Caoilfhinn Hegarty discusses the love triangle cliche in YA Fiction and how men are represented by female authors.
Tropes make the storytelling world go round, especially when it comes to writing romance. Would you like star-crossed lovers? Love at first sight? Fake relationship? Soulmates? Enemies to lovers? Arranged marriages? Or how about that old reliable of the Young Adult genre: the love triangle.
Love triangles are as ubiquitous in YA fiction as the teenage girl protagonist, which is why you usually find them hand in hand. For years, the analysis of this trope was centred on the girl and usually adopted a critical tone. After all, what sort of message were we sending young girls if we kept depicting the choice between boyfriends (they’re pretty much always straight) as one of the most consequential decisions of their life? Even in novels with strong world-building and gripping narratives, romantic B plots seemed to get disproportionate focus from readers.
If you were in anyway immersed in teen fiction this past decade-and-a-half, chances are you’re already having Twilight flashbacks, but there was also Matched, Delirium, and The Selection- three YA dystopian novels where the dystopia element revolved around who the characters were allowed to love. When I think of the love triangle books I enjoy, I come up with The Vampire Diaries, The Mortal Instruments, and The Hunger Games. The thing about these triangles is that they nearly all have a 2:1 boy/girl ratio, for every starring lady there are at least two satellite men. What do these supporting roles add to the reader’s understanding of their protagonist and the story she’s living out, and do they have a role outside of that?
In The Vampire Diaries, Elena Gilbert is the object of affection of the two Salvatore brothers, Damon and Stefan, and the fact that this is the second love triangle these vampires have managed to get themselves into together means it should say a lot more about them than her. Throughout the first seven books written by L.J. Smith, examining this fraught entanglement is one of the main sources of development for the three characters. Damon and Stefan have always been competitive and vitriolic siblings, something the relationship triangle exacerbates and explores. However, it’s Elena who really gets the most out of this story device, as her choice between the brothers comes to signify a larger choice she has to make between the dark and the light in her own nature. Illustrating this dichotomy, Damon is the moody bad-boy while Stefan is the knight in shining armour, two popular archetypes of the teenage girl’s love interest. To hammer home the correlation between Elena’s choice of romantic partner and the type of destiny she’s setting herself up for, the series starts with her breaking up with her blonde, All-American high school sweetheart, Matt, signalling that she’s leaving the mundane world behind.
Katniss Everdeen, protagonist of The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, faces a similar existential choice when it comes to a romantic partnership. Peeta Mellark and Gale Hawthorne end up being framed as the embodiments of two routes Katniss can take, with her decision having almost moral implications. Gale, the aloof type with a hidden soft spot, and Peeta, the-boy-next-door, ultimately represent the choice Katniss must make between anger and revenge, and peace and hope. The Hunger Games was lauded internationally for the way it handled mature themes, such as exploitation, war, and trauma, but by the time the last film adaption was released the Team Peeta vs Team Gale debate took up a sizable chunk of the buzz.
The boys are another set of options that reflect dual aspects of the protagonist's life...
In Cassandra Clare’s, The Mortal Instruments, Clary Fray is inducted into the seductive and supernatural hidden world of the Shadowhunters partly because she comes across one of their number, Jace, and he takes an immediate interest in her. Jace is the ‘jerk with a heart of gold’ love interest, representing all that is thrilling and dangerous. Clary’s friend from the mundane world, Simon, starts as a loyal childhood friend with a crush. The boys are another set of options that reflect dual aspects of the protagonist's life (although - spoiler - it is interesting that Clare decided to amp up Jace’s illicit aura by making the characters and readers believe he was Clary’s brother for the better part of two books.)
What’s noteworthy in these novels is the dynamic the male characters have with each other. In The Vampire Diaries the three most prominent men, Stefan, Damon, and Matt, don’t noticeably engage with any other male characters but themselves, with Elena serving as the focal point of most of their scenes together. Gale and Peeta don’t interact properly until the third book of The Hunger Games trilogy, and they’re not shown to build up a network of allies or friends to the same degree as Katniss. In fact, by the start of the second instalment, it’s made clear that Katniss is the only meaningful non-family relationship that either of them possess. In The Mortal Instruments, Jace and Simon’s exchanges consist mostly of throwing insults. The only significant connection Jace has with another man is his “parabatai”, Alec, a relationship designation that puts them at roughly the level of brothers. Simon manages to make one male friend, Jordan, who then promptly dies. For the most part, all of the above characters don’t have extended friend groups or strong ties to other male friends.
Across these girl-driven YA series, there is a pattern of the protagonist’s love interests becoming, to various degrees, the personifications of choices the heroine gets to make about who she wants to be and the life she wants to lead. They also usually play a supporting role, encouraging and/or challenging her as her character develops. In the three examples given, the romantic heroes all admit to being inspired or influenced for the better in some way by the heroine. In a genre driven by women writers and women readers, it should come as no surprise that these books contain a fair amount of wish fulfilment, but the “traditional” wish fulfilment of romance comes along with a much broader scope for self-reflection and exploration. Perhaps the true wish fulfilment is the ability of love in these stories to help the protagonist navigate her way through the difficult questions that circumstance throws at her, and to discover meaningful answers.