Analysis

How Legendborn Created an Enthralling Love Triangle

Brie with curly black hair and red flames from Legendborn's cover art.
Legendborn by Tracy Deonn is an urban fantasy story about a young Black woman infiltrating an order of all white mages, fighting demons, and uncovering her own heritage. I just finished reading it, and to the surprise of all, I am impressed. Not with everything, mind you. The fight scenes are terrible, and the emotional description leans heavily toward melodrama. But the plotting is strong, the characters are solid, and the love triangle is truly brilliant.

Love triangles have a bad reputation, possibly because they often show up in stories about women, but they’re a perfectly viable trope. When done correctly, a love triangle spices up the story’s romance, adding conflict and delicious drama as the lovebirds clash and play off one another. Legendborn features the best love triangle I have seen in quite some time, and it has valuable lessons to teach us.

Spoiler Notice: Legendborn

The Love Interests Are Distinct

The first thing a love triangle needs is two love interests who are clearly different from each other. That might sound obvious, but a lot of authors miss it, crafting two suitors who are essentially the same person. That defeats the whole point of a love triangle! A protagonist falling in love with two contrasting people is essential to keep things compelling, and the less alike the suitors are, the better.

Legendborn has us covered. Protagonist Bree has two boys making eyes at her, Nick and Selwyn, and they couldn’t be more different. Nick is the first to be introduced, and he is a romance archetype we call the out-of-leaguer, meaning that he doesn’t seem like someone the hero could ever get a date with. Nick’s a straight-A student, well respected on campus, and did I mention he’s also the king-in-waiting for a mystical order of demon hunters? Personality wise, Nick is kind, caring, and compassionate. He meets Bree where she is and gives her a rock to hold on to while the world is turned upside down around her.

In contrast, Selwyn is what we call a dangerous hottie. He initially suspects Bree of being in league with demons and is antagonistic toward her for at least the first half of the book. This is a classic enemies-to-lovers scenario, so until their feelings start to thaw, Deonn emphasizes how deadly and ruthless Selwyn is. Whereas Nick is the noble paladin, Selwyn is a sneaky rogue. One always does what’s right; the other is a consummate pragmatist. Selwyn is also a dark, broody boy with a tragic backstory, which helps generate some extra sympathy for him.

With this kind of contrast, there’s no way readers will ever get the two mixed up. If Deonn wants Bree to choose between them, that choice will have meaning. On the other hand, Deonn could also decide that Bree is polyamorous, at which point she’d clearly be getting something different from each lover.

We Know Why They Want Each Other

A compelling romance must set up why the lovebirds are better together than apart; otherwise, there’s no reason to care if they get together. We must see why the hero is attracted to the love interest and vice versa. For a good love story, there has to be more to this than a pretty face and a rockin’ bod. Fortunately, Legendborn delivers.

In addition to Nick being way hot, Bree is clearly into him because he wants to make the magical demon hunting order less racist. In addition to that noble goal, Nick also helps Bree investigate her mother’s mysterious death. When Bree can’t confide in her friends without breaking the masquerade, Nick is there to talk to.

It’s a little less obvious why Nick is into Bree, but a close reading shows that it’s largely a mirror image. Nick has been fed up with the order for years, so it’s easy for them to bond over shared distaste. At the same time, Nick also needs someone he can be himself with. Everyone in the order has expectations about what he’ll be as king, and he can’t really open up to anyone outside because they don’t know magic is real. Bree fills that need for him.

Since Selwyn is an enemy at first, it takes a while before the attraction starts to build. At first, he’s just a lethal badass, which is hot, but not exactly romance material. But as Selwyn realizes that Bree isn’t evil, a new side of their relationship develops. Even though Selwyn is entirely devoted to the order, he’s also alienated from it because of some demonic heritage. Bree doesn’t carry any of the order’s prejudices, which quickly endears her to Selwyn. Meanwhile, Selwyn’s self-sacrificing nature begins to win Bree over, and from there, they bond through shared adversity.

Toxicity Is (Mostly) Avoided

It’s our old friend, toxic romance tropes, the bane of love stories everywhere. Hetero romances in particular tend to suffer here, as we have so many harmful ideas of masculinity floating around, plus the inherent power imbalance that sexism creates. When I first cracked open Legendborn, I braced for the worst. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised.

Neither of the love interests is controlling, stalker-ish, or demeaning. When Bree and Nick reach the make-out phase of their love story, Nick never tries to pressure Bree into anything. Instead, he asks, and the story doesn’t treat it as awkward or unsexy as is so disappointingly common. Reading that section, it felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders. I’m so used to toxic male love interests that the absence of it was freeing.

Selwyn is even more impressive. The enemies-to-lovers trope necessitates conflict between the lovebirds, and when those characters are hetero, it’s easy for gendered power dynamics to ruin everything. But that doesn’t happen in Legendborn. Selwyn never uses gendered slurs against Bree or says she must be irrational because of her emotions. Nor do we have one of those situations where the man is a complete ass and the woman is a little terse, only for the story to act like they were equally at fault. Instead, Selwyn is primarily hostile to Bree over a legitimate misunderstanding, where he thinks she’s a danger to the order’s mission. Once he realizes this isn’t the case, he stops antagonizing her.

I wish I could end this section here, but there is one fly in the ointment. On several occasions, both boys have a bad habit of grabbing Bree by the wrist when she wants to leave. This might be fine in the context of a physical fight, but in a romantic relationship, it violates Bree’s consent. The book tries to cover this by telling us that Bree didn’t really want to leave, but that’s not how it works. The boys can’t read Bree’s mind, so it’s on them to take her seriously no matter what she’s feeling.

Despite this issue, Legenborn’s romance has far less toxicity than any other I’ve read recently. It shows just how good a love story can be when it ditches the creeps and focuses on the fundamentals instead.

The Love Interests Are Connected

A really common problem in love triangles is that while each love interest is connected to the hero, they aren’t connected to each other. The triangle has no third side, making it more of a love V. Other than possibly being jealous, there’s nothing to make interactions between the love interests engaging.

I love the way Deonn addresses this problem: she gives Selwyn and Nick a long history together before either of them met Bree. The two boys were raised together, and Selwyn is actually bonded to Nick as his king’s mage, a position the order takes very seriously. They had a complicated relationship, with Selwyn even falling in love with Nick at one point, which I’m hoping Deonn explores more in the next book.

Capping off that history, there’s a deep rift between Nick and Selwyn over Nick’s status as heir. Basically, Nick has taken a public stance against the order because he thinks many of their practices are unjust. To someone as duty bound as Selwyn, this is a betrayal. Their relationship is further strained by Selwyn’s suspicion of Bree. They still care about each other, but there’s a lot of antagonism on top.

This deep relationship means that the entire love triangle is serving the story, not just the two lines that connect to the hero. Now please, everyone join me in crossing our fingers for a Bree-Nick-Selwyn triad in the sequel!

Romance Is Part of the Plot

No matter how compelling a romance is, if it’s separate from the plot, the story has a problem. When the hero abandons their high-stakes revenge quest to go on a fancy date, it splits readers’ attention. Readers who really like the romance will be bored during the plot, and readers who enjoy the plot will resent the romance. It’s a lose-lose situation.

There’s exactly one solution to this problem: make the romance part of the plot. I’m glad to say that Deonn and I are entirely on the same page here. Nick and Bree’s romance begins when she convinces him to help her infiltrate the order and find out what happened to her mother. Nick helps Bree to understand the magical world and to pass a series of trials that she isn’t trained for. This gives them plenty of time together.

Selwyn is a little more complicated. First, he and Bree are enemies, but that still gives them a chance to understand each other as they clash over Bree’s mysterious past. Later, the two of them investigate a shady plot by the order, which gives them a chance to bond as they find out more about their tragic backstories. By the end, they are moving toward a love forged in battle, though they aren’t quite there yet when the novel ends. That’s fine though; resolving everything in book one would mean there’s nothing left for book two.

When the romances are combined together with the main plot, both benefit. The story gets maximum use of its high-tension external plot, while the romances provide emotional attachment. It’s incredibly refreshing to find an author who doesn’t see her story as a competition between emotion and plot, and the book is better for it.


Legendborn is a story of a female hero in love with two dudes, but most of its lessons can apply to love triangles of all orientations. For that matter, they can apply to just about any romance, triangular or otherwise. I’ve lost track of how many stories just tell me that the lovebirds belong together without ever showing me why. I hope that Deonn’s book is read far and wide, because it has important lessons to teach writers.

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Comments

  1. GeniusLemur

    When you’re trying to convince me that this particular love triangle is done brilliantly, way better than the usual, and your first point in favor of that idea is the love interests are distinct because one is a sweet good boy and the other is a brooding bad boy…
    Well, that’s not a good start.

    • Chris Winkle

      Care to explain what you think is wrong with those archetypes?

      • GeniusLemur

        They’re overused in love triangles. In my experience, the cliche standard-issue love triangle is choosing between the sweet good boy and the brooding bad boy, so it’s very odd the article presents it to us as something unusual.

        • Innocent Bystander

          Just because something is overused doesn’t mean that it’s bad.

        • Atlas

          Hi, GeniusLemur! While I do agree with you that many love triangles feature a brooding boy and a sweet boy, I think the article is trying to say that in a lot of OTHER stories, there isn’t really a difference in the personality of the two love interests (for example in this book called Stung both protags seem to be the brooding/badass types.) Plus, a lot of tropes are overused but still pretty good!

        • Cay Reet

          Well, love triangles try to show two different love interest for the MC – two sweet boys or two brooding boys would be bad, so the choice is often ‘sweet or broody’ with different outcomes.

          If you want two distinct characters, it’s very hard to do so without falling into that trap. Other different types (like innocent/experienced) can look a bit strange – if your MC has the change between a young man and a much older one, you might get close to a power imbalance between the MC and the older one, which is bad.

          Yes, the sweet guy and the broody guy are overused, but they are still a valid choice if done well (as they seem to be in this book).

        • Lexy

          I just wanted to let you know that I feel the same as you do! Wish we could like comments on here, haha.

      • Lucy

        I have to admit I had the same initial feeling. While these archetypes can be very well done – as seems to be the case here – I would dearly love to see more variety in love triangle choices.
        In a modern day set story, I understand why writers use love triangles a lot, because the need to make a choice between two people is a good way of adding tension when there are few other obvious blocks to relationships. But I don’t understand why this version gets used so much; it is a little frustrating – surely there must be other options …
        That said, it’s not a deal breaker, and the other points do make this book sound like a good read!

        • Cay Reet

          Which pairing of possible lovers would you bring in for a story, since both should be distinct and not ‘flavour 1 with blond hair’ and ‘flavour 1 with brown hair’?

          The sweet guy and the broody guy are very distinct and different from each other. There’s not that many other pairings which will work well.
          Clearly, obviously abusive characters or jerks aren’t a viable love interest, after all.
          Workaholics will not invest any time in a relationship and should be out early, too, due to their disinterest.
          Differences in age can tip the balance (the MC would wield less influence in a relationship with a much older love interest and be too influential in one with a much younger one).
          Different genders for the love interest would only work with a pansexual MC, which is a place not a lot of writers will probably go with a romance.
          Working two distinct characters out of the same type of love interest would be challenging, since they’d be sharing too many traits.

          • anonymous

            challenging for the writer, but more satisfying for a good many readers.
            ‘it’s challenging so I won’t bother’ seems a rather bad attitude for a writer to have.

          • Gwen

            I am pretty fine with the sweet/broody archetypes, and I think your article covers what makes a Good Love triangle very nicely. That is a different issue, I think, than avoiding tropes that may be overdone There are other options though.

            Skillset- Ones good for the physical issues and the other for mental ones. Mage vs Warrior. Nerd vs Jock. If their skillset influences their attitude, then they can have very different approaches and outlooks that require neither or both to be sweet or broody. The thief with all the contacts solves different problems than the Weapons expert. The doctor has different kind of scenes than the second in command.

            Ideologies- Especially in political media or ones with different factions. They can represent their faction and their ideologies also standing in for the character’s choice in other matters as well. It is very good at making the romance part of the plot as well.

            Their Roles- More than just their personalities, roles change the nature of that as well. One can be the support while the other is the smart guy. One can be the “The Big Guy” and the other “The wisecracking sidekick”. If they don’t do the same thing within the story, they won’t be confused. No one will ever confuse Lois Lane and Wonderwoman.

            All Kinds- Think of any ensemble group without that much romance. They all need to be different from each other or the story wont work when they start bouncing off of each other. And they come in more varieties than Broody and Sweet. There is Serious vs Silly, Gung-ho vs Cautious, Unsure vs Confident, Physical vs Mental. Also they don’t have to be opposites to be different. There is always the Passionate vs Sweet. One is super emotional about their thing and wears their heart on their sleeve, the other is sweet and caring but more reticent. Neither broods.

          • Kit

            Different genders would also work with a bi MC, and it shouldn’t be dismissed just because you think ‘not many writers’ would go for it. That said, differing genders won’t necessarily stop the love interests from falling into the same archetype as each other, and so still being boring.

            I think part of the issue with love triangle love interests is when characters don’t break from the stock character archetypes at all. Sweet or broody as bases for characters are fine, but it’d add a little dimension if, for instance, the sweet-natured one were also foulmouthed and rash, and the broody one unerringly polite (on top of other fleshing-out).

          • Cay Reet

            They seem to be fleshed out in this one, though.

            Yes, bi will also work … but that will bring the story into a different romance sub-genre.

            Apart from the writers, it’s often also the question of what the publisher wants, though. I agree it’s a bad attitude to ignore a challenge as a writer, but many publishers also play it safe and, for all its over-usedness, ‘sweet vs. broody’ sells in the genre. Other pairings would, too, no doubt, but there’s not so many prior examples and thus publishers like to play it safe. Not just a problem with book publishers, either, also with TV and movie producers or game companies.

            Different ideologies can work, yet you should make sure it’s not the ‘one guy is totally wrong until he meets the MC’ trope. That’s just one step from ‘the right woman can change a man’ – a pretty dangerous trope in itself.

            Skill sets are a good way, yet there needs to be an explanation for why the MC meets them both and why, ideally, they also interact, so it’s a triangle and no averted V shape (aka ‘the love interests have no connection whatsoever’).

            Roles can be difficult – both need to be equally present in the story and equally important to serve as love interest, otherwise the more important one will be favoured and it will be unbelievable for many that the MC should choose the less important one. In a Superman/Wonder Woman crossover, for instance, Wonder Woman would, as a hero herself, play a much bigger role than Lois Lane as Superman’s regular love interest, easily pushing her into the row of ‘side characters’ and thus out of the triangle as a such.

            The opposites are interesting, no doubt. A lot of readers expect clear opposites, though, so the choice in the end (polyamorous is, unfortunately, rare) is a character choice for the MC, too. For that to work, the two characters must be very different, so ‘passionate vs sweet’ wouldn’t work out too well.

            Another reason for many writers using ‘sweet vs broody’ (or it’s female opposite of ‘childhood friend vs. new arrival’) is probably that they think the readers expect that – it says a lot about the MC whether she prefers the safe side with the sweet guy or thinks she can stand beside the more dangerous broody guy. Or whether the male MC prefers to stay with their well-known childhood sweetheart or rather wants to make a cut and start over with the new arrival.

          • Innocent Bystander

            So after some thought, here’s my two cents:

            The reason why Sweet Guy and Broody Guy are so popular and used so much is not only because of distinct personalities but also because each one appeals the most to readers who want to see themselves in the heroine’s shoes. Sweet Guy is obvious; who wouldn’t want someone to care for them? Broody Guy, meanwhile, generally is a hard nut with a vulnerable core. And seeing someone like that slowly let down their guard and show that core to you can have certain appeal.

            There’s certainly other archetypes such as the Alpha Man (but that has problematic aspects to it), but these two are at the forefront of romantic interests because they work so well/

  2. Innocent Bystander

    This book is already on my “to read” list for 2021’s Read Harder challenge, and this article makes me more eager to read it.

  3. Gwen

    The tv show Haven did this pretty well too in the first season (haven’t watched the others yet). You have a protagonist both men admire. One is her co-worker who is very upright but broody, the other is a smuggler who is much more openly emotional.

    Neither ever gets jealous of the other because they already have tension from the criminal/lawman association and the smuggler used to be the coworker’s bully and ex-friend. Despite that, I was surprised when the protagonist went on a date with the smuggler, the coworker was cool with it, just preferring not to be around the guy personally. Their constant snipping at each other always was rooted in their own tensions rather than jealousy over the protagonist.

    In fact, working with the protagonist seems to bring them closer together rather than apart, slowly becoming grudging friends. It was a nice change of pace.

  4. Leah

    [SPOILERS]
    The romance with Selwyn is so toxic – he keeps aggressively invading Bree’s personal space, grabbing her, threatening her, ambushing her, mocking & insulting her, stalking her, listening in on her therapy sessions, etc. And then he uses his superior power (strength, speed, magic) and forces her to listen to him by trapping her on a cliff, where if she moves, she’ll fall over. Swoon. I’m so tired of the romantisation of abusive bad boys, and using their brooding torturedness to excuse awful behaviours

    • Leah

      I really don’t understand why we still need to portray unwanted hand-grabbing, wrist-grabbing, waist-grabbing, etc., as hot. It’s especially icky because two White boys constantly disregard a Black girl’s bodily autonomy. The book is rife with passages like this:

      “He [Selwyn] leans both hands on the windowsill and looks at me over his shoulder. “Come here.”
      I stand and walk over. “Why?”
      “Reasons.” He grabs me around the waist in the blink of an eye and tosses me over his shoulder until I’m draped over his back, facing his room. I squirm, but before I can protest further, he wraps an iron forearm around my thighs, pressing them to his chest.”

      Excerpt From: Tracy Deonn. “Legendborn.”

      Why is it so difficult to write romances without endorsing this kind of behaviour?

      • passing through

        yeah. i’d like to see more romances where a) the ‘love interest’ simply didn’t behave that way; or b) acting that way got them dumped quicker than a stinky, rotten potato.

        it gets VERY tiresome when blithely disregarding bodily autonomy is accepted like it’s no big deal. because it IS a big deal.

        • me again

          also: it’s not that hard to write “one person gets off on the other’s physical power” WITHOUT going into blithely disregarding bodily autonomy and manhandling the partner despite their protests. so… there’s really no need for it.

          • Anna

            Re: “two White boys constantly disregard a Black girl’s bodily autonomy.”

            spoiler, warning – sexual assault

            yup. especially when you learn the backstory that one of the boys’ ancestor (slave owner) raped the main character’s ancestor (slave)

  5. Anna

    I started reading this book based on a few glowing recommendations, and I think I’m just outgrowing this kind of YA writing.

    To illustrate my point, here is a handy guide to introducing love interests according to Tracy Deonn:
    – they have to be leaning against something
    – they have to be inhumanly/impossibly beautiful and dazzling
    – they have to be teenage boys, but not look like teenage boys

    Romantic interest No 1
    “a tall, dark-haired boy leans casually against a tree as if he’d been there the whole time; […] He is unsettlingly beautiful. His face is aristocratic and sharp, framed by high, pale cheekbones. The rest of his body is borne from shadows: black jacket, black pants, and ink-black hair that falls over his forehead and curls just below gauged ears bearing small black rubber plugs. He can’t be more than eighteen, but something about his features doesn’t belong to a teenager—the cut of his jaw, the line of his nose. His stillness.”

    Romantic interest No 2
    “Leaning against the wall just beside the exit is a tall white boy with tousled straw-blond hair and the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen. He looks like he belongs on the cover of the university brochure: impossibly bright and cheery, wearing plain jeans and a Carolina blue zipped hoodie. […] “Definitely not built like any seventeen-year-olds I know. With his broad shoulders and narrow waist, he looks like one of those Olympic gymnasts.”

    • Lexy

      LOOOOL this is brilliant and I one hundred percent agree!!! X’D This is also why I’m tired of love triangles.

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