Rebecca Serle’s Famous in Love (out next month) is a deliciously meta YA novel: aspiring actress Paige Townsen lands her dream breakout movie role as the lead in an adaptation of Locked, the hottest YA book in all the land, and finds herself in a love triangle with her costars that mirrors the love triangle in the movie. If you’ve been reading the genre for a couple of years, you might be finding yourself wearying of the triangle trope—but when the dilemma is done right, as it is in Serle’s hands, it can be a compelling examination of adolescent identity, healthy relationships, and that intangible thing we call “chemistry.”
That’s why we put together this little guide for readers (and writers), of the things we think can make or break a good torn-between-two-lovers tale:
1. The protagonist in the middle of the triangle isn’t sure about who he/she really is, especially after something has recently happened to shatter his/her identity. The two love choices represent different parts of who the protagonist wants to be — so it’s not just about whether the main character prefers blonds or brunettes. See: The Hunger Games, in which Katniss goes back and forth between her angry, survivalist identity (Gale) and the softer, more vulnerable one she never knew she had (Peeta).
2. The two love choices are polar opposites from each other. It’s not just about who the protagonist wants to be; it’s about the reader being able to imagine getting to choose between a wide range of fantasy objects. See: Wuthering Heights‘ dark, brooding orphan Heathcliff vs. fair-haired, gentlemanly, and rich Edgar Linton.
3. The two candidates are both very attractive—and not just physically. A high school librarian friend of mine asked some of her students what they love about love triangles, too. One avid fan of the genre said it’s especially fun when a book leads to debates with her friends. “Making both men appealing is key. … [We] often (most of the time) end up liking different men in the books. We even made a pro/con list.” See: The Raven Boys, in which readers can’t help but fall in love with both Adam and Gansey, and it’s impossible to imagine how Blue could ever choose between them.
4. It’s believable that the character would be happy with either one. If it’s obvious that one is the better choice, we just get fed up with the protagonist for not seeing the obvious. Another teen reader told us that what gets her is when “you don’t know who the person would end up picking. … I like the suspense of that. It [makes] you want to keep reading the book to find out what is going to happen.” She even likes it when the author goes against her wishes. See: Grasshopper Jungle, in which Austin realizes he loves his best friend, Robby, as much as his girlfriend, Shann.
5. The bad boy is even more attractive because of his good boy foil. Deep down, however, the bad one is actually good too. This way, we don’t feel like we might actually be attracted to sociopaths. See: Shatter Me, in which Warner’s daddy issues become so horrifying that we want to wrap him up in a big hug, despite the fact that he may or may not be capable of mass murder and torture. Or The Infernal Devices, in which Will’s awful behavior toward Tessa has a heartbreaking motivation.
6. Friends and family all side with one choice, complicating matters for the chooser. It’s nice to get some of that teenage rebellion into the mix. See: Nightshade, which takes parental preference to the point of arranged teen marriage.
7. There is serious, undeniable chemistry between the protagonist and the less-obvious choice. This helps when we’d otherwise automatically pick one side. Funny how we’ve yet to encounter this problem in real life, but that’s what makes fiction fun. See: Famous in Love, where the sparks between Paige and Jordan nearly set the book on fire.
8. As a reader, you might want the character to end up with the bad boy, but in real life you’d probably marry the good one. This is all about wish fulfillment before we get back to our practical decisions. See: The Mortal Instruments, because as hot as Jace is, he’d be pretty terrible to live with long term.
And this brings us to one final thought: Good love triangles are compelling because they’re total fantasy. We literally do not know a single person who’s been in one in real life. Do you?