The Curse of the Love Triangle in YA Fiction

There is a problem afflicting much of young adult literature these days: The Love Triangle. Call it the “Twilight curse,” after that series’ infamous Edward-Bella-Jacob triad. It appears in both the dystopian Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins and the historical monsters-and-heroes series The Infernal Devices by Cassandra Clare, where two young men vie for the love and devotion of our heroine.

Of course the Twilight saga by Stephenie Meyer has produced a lot of copycat literature, from the X-rated fan fiction spin-off Fifty Shades of Grey to the paranormal romance Vampire Academy series, and even the fallen-angel fantasy series Hush, Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick. But the love triangle is likely the most copied element. For proof, just look at an analysis of the various types of love triangles (and “other emotional shapes”) found in recent YA literature from Epic Reads.

Twilight’s love triangle among Edward, Bella, and Jacob is replayed between Katniss, Gale, and Peeta through much of the Hunger Games and between Tessa, Will, and Jem in The Infernal Devices.

Critics have long pointed out the limits of the love triangle: Kezia Lubansky argues that the Hunger Games love triangle was unimportant and unconvincing. Why isn’t it enough for Katniss to struggle with her feelings for Peeta, she asks? Hunger Games is “a wonderful example of young adult literature that gets people thinking. What is war? What is rebellion? . . . Katniss is a strong, independent female protagonist, far from flawless, yet so humanely relatable. Why . . . must she choose between two guys?”

Lubansky’s point is well taken. Indeed, classics professor Barry Strauss wrote a terrific assessment of the moral underpinnings of the Hunger Games series that rightly focused on the commonalities among Katniss, Gale and Peeta. “They form a love triangle, but they also represent, from the point of view of the ancients, an aroused citizenry banding together and fighting for freedom against an evil empire.”

The setting of The Infernal Devices, on the other hand, explicitly aspires to the classics. Clare sets the action in late-nineteenth-century London, depicting a world divided among Mundanes (humans), Downworlders (demons, vampires, werewolves), and Shadowhunters, the last of whom are empowered by angels as well as committed to a legal code that is supposed to govern the behavior of all but the Mundanes, who are unaware of the magical realm. Clare also worked hard to make the book’s descriptions of London accurate and evocative and begins every chapter with a literary quote (including lots of Tennyson, Blake, and Wilde) to set the scene. This adds up to an enjoyable and readable trilogy, apart from the love triangle, which is the least useful device in the series.

Why are we seeing so many love triangles in YA literature? The blogger who writes the YA Department explains how the business of selling YA books is driving much of the repetitiveness in plot devices. She explains how YA author Sarah Rees Brennan’s agent advised her to structure her Demon’s Lexicon trilogy so that it more closely resembled Twilight. “In any young adult novel in which romance is involved, sales increase if the love occurs in a triangular formation,” she told Brennan. Perhaps this is why Clare decided to make the Tessa/Jem/Will love triangle so central to The Infernal Devices, even though it is as unconvincing and unnecessary as the love triangle in The Hunger Games.

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.

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