Genre Pet Peeves: Dueling Love Interests

It’s time for another Genre Pet Peeve! Because I don’t believe in diversity in this blog, apparently. But I do believe in blog entires.

This is a pet peeve that I find worse in the fantasy subgenre of Supernatural and anything Young Adult written in the last eight years, regardless of subgenre.

Now, I have a lot of grumps about the over abundance of romance in books. We could, and eventually will, go on for pages about this. But over all, I get it. Sex sells and romance makes for an interesting subplot. Chemistry between characters, the will they/won’t they.’ It’s expected and if done right, it helps deepen both characters and add interaction beyond the main plot.

But these days, ONE love interest is no longer good enough. Oh no. Because one love interest is too obvious. We know the heroine has to pick the guy, because heaven forbid a woman ends the book independent and not tied to some kind of man. PFFFT, what a silly idea! But if she has to hook up with whatever guy the plot dangles in front of her, then we know who she’s with and that’s no fun.

So let’s introduce two love interests! Yeah, that fixes everything! Now our heroine is torn. Will she go with Boy A, who is handsome, tall, dark, and sweeps in out of nowhere or Boy B, who she has known forever and but only now noticed that he’s super hot? And has possibly gained super powers? What is with that anyway, BUT MORE IMPORTANTLY, WHO WILL SHE PICK!?

Except that we always know. It’s always painfully, boringly obvious who she will pick. Not that there’s a rule that says she has to pick the new guy in her life or the childhood friend. But the reader can tell. Because the winner will, in some way, reflect a trait that the author considers ‘ideal’ in a boyfriend, and the loser will have some similar trait that is considered a flaw.

Take Twilight, for example. Twilight is the book that set dueling love interests as a standard for young adult, though it’s been present in other genres for much longer. In Twilight, we have Edward and Jacob competing for one girl. Edward the vampire represents perfection and control, letting Bella fall into the perfect place as invisible bride. Jacob, the werewolf, represents something more wild, more primal, and therefore flawed in comparison, at least as far as the author is concerned. Me, I’m wondering if Jacob has any cute werewolf sisters who moved to Seattle and now work as baristas, but I’m definitely not the target audience here.

In other novels, the traits and flaws that cause one of the competing guys to win out over another can vary greatly. Sometimes the winning guy is the boy next door, representing stability instead of wild new love. Sometimes the winning guy is proves to be gentler, the better, more aware lover. Sometimes the losing guy is just a big jerk and everybody spends the whole book wondering why our heroine would ever see anything of value in the guy at all.

Actually, sometimes that’s the winning guy. See: Edward.

But even when that’s the case, it’s still obvious. There’s never actually a competition. The heroine, as much as she finds them both dead sweaty sexy, makes doe eyes at one while the other struggles, strives, and fails to get her attention for more than the occasional scene to remind the reader that “OH HEY, SHE COULD MAYBE POSSIBLY CHANGE HER MIND!”

The double love interest CAN be done well, in a way that keeps interest, develops character, and keeps the reader genuinely guessing. But these days, I keep running into this trope in places where it’s absolutely shoehorned into the plot. Where there’s absolutely no reason to keep dangling another man before the heroine, because her preference is painfully obvious and it doesn’t even add a damn thing to the plot. It just feels like the editor sat down with the author and said, “No one will buy your book unless there’s two love interests, so jam some sexual tension in there, will you?”

Actually, the horrible thing is, that probably happens.

So what do I want to see done with this trope?

Well, first off, I would love to read a book where instead of picking, the heroine decides she wants both and both guys agree that they will share (and maybe even develop something of their own). The trio then have to arrange and figure out how to live as a successful menage a tois. In fact, if anyone can point me at some of those, I will read them. Awesome bonus points for stories that don’t just end with agreeing to have a threesome, but actually go into them trying to make it work.

Since that’s pretty rare outside of internet smut, I’d also love to see one of the guys get fed up with wishy washy behavior and go his own way. And not at the end, when the heroine rejects him. Before that. Possibly even having the heroine go “Oh, I want you!” and have him go “That’s nice, but I got over your ass and am dating the barista next door. BYE.”

And for the rest of the time, I just want to stop reading secondary potential love interests tacked into the narrative like glittery clip on narrative earrings. If a character’s only purpose is to remind us how sexy, awesome, and desirable our main female character is, he is not a useful character. Cut him and give me more of the plot, will you?