It’s an epidemic. When people have a series on their hands dealing with great science fiction-y or supernatural drama, something clicks somewhere in their minds that they have to have some human-based drama to balance it out.
This is good.
Sideplots are excellent ways to develop characters and show the human side of all the ruckus going on, be it an alien invasion, fight for the freedom of a dystopian world, vampire war or rise of demonic forces.
And then they think, how about a love triangle?
This is less good.
This is not an attack on all love triangles in fiction, but merely me falling to my knees and crying to the sky Why? Why are they the automatic go-to plot element used to give characters a story of their own? Can’t we think of other ways to develop characters and add extra drama without having the heroine (and it’s usually a heroine) caught between two babes?
The love triangle has a basic formula. It’s like Pythagoras’ Theorem, but more annoying.
The triangle has three points: Point A, the heroine, prophesised to save the world, swept up into an adventure by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or perhaps trained from a young age to kick alien/vampire/demon/villain ass. It doesn’t matter.
Point B is the approachable, mild-mannered male friend, often around since childhood. He and the heroine are comrades and best buds, they are relaxed around each other and consider each other kind of like family. Or so it seems…
Point C is a new addition to their lives, very different from Point B in terms of guise and personality — he is a rogue, a mystery, probably harbouring buried angst and a smoking set of abs. He and the heroine will bicker, most likely, and stir up unwanted but unavoidable sexual tension between them.
Let’s use probably the most well-known (and teeth-grind-inducing) love triangle in recent literature as an example. From the Twilight saga we have Point A, Bella, the heroine who stumbles into a supernatural world because she is immediately drawn to Point C, the brooding, mysterious and achingly handsome (with bonus sparkles) Edward. Point B, her old friend and certified cool, nice and fun guy (when he first appears, at least) Jacob, seems irked by this and when Point A confronts him about it, it is revealed that he has feelings for her too! DUN DUN DUN!!
And so it goes. At least Twilight never claimed to be anything more than a romance, although the vampire politics and strange world of the werewolves/shape-shifters could have been an interesting story on its own. Now is not the time to mourn the adventure that could have been.
Let’s look at The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare.
Point A = Clary, the meek and wide-eyed but powerful heroine drawn into the world of the supernatural
Point B = Simon, her best friend since their early teens and a well-meaning, sweet, funny, and weedy geek
Point C = Jace, the leather-jacket-clad, sarcastic, smirking, angsty trained warrior that sweeps her off her feet and makes for much tension between them as she notices (described in loving detail) his muscles.
Ta-da! Alongside the return of a powerful and maniacal leader who’s going to summon the forces of Hell and take over the world, a good chunk of the books are devoted to Clary’s anguished contemplations over which boy she really has feelings for. Here’s a clue: though she gives him a chance to appease the fans, she was never going to end up with Simon. Why even include that plot thread? And what about the apocalypse?!
A very similar situation pops up in the spinoff/prequel series, The Infernal Devices, wherein the blurb of the second book, despite the first one ending on an enormous cliffhanger involving demonically possessed automatons which means the Shadowhunters are powerless against them OH MY GOD who’s going to save the world now what are they going to do?!? is devoted entirely to telling the prospective reader all about how the heroine is tragically torn between two friends.
Now, I have fewer problems with love triangles if they actually contribute to the story — but if they turn out to not really have been necessary at all, then what was the point? I have been taught by more than one reputable source (Valerie Parv herself, no less!) that one of the major rules of editing writing is thus: if it’s not needed, don’t waste the words.
Take another hugely popular YA series, The Hunger Games: after all the added drama and feelings, was the love triangle between Katniss (Point A), Peeta and Gale (interestingly a bit of a reverse, with Gale the childhood friend behaving more like a Point C and Peeta the new love interest more like a B) really necessary? If you cut Gale’s affection for Katniss out of the books would it affect the plot at all? I’m thinking not. And we could have used those freed-up pages to look further into the fascinating dystopian world that Suzanne Collins created for us!
Why are love triangles the go-to? Obviously writers love tormenting their fans and teasing them, making them guess who the heroine is going to pick and bickering amidst themselves about whose love is more true, but a lot of the time it’s painfully obvious which guy she’ll end up with and the addition of the second point on the triangle needn’t have even existed.
When done right, they are engaging and an excellent way to develop and humanise characters and, of course, give the readers the love story that they desire (because every story needs one of those, it seems) as well as added tension and opportunity for character exploration on the part of the fans. But when handled clumsily and written in simply because that’s just the done thing, they are a waste of space, time and emotional investment on the author and reader’s part.