances, by which she meant that the primary arc of her books were two people trying to find each other. She said that she fell in love when she was a teenager, and she wanted to write that because that’s something that’s very important to teenagers. And isn’t that the point? To connect to people through words? If the story is well-told, it doesn’t matter if it’s boy-girl-boy, or girl-boy-girl, or three boys, or three girls, or aliens or zombies or vampires.

    Also, romance happens. Love triangles happen. If there’s human interaction, chances are, romance will happen. Sometimes it doesn’t. But especially in YA and in teenage life, where most kids are just trying to find themselves and many finally have the freedom to live a little outside the boundaries set by parents and teachers and other authority figures, romance happens because teens are starting to learn how to relate to each other without anyone else present. It’s the first time in their lives that they get to spend extended time with others unchaperoned. Whether that just means going to the mall with friends, playing video games, or finding some perfect sunset like moment, teens feel things deeply, and they want to share that with others. Often, that turns into romance. Sometimes, it’s a love triangle.

  6. Cara M says:

    And at the end you mentioned my favorite kind of love triangle: the one that doesn’t have to have any boys in it at all. The choice between what you ought to do and what you want to do, or between your two possible future selves, these are the choices that I find compelling.

    In the end the choice between the dark sullen boy and the bright popular boy is often like choosing between a red t-shirt and a blue t-shirt. In the end, it’s still a shirt, and you aren’t running around topless (which, unfortunately, I think is some people’s attitude toward not having a boyfriend.)

    I’m so sorry for Louisa Musgrove. I am a member of the small subgroup of readers who, whenever faced with a girl-boy-girl love angle, especially one where there’s a lot of hitting and spitting between the girls, is always like “Hey! Lose the dude already! You know all that anger is going to be really hot in bed!”

    Sadly, I have yet to find a YA contemp with this sort of triangle resolution. If you have one, let me know. 😀

  7. Kate says:

    This is a really insightful post. Thanks!

  8. Chihuahua0 says:

    Technically, the relationship web in Twilight can be considered a love triangle–but it only works if it wasn’t from Bella’s POV. Conflict can be found in one of the other prongs, but since she’s the main POV…

    Personally, I like to play with sexual orientation with relationships. In my current project, I’m setting one up for the second book.