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.
My first thought upon reading your introduction to this post: “Aw, crap.” I just finished writing another scene in my YA book last night that centered around the love triangle. But I continued reading the post I thought, “Wait- okay…okay…okay…hey, maybe I’m okay!” My protagonist was just reminding herself that she needs to keep her heart focused on the guy she’s already chosen, no matter how hot/sweet/caring/funny other guy is, the plot is definitely bigger than the love triangle, the guys are both pretty deep as far as backstories go- but I could probably do a little bit more with one of them, and they both have very redeeming qualities.
Thanks for this awesome post- it’s given me a lot to think about and I appreciate the heads up on this subject from the publishing world!
I know what you mean. Right after I wrote this I realized that I had a love triangle that I didn’t want to let go of, luckily I remembered to follow my own advice and not just let her fall for the bad guy because he was super hot :). Love stories can be great, hope yours continues to go well.
I love Duncan Kane and Logan Echolls in Veronica Mars. Love them!!
Ok, I know I’m supposed to be a snobby editor, but I have to admit that Twilight’s book 3 (I think?) where Edward and Jacob interacted a lot (dialogue scenes)–that was fairly entertaining. I think it had that “they respect each other” element. And I do think the Peeta/Gale thing was fairly convincing and interesting–even for someone who’s not technically a romance person (me). It’s interesting that even if you’re not a super romance fan, you can still tell a good one from a not-so-good one. Great articles this week, ladies!
I really need to watch this show. It is on my must see list, maybe I need to move it closer to the top. Thanks for the suggestion!
Love this post, Sabine! I especially love your list of “Do’s.” Darcy. Yum.
Sabine, your article made me laugh, and gave me a lot of food for thought. Your do’s and don’ts are just as important to remember no matter what age group or genre of romance you are aiming at. I’d like to see more writers keep them in mind. I know I definitely will when I write my next love story!
Having survived a handful of love triangles myself (no details here folks, I’m hoarding them so I can greedily mine them for my own projects), I feel like I can easily see through an artificial one. So can our target audience– a good number of our dear readers are likely embroiled in one sin their non-fictional lives as we ponder the question of how to fictionalize them in a satisfying way. Thanks for reminding us that our characters must be real people not stereotypes (even vamps and other supernaturals have hearts).
I think the hardest thing for me is to prevent the romance from overtaking the plot. May I suggest/request a future post on balancing these elements?
Oh, and my current fave love triangle: Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and Jimmy. They are all so messed up and it’s glorious. Not exactly YA fare, but it’s a great doomed triangle.
I love the idea of how to not let the romance take over the plot. I am on a rewrite of a current novel for that exact reason. I got to the end of the first draft and realized I had an awesome romance, and really no other plot. My current draft is much better (I think).
Adrianne, we’ve got your topic on our calendar!
I’m so, so tired of love triangles. So tired to see the great friend, honest, their memories, time together etc only for the second guy to appear and the girl picks him. I don’t like Peeta, I hate him, I don’t like jakob etc. The plot is more interesting without love triangles. Stop falling for the bad guy. 🙁
Thanks for the comment! This is definitely a worthy discussion. The market does seem to be saturated with these love triangles that are/can be cliche. So what if you were to write a love triangle that turned this old trope on its heels? She picks the friend, she picks the true one, etc. I’m also thinking back to some classic lit. Didn’t Elizabeth Bennett have a bit of a triangle with her crush on Wickham, and Jo March with her let’s-just-be-friends with Laurie (and to this day–she should have chosen Laurie!). I still think there is room for love triangles, but I definitely agree with you that the typical “I love Jacob but I’m picking Edward” scenario is overdone. As with anything in today’s fiction, it needs to be unique, have a twist, or do something different so that it’s not a carbon copy of things already done.
Thanks again for your comment!