Team, Who Cares?
Love Triangles in YA Fiction
by Sabine Berlin
(with a shout-out to the Utah Chapter, Romance Writers of America)
Bella had her Edward … and Jacob? Katniss had her Peeta … and Gale? Elana had her Stefan … and Damon? Love triangles are everywhere in YA fiction, but I’ve recently seen tweets and comments that they are done. I’m not sure I completely agree with that. Teenage girls love a good love triangle. They like picking a team and arguing it with their friends at lunch, over Facebook, on the way to soccer practice. Unfortunately, teenage girls are not the ones who will be publishing your book. Agents and editors are tired of “the same old girl can choose between two hot, perfect guys and what will she do?” story. So where does that leave you? Before you cross out one of your characters to avoid a love triangle, take a step back and see what works—and what doesn’t.
- Don’t let your protagonist be a tease. Yes, there might be more than one guy who’s right for her. But don’t have her kissing boy A in one scene and then kissing boy B in the next. All this does is make us lose respect for the main character. So she has a crush on two guys. So she needs to spend time with each of them to sort out her feelings. Fine. But there are ways of realizing which is the right guy that don’t involve playing back-to-back games of tonsil hockey.
- Don’t let her fall for the bad boy just because he’s hot. There isn’t a whole lot better than a hot bad boy. But that doesn’t mean your character should be with a bad boy, no matter how much you want her to. With that being said, if you give your bad boy a great story line, all of a sudden he isn’t just hot—he’s misunderstood. So if you’re determined that your girl needs to fall for the bad biker boy because he’s just too beautiful for words, then at least give him a personality to match.
- Don’t make it too easy to predict who she’ll be with. Why is it that there’s always a great guy who loves her until super-hot (insert the paranormal creature of your desire here) boy comes along and sweeps her off her feet? And why is it that even though he’s a cocky pain in the neck, he’s so super-hot that of course she’ll pick him? Yeah, don’t do that.
- Don’t make the plot of the book be about a love triangle. Make sure your book has real conflict in it that isn’t just about who the girl will pick. Give us a plot. Give us real conflict. And then if you can use that conflict to further the intensity of your love triangle, great—but don’t use your love triangle to further the intensity of your plot.
- Do give your guys decent backstories. If you’re going to have your girl be wishy-washy in trying to decide who to love, make sure that there’s a compelling reason for her to love each guy beyond the fact that one or both of them is super-hot. I can’t think of a single Pride and Prejudice adaptation where I started watching and thought Mr. Darcy was hot, but by the end of each one I am completely smitten—and not just because of the accent! We love Mr. Darcy because he isn’t just pretty and rich. He is human. He makes mistakes, he is proud, he is a little bit of a snob, but in the end he has reasons for why he acts the way he does. Mr. Darcy has personality.
- Do understand the difference between being in love and being in attraction. Attraction in this case goes even deeper than looks. Your MC (main character) can find herself attracted to more than one guy. Love requires sacrifice; it requires putting the other person ahead of you no matter the cost. Love isn’t romantic getaways and moonlit walks on the beach; it is soul searching, heart giving, for better or worse, never ending. Your teen MC might not know that at the start, but by the end of the book she’d better have it figured out.
- Do let Guy B find his own set of happiness. If you are going to have a love triangle where two guys are both perfect, the least you can do is make sure they both are happy. Sure, there are other ways you can deal with Guy B. You can kill him off, turn him into a jerk, or worse, turn him into an evil jerk. But if you’re going to spend the series building up both guys, then why not let them both be alive and well at the end?
- Do let your guys respect one another on some level. Love triangles where the guys hate each other are too cliché. If your MC really respects both guys and they really hate each other, doesn’t that tip her off that one or both of them are really jerks? In that case, she shouldn’t be with either of them. But what if they respect each other—maybe are even friends? All of a sudden the reader isn’t certain which way she wants it to go.
Good, unique love triangles aren’t going anywhere—not any time soon—and that’s fine with me. I love debating every week whether Elena should be with Damon or Stefan. (We all know Caroline should be with Klaus, so there’s really no love triangle there.) If you’re going to write a love triangle, be unique, make us care, and give us a story that would still be completely worth reading—even if there was no love triangle.
Do This Now
- Read! Most YA for young girls have some sort of love triangle, so read them. Decide what works for you and what you find cliché.
- Read your own story and ask yourself some critical questions: Did your love triangle resolve without any effort? Is one love interest obviously heads-and-tails better than the other? Is the love triangle the whole point of the book? If you can answer yes to any of these, it’s time for rewrites.
- Make sure whatever your final outcome, your MC’s decision is justified. She can’t just flip a coin. Make sure you give us real closure.
Are you a big fan of love triangles? What are your favorites? What are your least favorite? Share them with us.
Sabine is an avid reader of everything from Asimov to Zusak. She has a degree in history, writes YA fiction, and was selected to attend Orson Scott Card’s Literary Bootcamp, where she studied writing and critiquing. She has been with Eschler Editing since 2012. She invites you to visit her blog.