Twilight. Harry Potter. Shades of Grey featured one between a girl, a boy and a furry spatula, probably. Love triangles in fiction, especially YA fiction, might be isosceles or equilateral or, or, you know, the other kind of triangle that I can never remember, but they’re THERE. Actually, my bad: they’re never equilateral. All three protagonists would end up with an equal dollop of power and desire, and what would be the point (yes, I went there) of that?
A number of agents profess to be sick to the back teeth of the YA love triangle and actively pay attention to synopses that don’t have one. If you check on Goodreads or any other reader networks, many regular YA readers are also happy to lay into the whole triangley thing to the point where our vulnerable three-pointed friends are beginning to feel like a marginalised group. Readers may not specify what shapes they’d like (dodecahedrons are probably a little too edgy) but triangles are OUT, my loves.
But what’s wrong with a nice, sturdy little triangle? It’s a humble beast, yet it reaches to the heavens if you point it the right way up. You just have to get the angles and degrees right. When crafting a love triangle it’s all about what angle you take, and to what degree it’s integral to the story.
One thing you often see on Goodreads is this:
“Oh noez I read this thing and YOIKS it had yet another love triangle, BUT…”
The reader goes on to specify what they genuinely liked about the characters or the situation or the thing, the other thing, the thingy-thing they actually genuinely liked. This other thing is, weirdly enough, often coloured by the presence of emotional stuff. Readers actually quite LIKE protagonists having problems with their heart-bits. They’re just tired of seeing the same emotional mechanics as that really big popular book which everyone read before it got turned into a film. Yes, that one.
Here are my love triangles so far. You are welcome to say if you think they work or not.
GATEWAY BOY: David (the hero) and Molly used to be best friends but after several years apart they’ve discovered their affection has grown stronger over time. However, David’s got the whole of England to save and Molly is locked into an arranged marriage because that’s how queening and politics work in the Kingdom of Below. It’s not really about the triangle, it’s more about discovering that mutual affection is really nice and can help you in the dark times when you’ve got some Big Stuff To Do. Also, very importantly, whatever your loveliness situation is, you never know what’s going to happen next.
JABBERWACK: Ellie Darkbrow and Vin grip their shovels tight as they unearth collapsing social systems and rising entities, but they’d rather work these problems out with each other than anyone else. No love triangle. They don’t need to sniff round anyone else. People have asked me if there’s a secret love triangle between Ellie and boy b, or between Ellie and girl b, but there isn’t. Ellie and boy b and girl b don’t fancy each other. And while boy b may not be gay, girl b definitely is. It’s sometimes hard to believe but you don’t have to fancy literally every person you meet. And, even if you’re (trope alert!) really beautiful and don’t know it, they’re under no obligation to fancy YOU. I know, amaze! But it’s true!
HOUSE OF SIGHS: HOORAY AT LAST IT’S A GENUINE LOVE TRIANGLE BY JIMINY. However, it’s an integral part of a locked room mystery set in an Orphanage where nothing is as it seems. At the risk of spoilers I will say that while Jane’s decision to pick Mort or Nicholas Hobb will make a big difference to everything that ever was, she’ll be in a pickle either way.
Not every book needs a love triangle. They may well help things sell to readers who have not yet had a relationship and would like to experience ALL the twists and turns of love in about 300 pages. That’s fair enough. But only you can decide, as a writer who is writing a book you’d want to read, whether your book should have one or not.
FIXING THE YA LOVE TRIANGLE. WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO ABOUT IT?
Firstly, we are going to do a flip and make the YA hate triangle a trope. As soon as you know what a hate triangle might be and how it might enrich human experience and literature, get back to me.
Following a mate’s suggestion, we can try thinking about choice triangles instead of love triangles. Three sides, but many facets of human nature.
We are going to be brave and explore other love shapes like points, lines, teetering trapezoids and shapes that only exist if you can operate in six dimensions.
We are going to remember that colour by numbers results in a delightfully hamfisted picture of a sailing boat, but not a book that we or anyone else can be proud to have on their shelves or their portable magical box.