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(Love) Triangles Aren’t My Favorite Shape

Twilight Book
“Twilight” by Stephenie Meyer.

The first time I was Team Anything, I was eleven years old and reading “Twilight," which had been forbidden to me by my mother. (Regrettably, I was Team Edward; we all know now that the correct team is Alice.) Despite its many, widely acknowledged faults, “Twilight” was the beginning of my own passionate attachment to young adult fiction, and it had an impact on the trope that I read and watched in what felt like real time: the rise of the love triangle.

Romantic drama has and always will be a hallmark of media for teens and young adults. But the wave of late-2000s YA that followed “Twilight” very often featured this particular kind of drama. You know the story: There’s a girl, thrown into some kind of strange (often supernatural) situation, and she’s torn between the guy next door and the mysterious guy. The most cynical part of me thought even then that it was a pretty transparent way to keep fans invested in the romantic subplot of a series. If there was another love interest in the background, no relationship was safe, so you had to keep reading.

Here’s the thing: I hated it. Oh, I loved every other YA trope — I still do. But love triangles made me queasy. I was always terrifically nervous that I would pick the wrong guy, and all my emotional investment would’ve been a waste. And I hate being wrong! Worse, what if I had to defend why I was Team Gale or Team Ash or Team Will? I couldn’t make good arguments. It was just a gut feeling.

But I was also perversely drawn to them. Love triangles turn the experience of reading a romantic subplot into a breathless, intense game of extremes. I couldn’t stand Seth; Adrian was so wrong for Rose; and don’t even mention Mal to me. It was… well, it was just as absurd and dramatic as being a teenager is, played out in fiction. And getting the heroine’s endgame right was a rush like figuring out a plot twist or solving the book’s mystery.

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Somewhere in between the cynical and the emotional, though, is a sweet spot of thematic goodness that the best love triangles find. If you don’t read YA, you might not know that the love interests (now not always two guys vying for one girl!) in a love triangle almost always represent something bigger. The choice is always an earthshaking one because it isn’t just about love. Some books don’t stick the landing and so that choice feels flat, the stakes cartoonish. But others compel the character to reflect what kind of person they want to be. What do they stand for, and could they live with a partner who feels otherwise? As Suzanne Collins wrote about her “Hunger Games” heroine: “Katniss isn’t just deciding on a partner; she’s figuring out her worldview.”

With all the expected caveats (a person you date as a teenager is not necessarily the last; it is mostly in speculative settings that the choice has such grave consequences), the love triangle is another facet of the protagonist’s coming-of-age. As maligned as the trope is, it even makes sense from a craft standpoint: It provides conflict, appears external but engages with the internal, and often reveals more about the protagonist’s goals than can be explicitly said in the narrative. Yes, I hate being wrong, but I am grudgingly satisfied by these conclusions, the “Mockingjays” and “Ruin & Risings” among us.

Really, a YA love triangle is spectacular solipsism, and not because it features attractive people fighting over the protagonist. It is a happy selfishness that feels entirely appropriate to fiction for teenagers. It exaggerates a world in which pursuing someone is nerve-wracking and exciting and terrifying — because now you’re in love with a ghost or joining the merfolk-human conflict. And the lessons that the love triangle canon teaches are so varied: Don’t pick the person who stifles your personality; don’t pick the guy who’s controlling and manipulative; don’t pick the girl who refuses to accept who you are. This cliché has never been what I thought it was. And if the question the love triangle encourages (especially young) readers to think, who will I be if I do or say or think this… I can get behind that, no matter how stressed out Peeta fans make me.

— Staff writer Stuti Telidevara is an English concentrator who lives in Cabot house.

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