Are We Out of the Woods Yet? : Love Triangles

It was the question on everybody’s lips in 2009. Team Edward or Team Jacob? 

It’s a cliché of young adult literature: self-insert heroine who doesn’t realise how beautiful she is shocked to realise she has not one but two (or more!) gorgeous leading men falling over themselves to be with her. Every teenage girl’s dream, right?

When it’s done well, a love triangle can infuse a novel with a compelling sense of tension and longing. Annabeth Chase’s character arc in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series is heavily influenced by hear devotion to her oldest friend Luke Castellan and her growing loyalty and attraction to Percy. There’s more to the boys’ enmity than just a romantic rivalry, but the Annabeth/Percy/Luke dynamic works as a love triangle because it isn’t just a case of two cute boys liking the same girl for additional drama; it reflects other major aspects of Annabeth’s character, like her desperate yearning for family and stability.

There’s a minor, insubstantial love triangle in Aristotle and Dante’s Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, which is the only example of a recent YA love triangle that I could think of which departed from the heterosexual-girl-and-two-heterosexual-boys model that’s prevalent in young adult literature. The romantic endgame of that novel was so clear, but the love triangle served its purpose: Ari was jealous of Dante’s new boyfriend, at a time before he’d admitted that he was attracted to boys, and it was distressing for him. The love triangle was there to reveal character, and that’s why it worked. 

When a reader is emotionally invested in both romantic options, a love triangle can be hugely rewarding. I loved the dynamics of Calaena’s developing relationships with Chaol and Prince Dorian in Sarah J. Maas’ Throne of Glass. Granted, Calaena would probably have chemistry with a telegraph pole, but while I do have my suspicions about where her romantic destiny lies, I find both Chaol and Dorian to be intriguing options for her and after the first book, I’m equally invested in her relationship with both of them. I’m hoping that Sarah J. Maas will be able to pull off the same success in the next Court of Thorns and Roses book, because right now I’m having foreboding New Moon flashbacks.

When I’m not invested in one of the romantic options, however, it can be kind of the worst. This happened to me recently when I read A Thousand Pieces of You by Claudia Grey, a science fiction romance about travel through parallel universes. I thoroughly enjoyed the first half of the book, but the point at which the inevitable conclusion of the love triangle is made evident directly correlates to my decline in interest. There’s a big spoiler at the end of the book that reveals why the person I wanted Marguerite to get with was never going to happen, but I even knowing it… I just can’t make myself care about the romantic lead – which is disappointing, because it really tarnished my experience of A Thousand Pieces of You.

Quite similar (but in my opinion, much superior), is the time travel romance thriller All Our Yesterdays by Cristin Terrill. The reason that this love triangle worked so well is that it is entirely integral to the plot and the protagonist's choices. There’s a boy in the past and a boy in the future and it's not so much that the protagonist must choose, but that as reader I was equally invested in her relationships in both times.

Perhaps, then, my criteria for a decent love triangle is that it, a) reveals characters; or b) is integral to the plot or at least relevant to the core of the story. I never had an answer when people kept asking me in 2011 if I was Team Peeta or Team Gale. That was an issue that didn’t even rate for me. The Hunger Games is about an oppressive society committing government-sanctioned murder and a selfless girl trying to change the poisonous world she lives in. I feel like the Peeta/Katniss/Gale issue is so far removed from the core of the story that it’s not even a question worth asking.

What makes a love triangle work for you? Which love triangles work well, and which fail to hit the mark?
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  1. Interesting post!

    I didn't really like the PJO 'love triangle' between Percy/Annabeth/Luke. For me, it was just way too cliched that Percy (the young, not-buff kid) was jealous of Luke (the older, quite-buff bit-of-a-jerk), while Annabeth flitted between both sides of the love triangle without offering the reader any real resolution.

    You're scaring me with A Thousand Pieces - I'm going to be reading it soon. :|

    Also: Throne of Glass was completed ruined for me because of the love triangle. It absolutely *dominated* the book, to the point where almost every chapter become obsessed about Caelena and which gorgeous dude she was going to kiss this time. It was just...not fun.

    But you're right on point about The Hunger Games. There might be a love triangle there, and clearly Peeta always thought there was a triangle, but it wasn't one Katniss particularly saw. In the books there are references to her never really thinking of Gale as her partner/lover to begin with, so that effectively ended the triangle.

    I really hate when triangles dominate the plot - it's very often a lazy plot device, especially in YA, to cover up shortcomings in the chapter-to-chapter plot, or as some kind of sad selling-feature to encourage a TeamX vs TeamY social media campaign.

    I think my favorite literary love triangle was the Harry/Ron/Hermione triangle of The Deathly Hallows - because, essentially, it *wasn't* a triangle. BUT, the *thought* that it was, coupled with the dark magic of the locket, sent Ron almost insane over his own insecurities and jealousy.

    But this is one of those issues/plot devices that sends people nuts - everyone has a different opinion of what's the right or wrong way to handle a love triangle, or if it even needs to be there.

    Great post!

    1. Don't be scared, everyone else seemed to love A Thousand Pieces of You a lot more than I did!

      Re: Annabeth - there was that moment in The Last Olympian when Luke said he loved her and she kind of let him down gently and made ~significant eyes~ at Percy? Sort of a resolution. I wasn't that bothered that there was no huge rejection of Luke though because given her obsession with belonging and finding a stable family, which Luke embodies, it's appropriate for her character to hesitate to let him go. (Also, the fact that her fatal flaw is hubris and she wants to fix him.)

      You know I didn't even think of Harry/Ron/Hermione. I suppose because it's more a incorrectly perceived love triangle than an actual one. But it is very effective within the existing dynamics of Harry and Ron's friendship, with Harry constantly being touted as special, and Ron's well-established jealous streak and inferiority complex from coming from a family of so many impressive brothers.

    2. Thinking about PJO a little longer, I think I had forgotten to consider Annabeth's fatal flaw - now going back over a lot of her decisions with that in mind, it seems to make a little more sense. Hmm, time for a re-read, perhaps?

      And yes, totally right about Ron-Harry's relationship. For me, that's one of the biggest parts of the whole Harry Potter series - the fact that Ron is continually in Harry's shadow, and Harry is so obnoxiously unaware of's a dynamic that J.K. Rowling handled really well, especially in Books 4, 6 and 7.

    3. It's definitely time for a PJO reread! A PJO reread is always a good idea!

  2. So Brett pointed me here and has once again proved his impeccable taste because I am instantly following you after this post.

    I've never been much of a fan of love triangles, so I hadn't given much thought to this aspect of YA fiction. I've read plenty of amazing YA books without love triangles, and I've read the TV Tropes page several times over, but I think this really convinced me that love triangles can be a good thing. I don't necessarily mind love triangles if they're not taking over the plot, but if they are -- argh.

    You know what I'd REALLY like to see? A YA book with both girls and boys, and zero romance. I've yet to write one myself, but it would be fun.

    1. That's so great, thank Alyssa! I'm glad to have changed your mind a bit! I really do think that love triangles can serve important purposes in clarifying characterisation, beyond just increasing the tension. But you're right, I can't think of much YA that doesn't have a romantic element, beyond the early books of a series like Harry Potter or Percy Jackson and the Olympians, where the characters are a bit younger. A friend of mine whose asexual actually asked me for recommendations of YA that doesn't have too much romance in it and I had quite a bit of trouble finding anything for her! I heard Laurie Halse Anderson speak today though and I think she said that The Knife of Impossible Memory was her first book with a romance in it?

    2. @Alyssa: skim-reading the comments and saw my own name! I do have great taste, don't I! ;)

      So glad that you're now following Sophie, she's going to be producing great content, I can't wait to see where her blogging journey takes her! :D