Ah, the love triangle—one of YA’s most divisive tropes! Love it or hate it, the YA love triangle is here to stay. In “The Curse of the Love Triangle in YA Fiction” at Acculturated, Abby W. Schachter said, “Romance in YA fiction is fine; but love triangles are boring. Authors who have conjured entirely new worlds out of their fertile imaginations and who are encouraging younger readers to think about heroism, sacrifice, and commitment, can do better than revisiting this tired old trope.” There are many people who echo her sentiment and wish for the reign of the YA love triangle to end. I think, however, that Schachter and love triangle dissenters are missing that point: It’s not just about the romance; it’s about the testing of identities. Love triangles present characters, and by proxy readers, with the means to test out different identities. Interestingly enough, this is just what teenagers are trying to do in their everyday lives.
I affirm the right of YA literature to have love triangles, because they can be such good tools for characterization. I’m not saying that the only way to develop a character—especially a female character—is to place her in a love triangle and make the plot revolve around which boy or girl she chooses, but rather the love triangle allows a character to confront the diverging lives she could have through the act of choosing. Even if we try to deny it, being in relationships change and shape us, and our YA heroine’s life will be changed by whomever she decides to love. The choice shows the many different paths life can take, and I think that one of the fundamental natures of the love triangle is to model the choices that teens face in their brain and social development.
When I’m explaining teen behavior to other adults I like to say that teens brains “aren’t done cooking yet.” This is not to denigrate teens’ intelligence, because so many of the teens I see everyday are smart, critical thinkers and great writers. But they are also fighting against biology that makes them more prone to taking risks, more interested in defining their personalities, and driving them to define boundaries by pushing against them. All in all, teens’ frontal lobes aren’t as fully functional as an adult’s meaning it’s harder for them to have these executive functions that regulate judgment and so called “common sense.”
So what do YA love triangles have to do with this? Since great books have a way of allowing readers to identify or empathize with characters, love triangles allow readers to push boundaries and see themselves in different ways just like the characters do. Yes, this happens in books all the time and why it’s important for books to be windows and mirrors. But it’s the way that a love triangle allows the character and reader to test out personalities, goals, and different life possibilities that makes it interesting, and maybe even important.
Take a very famous YA love triangle: Katniss, Peeta, and Gale of The Hunger Games. Peeta and Gale represent two different options for Katniss in her life. Gale, and Katniss’ relationship with him, connects her to her past in District 12, reminds her of her family and familial obligations, and is willing to use more extreme measures against the Capital. Peeta, too, while having a part in Katniss’ past, represents a new less violent way of being and a chance for a new life. Just as Katniss finds it hard to choose because she loves both boys in different ways, readers can imagine her with either. Presenting these two options, both that work well with Katniss, mirrors the way that teens strive to define their identity through testing out of new cliques, new scenes, hairstyles, clothes, activities, and more.
Some may think of this as a stretch, but I think that showing the various options of life is an essential function of YA love triangles. Not that choosing who to love fundamentally changes you as a person, even though it might, but rather that the person a character chooses allows them to test out that part of their personality. I think also that love triangles make it okay for readers, and especially teen readers, to feel confused and stressed about having to make decisions. Choosing between two people who could love you is difficult, but so is choosing where to sit in the cafeteria at lunch or what kind of after school activities you’d be interested in. To me these are so similar, both affect who you or a character will be even if it’s just for a short amount of time.
I also think it’s important to think about the gendered dismissal of the YA love triangle. The most common love triangle situation by far is that of a heroine choosing between two male suitors. In this situation, it seems that there is a bit of slut shaming going on in the dismissal of the trope. The love triangle puts the choice in the hands of a girl or woman, and I think many are still not comfortable with a girl being that in charge of her sexuality. Yes, she has two suitors, and yes, she gets to choose using her sexual agency! I feel similarly to fellow WWAC-er Ginnis Tonik who last year defended the “bad boy” trope. She finishes her defense by saying:
“For me, the Bad Boy allowed for an acceptance of female sexuality without shame, or at least a little less shame, and certainly something more interesting than the complete lack of sex that would certainly be happening with the Good Guy. The Bad Boy trope is certainly not without its problems, but to quote one of my dearest friends, ‘I may hate Twilight, but if it’s getting teenage girls to explore their sexuality and masturbate over two equally objectified males, I can only encourage that.'”
Finally, before finishing, I’d love to see more kinds of love triangles in my YA fiction. As I have said, the trope has predominantly featured one girl choosing between two boys, but teens are more diverse than that. Andrew Smiths’ Grasshopper Jungle features Austin, who at the end of the world caused by genetically altered, giant preying mantises can’t decide who he loves more: his girlfriend Shan or his best friend Robbie. Austin narrates the book as a history of his life and his questioning and love for both Shan is Robbie is quite sweet. Or what about more like Sara Farizan’s brilliant Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel? Leila is just trying to get through the day-to-day of high school and isn’t prepared for such strong feelings for either beautiful femme fatale Saskia or her old friend Lisa.
How about we let women and girls, and everyone for that matter, allow themselves to love who they want? Or better yet, maybe the characters don’t have to choose. They could have both loves or they could strike out on their own, needing no one. Or maybe choosing one person doesn’t mean that you have to lose the other. In Fans of the Impossible Life by Kate Scelsa, Mira and Sebby (Sebastian) have a close, and yes, even sexual relationship, even while Sebby and Jeremy are becoming a couple. By the end of the book, it’s isn’t so much that Jeremy has chosen to be with Sebby over Mira, but that they are an unstoppable trio and love, both erotic and platonic.
So, when you’re reading your next favorite YA dystopian series or any other YA book, don’t immediately discount it because there is a love triangle. Try to see how the love triangle allows girls and women to have the power of choice in their romantic relationships and the power to define who they are as people.