Please note this article contains major spoilers for Lauren Oliver's Pandemonium. In order to count as Young Adult fiction, a novel seems to need to follow three simple requirements: the protagonist must be a teenager. They must undergo some kind of "coming of age" story, where they discover things about themselves or about the world. And, if the novel is set anywhere other than the boring, mundane, everyday world, they must have a love triangle.
Will Tessa pick Jem or Will in The Infernal Devices? Will Matched's Cassia go for Ky or Xander? Does Katniss love reliable Peeta or rebellious Gale in The Hunger Games?
Sometimes these love triangles make sense in the novel. They are built out of plot and character, and they allow the story to develop in interesting ways. But sometimes... well, sometimes things are less convincing.
I recently finished Pandemonium, the second novel in Lauren Oliver's dystopian series. At the end of the first book, Delirium, our protagonist Lena escapes from her restrictive society with the help of her first love Alex. Although she gets out alive, Alex is shot down by the guards and dies in his attempt to provide her with freedom. In the sequel Pandemonium, Lena grieves for him, and eventually falls for a new boy, Julian, who's the opposite of Alex in every way (except, of course, for attractiveness). A YA novel series allowing a teenage character to move on from her first love? Shocking! Amazing! Instead of telling the same old story where that amazing first love trumps all other concerns, Delirium and Pandemonium managed to realistically portray the dangers and excitement of finding love in a destructive, controlling world, while exploring the idea that first love does not mean "only love." Except that, on the novel's final page, Alex returns. He wasn't dead after all. And now he's pissed that Lena fell for another boy in his absence.
To be clear, this is overall a wonderful series. It's well-written and compelling in a can't-put-it-down sort of way. But this twist ending seemed cheap, something thrown in to create artificial drama of the shipping wars, "omg who will she pick??" type rather than an organic continuation of the story. Yet YA novels must have a love triangle, and so the love from the past must return.
The love triangle trope does have some merits, especially when it weaves into the protagonist's discovery of herself. Usually, the two boys in the triangle (and please correct me if I'm wrong, but they are usually two boys) are polar opposites, in philosophy, in personality, or in affiliations (vampire or werewolf? Shark or Jet?), yet the protagonist finds herself attracted to both. In a well-written triangle, her choice of one or the other is part of the process of discovering her own values, her needs, and where she wants her future to lead.
However, once it becomes an expectation, once writers start throwing in triangles because it seems the thing to do, we end up with triangles that actually detract from the agency and development of the protagonist, even if she is ostensibly the one in control. First of all, this set-up risks draining the protagonist of all personality, turning her into a mere cipher for the reader. The most obvious example of this is Twilight, where Bella is little more than a blank reader stand-in, first in her love for Edward, and later in her choice between vampire Edward and werewolf Jacob. The reader often wants the protagonist to get together with whichever character they prefer for themselves, and, in the worst examples, the protagonist is turned into a prize rather than a character in her own right. Even when the novel is from her perspective, the men vie for her, and the most worthy one must "win" her in the end. Her choice does not reflect her own desires and growth, but the intrinsic relative value of her choices.
All the focus on love triangles also diminishes the protagonist's relevance in and engagement with the world she inhabits, as her main emotional drama becomes "which boy do I pick?" Perhaps Twilight has it right, with Bella almost completely focussed on her two competing men. Who has time to save the world when so many guys are vying for your attention?
Interestingly, contemporary YA tends to avoid the love triangle, instead preferring to create drama through conflicts such as family disapproval, difficulty with friends, and concern about the future. The triangle is a standard of fantasy and paranormal fiction, and, paradoxically, I believe it shows a lack of imagination in these most imaginative of genres. In contemporary YA, the author can look at real life and build from their own experiences to create relationship conflict. In fantasy, paranormal and dystopian YA, however, the normal rules don't apply, and although this setting could create many fascinating, compelling and thought-provoking roadblocks for a new relationship, many writers still fall back on the "which boy??" dilemma. When the government is controlling, when people are fighting for their lives, when a relationship is forbidden, conflict should come easily, and the fact that it doesn't may suggest that these worlds and these characters are not as well developed as readers deserve. As I said, sometimes these triangles work well, as they are built out of the world and the characters themselves. However, when the triangle appears in the second book of the series, it suggests that the author simply ran out of ideas. They didn't know how else to create drama in this world, and so they threw in another guy to spice things up.
Yet there's another, somewhat ironic reason: triangles appear because they are the done thing. Some people claim that the love triangle in The Hunger Games was only added because of publisher interference, thrown in because they believed that YA series needed two love interests to be successful. Surely there is enough relationship drama built into the fact that Katniss and Peeta are basically forced to remain together by a corrupt and sadistic government system. But a novel must have a love triangle, dammit, and so Gale is recruited to fill that role, and Katniss turns from a determined character who loves fiercely, protects herself and her own, and will never marry into a girl who flits from guy to guy, uncertain about her feelings.
Because of the Twilight effect, because media reports and merchandise often focus on the "team so-and-so" side of things, the love triangle has become one of those things that "everybody likes," "everybody expects," and so has become a requirement for popular fiction, even if the typical reader has no particular preference for love triangle drama. It's a self-perpetuating cycle, and it's difficult to see when it will end.