Love triangles as A Thing still peeve me on a deep and fundamental level. However, there’s a strangely unexplored variation on them that I allow the good grace of being interesting. Bisexual love triangles—food for thought, no? Your plucky teenaged heroine sits at the centre of a romantic subplot trying to choose between two love interests as she invariably does, yet one of them is a guy and the other is a girl. It’s simple enough, and good in a lot of ways, yet it’s so far underused in mainstream fiction.
Firstly, they acknowledge that bisexuals exist, if only in a fantastical fictional context because of course they’re a mythical creature of the woodlands in the world we live in. And, in having said bisexual as the main character, they’re immediately presented as sympathetic and heroic and, you know, a normal well-rounded character and person, and not marginalised, stereotyped or included to be titillating. And a full blown love triangle calls for proper development of their relationship, both with their male and female love interests, which staves off the problem bisexual heroines can run into where they’re only labelled as bi in passing because they made out with a girl in university, which is either used for comedy, fan service or a reject-shop-cheap attempt at being inclusive and modern.
It also gives you an immediate second major female character, which is always nice. It’s a little refreshing to see a break from the tried-and-died formula of heroine torn between two hunks! and again, allows for a legit LGBTQ+ relationship to be fleshed out in fiction and provides characters that readers who don’t fit the traditional mould can see themselves in. Of course, including another girl as one point of the triangle doesn’t magically elevate the story from the pit of clichés and problems that teen love triangles seem to be rooted in. E.g., If you’ve got a heroine wobbling to pieces trying to work out what her feelings are doing when she should be focussing on saving the world from whatever, it’s not going to be any less annoying just because one of her love interests is a young woman. There are pros as well as cons to this flip-flop of the norm, as there are with most things that end up in books.
Let’s examine two novels/series that I’ve come across that both employ the device of a bi love triangle, both by Malinda Lo because she has a clear vendetta to make this a more accepted part of mainstream media. And good for her. One is a fairy tale, Ash, and one is a sci-fi set in the world we recognise, the Adaptation/Inheritance series. Ash is a gorgeously written (very loose) Cinderella retelling, and its heroine Aisling finds herself embroiled in the world of the fair folk (note: the scary kind, not the Tinkerbell kind) and trailing after Sidhean, a cold, somewhat emotionally manipulative supernatural being whose ethereally handsome self she feels inexplicably bound to. Sound familiar? He basically fits the bill for your standard paranormal hunk, which in many cases, though problematic, would be touted as the happiest of endings.
But, halfway through the book, Aisling meets the king’s huntress Kaisa, and slowly but surely learns that relationships don’t have to be based on the magical magnetism of the only person (fairy?) who gave the illusion of treating you kindly, and can in fact stem from mutual trust and affection. Suddenly, she has to choose—fairy or huntress? Happiness or obligation? Night or day? Dude or dudette doesn’t really come into it, and Kaisa’s character could have worked equally well as a guy, but it provided another stark contrast between the two points of the triangle. This is an element that can pop up, naturally enough, in a love triangle containing two love interests of different genders.
With that, some writers could fall into the trap of associating the traits each opposing point represents with their gender, which could lead to some awkward implications. If the male point is a complete ass, for example, and the female is the sweetest kindest most perfect girl to ever set her dainty feet on this planet, it could be read insularly as having a “boys will only hurt you, come kiss girls instead” message (or vice versa). Which is why it’s important to have spectrums of different character types across both genders, as a general rule, but the point remains. Giving your love triangle a gender dichotomy as well as whatever else the two points represent (usually the ‘what she wants’ vs ‘what is more sensible/acceptable’ split that goes way back) could lead to generalisation if it’s mishandled.
In Adaptation the setup is flipped, with the female love interest the fascinating, otherworldly rebel and the male the softer, better known, more down-to-earth (minor spoilers: literally!) option. Our heroine, Reese, not only has to deal with possible government conspiracies but also her sudden gay crisis. Well, bi crisis, but she goes through internal dialogue questioning everything she knows about her sexuality and what it means if she likes girls and what everyone else will think. There isn’t any version of this in Ash, because it’s set in a fantasy world where people just don’t care about that sort of thing. Which is something you can do if your world is fantastical. Amazement and awe. It shows, though, the world it’s set in will also impact the way the bi-angle plays out, possibly adding society’s beady, prejudiced eye to the struggle of who the heroine will choose.
Of course, ripping away your heroine’s agency and ability to function due to her flailing indecision over the two people she’s torn between will put a black mark on the story whether it’s bisexual inclusive or not. An annoying YA love triangle is still going to be an annoying YA love triangle—and a good one’s still going to be good!—regardless of the genders of the characters in it. It’s about the dynamics of the characters themselves and how well they’re played out rather than anything else. I mean, maybe it’s good to have a few trashy love bi-angles around the place, because they would sit beside the trashy heterosexual ones and normalise the whole thing. Having the two points be a girl and a boy instead of two boys makes it stand out as different, but it doesn’t automatically mean the triangle itself isn’t going to make you grind your teeth.
Of course, love triangles are also an exercise in character development, and as Carrie Ryan says:
“…it’s about her internal struggle within herself as she figures out who she wants to be and what’s important to her. This internal struggle then gets reflected externally as she wars within herself and grows. And that’s the heart of any book — a character’s growth from first page to the last.”
Exploring your own sexuality, whether our heroine has known about it before or, as in most cases, is discovering it for the first time and going wow, am I hella gay? What does that mean? is a very solid example of “figuring out what you want and who you want to be”. Each point of the love triangle will represent a different facet of that, and having to choose between them prods the heroine into examining her life choices and, in the case of a bi-angle, how she wants to explore and command her sexual identity too (note: if she chooses the girl, it doesn’t make her a lesbian, it makes her a bisexual who chose the girl).
If nothing else, if it’s a subplot to a grand YA adventure as these triangles often are, it, well, it subplots it and says god dammit, we have more important things to focus on than whether or not the girls will kiss! Coming out stories are all very well, but it’s nice to see queer characters in stories that aren’t entirely about the fact that they’re queer. It’s nice to see them in stories about aliens and fairies too.