Love triangles in Young Adult fiction (1)

November 20, 2011 Bookish 0

This is the first in a planned three part discussion on love triangles in YA. This post will focus on why love triangles are prevalent in YA, the second part will look at the relationships portrayed in YA, and the third part will focus on what the love triangles teach us.

As Speculating on SpecFic is a book blog dedicated to works of Speculative Fiction (fantasy, horror, science fiction etc.), I will be mainly discussing YA fantasy and paranormal fiction, with some YA science fiction.

If you are a regular reader of YA fiction you will have noticed a trend towards publishing trilogies and quadrilogies. This is true for me as this month I have read nothing but YA fiction for Focus on YA month here on the blog. I also noticed that there seems to be a formula for writing romance in a YA series:

  • Book 1: introduce a boy and a girl. They have adventures. They suspect they are in love.
  • Book 2: introduce distance between boy and girl. Introduce (or bring into focus) a previously unknown / overlooked love interest. Cue romantic tension.
  • Book 3: Protagonist agonises over the heart-decision between the two love interests. Some drama ensues, bad guys are defeated, protagonist chooses who to be with and presumably lives happily ever after.

I don’t think that formulaic writing is, in itself, good or bad. There are many genres which are built on the writing of book after book according to a winning formula: detective thrillers, action thrillers and spy novels, alien invasion novels. My issue is not with the trope of love triangles (which have been around since Arthurian times). I simply wonder whether a love triangle is necessary in every YA series, and worry at the message love triangles send to a young audience. I should also point out that many of the love triangles discussed will actually, technically, be love V’s. 

It would be impossible to discuss this topic without first looking at Twilight – which a quick Google search shows is topmost (or at least in the top 5) of many lists of ‘favourite love triangles’. Stephanie Meyer wrote a young adult series which focuses on a young girl’s first exposure to love, sexuality and self awareness. The two boys who are interested in her throughout the series are Edward, a vampire, and Jacob, a werewolf. Edward is cold, stony, masochistic and a little bit controlling. Jacob is warm, muscled, and a wonderful friend. Edward’s heart doesn’t beat, Jake’s does. And so go the comparisons which run around in Bella’s head. I understand the appeal of both boys, I do, and Bella’s choice is important because being with Edward will involve transforming into a vampire herself.

With Meyer’s Twilight series as a cornerstone, I have been seeing love triangles in many YA novels written since (Twilight was published in 2005).

The Vampire Academy series by Richelle Mead features a love triangle between the main character, Rose, her fighting trainer, Dimitri, and her friend Mason. The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins has Peeta and Gale vying for the affections of the heroine Katniss. The Fallen series by Lauren Kate seems to feature love triangles everywhere. The first book, Fallen, has a love triangle between Luce, Daniel and Cam, where both boys are fallen angels. In the second book, a Nephilim, Miles, develops feelings for Luce and Daniel witnesses him kissing her.

The Birthmarked series by Caragh O’brien does one better: the first book (Birthmarked) introduces Gaia and Leon, who develop feelings for one another as the book progresses. The second book (Prized) relocates Gaia into another dystopian society and introduces the brothers Will and Peter, who are both interested in Gaia. Enter Peter, who has also escaped to the new society, and we end up with a love SQUARE.

These examples follow the formula above – and all them show the girl choosing the first romantic interest. So why is the second boy even introduced if throughout the whole series the girl only pines for one boy, and the author keeps dropping hints about who she will eventually end up with?

Love triangles in any series will inevitably keep readers engaged for future books – if you have strong feelings about who the protagonist ends up with, you are more likely to buy successive books to find out. Are love triangles nothing more then successful marketing ploys? No, because they have been around in the larger genre of fiction for many years, and will not go away anytime soon. But it is true that love triangles sell books. Perhaps – and I have no way of knowing for sure – the success of a few YA series with love triangles in them has caused publishers to look out for the trope in particular. They know that the readers love them and so publish books where the love triangles in them are drawn out over a whole series.

Are love triangles prevalent in YA because they heighten the reading experience – people keep wanting to read about them because of the anxiety that goes along with it? A general concusses seems to be that the popularity of love triangles in YA does indeed stem from the anxiety associated with the CHOICE. People become heavily invested in one option or the other, and this is where we get Team Edward and Team Jacob from, for example. While a series is ongoing the blogosphere is filled with discussions of who the protagonist will choose. If the choice between two love interests keeps a reader coming back for more, does this mean that the story itself (behind the love story) becomes a side show rather than the main act? Should authors spend more time hashing out the details of the love story than the storyline of their novel?

Why do you think YA fiction has so many love triangles in it? Do you like them and think they add to the reading experience? I would love to hear your thoughts! Stay tuned for the second part of this discussion!

My thanks to my friends on Razorbill for graciously providing their opinions and many stimulating conversations

If you are interested in other articles on love triangles in YA, here are a few I came across while researching my series:

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