The fact that love triangles have become an almost ever-present cliche in today’s young adult fiction is difficult to deny, particularly when examining a list of recent commercial hits. The Mortal Instruments and The Infernal Devices series by Cassandra Clare. The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. The Iron Fey books by Julie Kagawa. The Matched series by Ally Condie. The Hush, Hush novels by Becca Fitzpatrick. Even Lauren Oliver of Delirium succumbs in Requiem. The trend has also spread outside of the paranormal/dystopian bubble, cropping up in recent contemporary titles like Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo, Catching Jordan by Miranda Kenneally, and Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins. Historical fiction books such as the Luxe series by Anna Godbersen, The Madman’s Daughter by Megan Shepherd, and the Scarlet books by A.C. Gaughen have also fallen prey.
Top 100 YA book lists from 2012, such as that of Kirkus or ALA, show that great variety can be found beyond the blinding, love triangle-ridden media presence of top commercial titles. Whether love triangles in YA fiction are “good,” “bad,” or dependent on the author’s skill has been debated ad nauseum and ultimately boils down to personal preference.
A more interested question is this: when and how did love triangles become an overpowering cliche in young adult fiction rather than one of any number of occasional plot devices? While this is an expansive question, likely worthy of a thesis, personal curiosity led me to take a crack at it here.
Young adult fiction began to emerge as a viable genre as publishers shifted their attention to the adolescent marketplace in the 1970s. The period from the seventies to the mid-eighties has been retrospectively termed the “golden age.” This time is characterized by what experts have termed “the problem novel.” Divorce, abuse, drug addiction, sexual awakening featured heavily in the YA fiction of the seventies. Major titles like Go Ask Alice, The Chocolate War, Forever, and Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret are a few stand-out examples. There were not, however, simply problem novels. One of my personal favorites, Beauty by Robin McKinley, is also a product of the seventies. Love triangles, however, feature rarely if at all in these edgy tales of growing up and self-discovery.
In the eighties, the commercial, genre fiction elements of young adult fiction, particularly romance and horror, began to come into their own alongside problem novels. Extended romance series like Sweet Valley High, The Saddle Club, and Sunfire were especially popular. Love triangles featured as occasional plot elements in Sweet Valley High, although they were quickly resolved and were not imbued with the angst of today’s love triangles.
Sunfire was one of the few 1980s YA romance series that systematically contained love triangles as central plot elements. A series of young adult historical romance novels, Sunfire is reminiscent of the Dear America series for slightly younger girls that was published in the 1990s. Each novel features a different girl who lived through a single historical event in American history. Without fail, however, each heroine would find herself caught between two potential lovers. More often than not, these men are symbolic of two distinct lifestyles: convention or adventure.
A look at other more developmentally advanced young adult fiction from the eighties shows that the trend for occasional, low-angst love triangles seems to hold true across the board. Young adult legend Tamora Pierce features a love triangle in her first fiction series Song of the Lioness about Alanna and her quest to become and succeed as a lady knight. Although she is torn between Prince Jonathan and George, king of thieves, her love troubles do not consume the plot. Rather, her relationships with the two men mature and change as she does, helping her to develop into a strong, independent woman as a result. The relationship between the three of them is not an angst-filled, impossible, life-altering choice, but rather a healthy cycle of friendship and romantic intrigue.
Enter the 1990s. Commercial YA romance becomes considerably more multidimensional than Sweet Valley High, drawing to a close with the publication of the first book in the Confessions of Georgia Nicolson (Angus, Thongs. . .) series. Long before it became a show on the CW, The Vampire Diaries series, originally a trilogy, published between 1991 and 1992, quickly became a bestseller. The original back cover copy for the first book in the series The Awakening hints that perhaps this serial is not so far removed from the frothy, contrived romances of Sweet Valley High:
“Elena is the school beauty, but she’s bored, until a new boy turns up in her class. Stefan is dark and mysterious—and she’s determined to get to know him better. But Stefan is just as determined to resist her… until a series of attacks in the area terrify the town and Stefan is held responsible. Elena is the only one who offers to help and, falling in love with her, Stefan tells her his terrible story. He is a vampire, on the run from his evil brother, Damon, who doesn’t share Stefan’s qualms about drinking human blood. And Damon is the one Stefan suspects of really being behind the recent attacks… Can Elena help prove his innocence—without revealing his secret?”
The love triangle between Elena, Stefan, and Damon consumes the focus of the trilogy. With The Vampire Diaries, the love triangle becomes more than a simple plot element and encompasses the entire angst-ridden, life-and-death focus of the book. L.J. Smith is thus an important forebearer of today’s YA love triangles.
Love triangles, however, did not takeoff like wildfire after The Vampire Diaries. In fact, the rest of the 1990s remained a quiet time for all-encompassing love triangles in young adult fiction. Rather, romance plot lines were largely monogamous. For example, Sarah Dessen, considered today to be the queen of contemporary YA, began her career in the late nineties with boy meets (or re-meets) girl stories.
The 2000s began with the flowering of Sarah Dessen and Louise Rennison’s careers as well as the debuts of Meg Cabot and Cecily von Ziegesar. Cabot and von Ziegesar would usher two different but nonetheless equally popular franchises into young adult culture: The Princess Diaries and Gossip Girl.
Both The Princess Diaries (2000) and Gossip Girl (2002) series feature a love triangle (or triangles). In The Princess Diaries books an extended love triangle develops between Mia, Michael, and JP that is drawn out over several novels. The loose, flitting nature of romantic intrigue in the Gossip Girl series leads to several love triangles and numerous romantic pairings. While the Princess Diaries series perhaps comes close to mirroring the tough, life-altering love triangle decisions of later YA fiction, Gossip Girl better captures the drama.
Then, in 2005, Twilight was published. Blue Bloods (2006), City of Bones (2007), Marked (2007), and The Hunger Games (2008) followed in quick succession. While Twilight resurrected the angst-ridden, all-consuming love triangle seen in The Vampire Diaries, it was the cumulative cultural force of major titles of the 2000s that established this type of plot format as a trend.
A flurry of big name titles published in 2009 and 2010 added fuel to the already growing popularity of this new form of YA love triangle: Hush, Hush, Fallen, and The Summer I Turned Pretty in 2009 and The Iron King, Matched, Nightshade, Anna and the French Kiss, and Shade in 2010. These series all began in late 2000 and carried into the 2010s with their numerous sequels.
The 2010s then unleashed a fresh crop of this new type of love triangle young adult romance into the marketplace:
Delirium, Wither, Unearthly, Shatter Me, The Selection…
So, in sum, Twilight-style love triangles have been a force in young adult fiction less than ten years. As prolific as they have become, they are not the only kind of YA book out there or even the only type of young adult romance. They are still a fresh fad. It will be interesting to see if they will have staying power.