Ahh love triangles… It’s gotten to the point now, where if I see a blurb that vaguely hints at a love triangle, my knee jerk reaction is to cringe away. Of course, not all love triangles are bad, but I have read so many books with the same old, repetitive formula, that I now have a nervous twitch. It’s becoming a problem.
*One note before I begin is that the examples of love triangles I am including are unfortunately all of heterosexual relationships, with a female protagonist. I have never come across a love triangle in a different incarnation, but I can’t say whether this is because love triangles manifest themselves primarily in this form, or if it is due to a lack of diversity in the books I’m reading. This is an issue I shall pursue this year.
The most common and most infuriating triangle is the Shiny boy versus Friend, which can be divided into two groups: Prince v. Captain of the Guard, and The Tall, Dark and Mysterious v. The Childhood Friend (or any combination of those four). Whether or not the character are actually princes, or tall is irrelevant, as it has less to do with the characters position or appearance, and more to do with how they are seen by the protagonist. In this triangle, it’s someone perceived as unattainable, either a dangerous, often morally ambiguous bad boy, or a charming, polished, suave character. The Prince and TDaM are portrayed as somehow better or above the female protagonist, and when they turn their affections to her, she is completely bewildered as to why they could care for her, and feels she is not worthy. Often lots of golden boy metaphors are included – and they’re usually not that subtle.
On the other side, the childhood friend/captain of the guard is the reliable friend love interest, the one who is there for her, often as the shiny boy strings her along. The motives behind him stringing her along vary depending on the actual decent-ness of the character. Eight times out of ten I will side with friend over shiny boy, provided that the friend is a decent human being.
Now obviously, if the triangle of luuurve is well written, such as in The Throne of Glass, the relationship conflict is resolved in a mature way, or at least, like decent human beings. If, however, it is not well written, one or both of the possible love interests are not actually good people, or at least people you’d want to spend a considerable amount of time with; they are characters with unattractive personality traits wrapped up in an attractive packaging. So often the shiny boys mutate into controlling characters and the friend boys become “nice guys.” Both of these character types are equally manipulative.
~ cue rant ~
Here’s my problem with the notion of the “nice guy.” The term has gained recent popularity alongside the notion of the friendzone, the “place” you apparently go when someone rejects your romantic advances because they only see you as a friend. (WILL SOMEONE PLEASE TELL ME WHAT THE PROBLEM IS WITH THIS?) This rejection often elicits a response along the lines of “Why don’t they like me? I’m such a nice guy!” The proclamation of which assumes that they are somehow entitled to this person’s affection, just because of certain traits that make them “nice.”
Listen to me.
The friendzone does not exist.
It is a concept constructed to make people feel like rejection is a slight done unto them, not something that will happen when people just aren’t attracted to you.
THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS THE FRIENDZONE.
LISTEN TO ME.
SOMETIMES PEOPLE WILL NOT RECIPROCATE YOUR FEELINGS FOR THEM.
THAT IS JUST HOW LIFE WORKS.
(It should be mentioned, however, that if you take advantage of someone’s feelings for you, especially if the feeling is not mutual, you are being a jerk and – just don’t)
Even if “friendzoning” isn’t a common theme in love triangle until a choice has been made, the “nice guy” character often is. He’s there as the character who feels he deserves or is entitled to the main character’s affections. After the main character chooses (if it EVER HAPPENS) between one of the two possible love interests, the “nice guy” will often refuse to accept and respect this decision, she says staring pointedly at Jacob from Twilight.
Just as the friend often becomes the “nice guy” the shiny boy often becomes manipulative and controlling. This can go two ways; if the shiny boy is of the Tall Dark and Mysterious persuasion, then it often plays out that he is just genuinely not a good person, The triangle in The Shadow Reader, for example, will always baffle me, as the female protagonist goes for the guy who kidnapped her, kept her imprisoned, beat her up and repeatedly lied to her. (*falls to her knees in the rain, and screams to the sky “WHYYYYYYYY?!”*)
The other possible outcome is that shiny boy of the princely persuasion, and female protagonist end up in a relationship with a huge imbalance of power. Through the female protagonist’s/author’s idolization of the shiny boy he is presented as somehow better or above the female protagonist who does not deem herself worthy to receive his affection. She finds it inexplicable that he could care for her. This divide whereby he is far above her is even further emphasized by ALL. THE. GOLDEN. METAPHORS. Seriously, stop with the gold.
Complaints about gold metaphors aside, however, this type of love triangle presents a relationship where there is an imbalance of power, as healthy and romantic, and it just isn’t.
Now at this point, it’s time to address why the subject matter of this rant is such a big deal in the first place. If they’re bad love triangles, then they’re bad love triangles and you just move on, right? No, not really. Love triangles have become such a staple of the YA genre, especially in their shiny boy v. friend incarnation, and it’s very easy to internalize these unhealthy relationships in their romanticized, and glorified forms as something that is normal, or even worse, exceptional, and to strive for. Unhealthy triangles, the ones that portray manipulative relationships with an imbalance of power, are dangerous for the consumers of the media, because they put unhealthy relationships on pedestals. Unhealthy and even abusive relationships shouldn’t be kept out of books, I would never say that all relationships in all books should be perfect, but there is a difference between portraying unhealthy relationships as they are and showing the struggle of those relationships, and taking manipulative, unhealthy relationships, but without the label of unhealthy, and marketing it as something desirable.
It is important to note that some love triangles are well handled, and play out in a healthy manner – even if there is conflict; love triangles can be really nice, if done well. I will continue to hold up The Throne of Glass, and proclaim its virtues until I’m blue in the face, but it is an example of a book where the love triangle still causes conflict, but is not agonizingly painful to watch happen. Both the prince (actual prince) and the captain of the guard (he is also the actual captain of the guard) are respectful of the female protagonist, and also of each other.
I won’t detail the entire plot, or reveal what ultimately happens, but it is structured so that she explores a relationship with the first boy, while the feelings between her and the second boy have not yet been realized or expressed. The semi-relationship between her and the first boy ends amicably, at the end of the first book, and the second book sees the development of her relationship with the second boy. This relationship development has to be my favourite of all the books I’ve read because it is a really nice progression from friends to “lovers” (*throws up a little bit at the choice of word and seriously questions her sanity*). Everything overall is just really healthy and comfortable, and really nice to read, because not only does it stay away from torrid back and forth-ing, but it also just reads as realistic.
I would never say that you should stay away from all Love Triangles, or even from the ones that manifest themselves in the shiny boy v. friend boy pattern. Ultimately a lot of the time a story has so much more to offer than the love triangle; I love the Mortal Instruments series with all my book loving heart, despite the fairly standard cookie-cutter triangle in the first book. All that is important is to recognize, and make sure that you don’t internalize any harmful messages coming from unhealthy triangles. Anita Sarkeesian, of Feminist Frequency in an interview in 2013, said “It’s possible (and even necessary) to simultaneously enjoy a piece of media while also being critical of some of the more problematic aspects of that same media.” While this was said in the context of the portrayal of women in video games, it is very relevant in this context as well.
Now go forth young readers, into the void, better prepared to detect and deflect any unhealthy love triangles that may cross your path!