Linda says that "two guys = double the angst"; I refined that formula a tad and came up with the following:
love triangle = 1 mysterious guy + 1 childhood friend guy + 1 girl = angst^n
Math was my least favorite subject in school and if not for the fact that my cell phone has a calculator function I would be more mathematically incompetent than a retarded jellyfish. Even so, I dislike the aforementioned formula because that's what love triangles have become—a formula applied to a story like a band-aid to cover up the gaping wound left by lack of chemistry and/or character development and/or plot.
A typical basic YA love triangle includes a hot new boy (often styled as a bad boy) with the heroine's childhood friend as a rival. She loves her childhood friend but at the same time is swoonily attracted like an iron filing to the dark magnetic mystery of the new guy.
The guy who is almost always the loser and is also the one usually strung along is the childhood friend. The new/mysterious guy wins nine times out of ten—or maybe ten times out of ten, actually, in YA. Why? Naturally what is new and mysterious is intriguing and more interesting than the familiar, which is safer and therefore boring.
A generally fatal flaw of childhood friend role is that the heroine has known him for a long time, so the reader usually doesn't get to know him as well. Which makes sense, of course, that the most time would be spent on the mysterious new guy, because that's where the interest and excitement of new discovery lies. Unfortunately that means that the childhood friend almost always gets the short end of the character stick.
A slightly better but still all-too-frequent scenario is when the childhood friend does get more character development and an actual personality, but still pales in comparison to the mysterious new guy who elbows his way front and center and gets the lion's share of everyone's attention. The childhood friend is safe, familiar, and ; the new guy is unknown, possibly dangerous, mysterious and therefore intriguing.
|I like tofu, but it is pretty bland by itself. Just sayin'.|
Ideally, a typical YA love triangle would feature two guys whom the heroine is torn between because they are equally attractive (though this can be in different ways—intellectual, physical, charismatic, etc.), and it would not be generally pretty freaking obvious whom she's going to end up with. Ideally, I the reader would also be torn between these two awesome guys instead of thinking the heroine is an idiot for various reasons.
A good love triangle is dependent upon character development, relationship tension, and believability. The crux of a good love triangle is the girl. What does she see in these two guys? Is it just that they're equally hot and equally interested in her? If so, that's lame, and the Alz fails to approve.
I expect exploration of emotions, character depth, confusion, questioning, maybe some guilt—in short, I expect to empathize with the heroine. There are these two different guys and it's because of their differences that I am torn between them! Not their similarities—so they're both hot, or they're both supernatural, or they're both smart—so what? I want to see two guys who are awesome in their own unique ways but also have flaws that the heroine is capable of seeing. I want to learn more about the heroine through her consideration of the two guys and her ultimate choice. I want to see growth on the part of all three characters, dammit.
Krispy's Addendum: In the comments of Linda's YA Romance Pet Peeves post, Linda and I had a brief conversation about what makes a good love triangle or at least how a love triangle would better serve a story, and I liked the point we circled in on.
A love triangle best serves the story when it isn't just there as a romantic plot point. It works when the two guys represent more than romance for the heroine. As Linda said, "Like, if the choice between two guys was actually more about what kind of person the heroine wants to be and what kind of life she wants to live."
The two guys should serve as foils to the heroine, helping and hindering her, and thus revealing different aspects of her character. [End Addendum]
As a final note, I do not necessarily recommend all of the following books. They're simply the ones I was thinking of when writing this post, with suggestions and brainstorming help from Krispy: