By S. E. Zbasnik
So, you’ve got a great YA dystopian idea. Perhaps all of humanity has been wiped out by a nefarious disease carried by hamsters so the hope of the species rests upon the backs of sixteen to nineteen year olds who are immune to the rodentia dementia. You have sketches of the insane clothing all the half hamster overlord slave drivers wear. You have your plucky heroine who is sarcastic and knows her way around a weapon. (But only with the girlier weapons, like a bow or magic or a sharpened eyelash curler. Swords are for boys.)
Now all you have to do is pick a love interest, but the brooding bad boy weregerbil and the sensitive but not abusive clone of her best friend growing up are both good options. Why not do both?
You have just entered the dreaded Love Triangle and your sanity may never be seen again.
What’s the big deal about love triangles? Out of all the shapes triangles are one of the easiest to draw and give us terrible hypotenuse hippopotamus jokes. Let us break down the love triangle.
At the top you have your Mary Sue, I mean plucky heroine who is in no way a reflection of the author. On the left is the brooding bad boy who is either an emotionally abusive asshole that should be giving girls red flags instead of the vapors or a bland kid who owns a leather jacket. And the final dot in this triangle is the nice guy, the best friend, the one who’s there to take shit because this story needs to be stretched to a trilogy and we can’t all jam in cannibalistic teddy bears. More than likely this last one is also an emotionally abusive asshole who has a closet full of fedoras and blames over 50% of the population for his failure at relationships, but he’s supposed to be the safe choice.
I often ask myself why this is called a triangle. In order to be a true love triangle Mary Sue should say be madly in love with Bad Boy, Nice Guy is hopelessly addicted to Mary Sue, but Bad Boy’s only got eyes for Nice Guy. (And this is not only an acceptable love triangle, it is highly encouraged) The classic way is more like a Love Ray, but then we’re getting into Flash Gordon territory.
What is it about love triangles that make them so damn detrimental to female characters? No matter how many “Plucky heroine saves the day,” “Mary Sue hates makeup and dresses,” “Author avatar is clumsy and bad at sports but everyone loves her anyway” you throw in, introducing a love triangle reduces whatever insurmountable obstacles facing her down to “Do you want to be tied to guy 1 or guy 2?” Make sure to string both along because all love triangle heroines have a heart of ice and the inability to communicate with their twu wuv.
The Love Triangle also persists upon this precarious notion that THERE IS NOT A SINGLE OTHER PERSON IN THE UNIVERSE! Boy 1 loves girl, but she does not care for him. Rather than admitting defeat, eating a tub of cookie dough and firing up OKCupid, Boy 1 proceeds to pursue girl despite neon blazing speck of evidence that she wants nothing to do with him. There are times as well when the top stone in this pyramid would do well to remember there are another three billion or so people you can choose from. After all the will they/won’t they, miscommunications, he ran over your dog but it’s okay because the dog was secretly satan, the author has to throw out to keep the story going it seems the most logical conclusion is for the heroine to move far away and swear off dating for a year or two.
But to have a heroine flapping about unattached, that is unacceptable!
It’s a disturbingly old school of thought that’s woven into the tapestry of the love triangle. Never once is the idea of the girl being allowed to continue her story unattached entertained. Perhaps as part of a joke, or the need for a moments drama™ before “Bad Boy in Leather Pants that are Swampier than Florida in Summer” returns to rescue her; but no one is serious. All women need to be chained to a man otherwise they’ll wind up shriveled old husks clinging to a cat’s skeleton as they rock themselves to sleep at the spinster age of 32.
Due to the fact that humanity is only about 25-30% female, when it comes time for the romance subplot there aren’t a lot of extra women flapping about. Men have to fight over the few crumbs left and it stands to reason that…what’s that you say? Humanity is actually more 51:49% Female to Male? Well, that’s just stupid. Look at almost any group in tv, books, or in movies and you’ll find one to two white boys, an obligatory multi-racial boy, and one girl. We’ll put up with one girl’s voice, as long as it can easily be vetoed by another two to three boys.
Having one female character there to represent the entire population of women means that it is imperative she makes the right choice when it comes to love. If she fails in her quest to fulfill her female duties of being the prize for the favorite hero, then why even bother having a female at all? They’re always bleeding all over the place. (This is also why I hate the one woman in a sea of testosterone in action movies. She’s there as either a macguffin to get fridged or a toy for the hero so we can have a love scene. Once that’s over, she’s as useful to the plot as the Maltese falcon.)
So, how does one combat the Love Triangle? You could start by putting more women in your world. Pick up a coin, flip it, heads your character’s a girl, tails it’s a boy. Now you have a balance that reflects the real world instead of the terrifyingly bright white land in Media World. Also, entertain the idea that some people at times in their lives don’t want or need a relationship. There are humans who are quite content to be with friends as they save the world from land octopi, others that have been hurt and would not logically pursue one much less two love interests, and I’d mention asexuals but we’re still working on getting more than 30% women. Baby steps.
Relationships are simplistically complicated and complicatedly simple. The human experience is far more exotic and fascinating than falling back to the cliché love triangle. If you really can’t decide between the bad boy or the nice guy why not choose both and celebrate with a huge orgy? Yub nub, indeed.
S. E. Zbasnik has a book coming out this May called The King’s Blood. It’s got some magic, it’s got some witches, it’s got a black heroine in a medieval setting, and it has more puns per cubic meter than a clown car.
Check out the goodreads page for more information.