This trope is hands down one of my favorite writing tropes, probably out of all of them, but definitely out of the romance tropes. What I’ve discovered is I’m not alone in finding such enjoyment and satisfaction in watching sworn nemeses shed their differences, find common ground, and fall in love.
The keyword here is satisfying. Like many topics in writing, the enemies to lovers trope requires a delicate nurturing of show don’t tell, creating characters that grow along a planned arc, and little sumthin-sumthin that heats things up.
Why does everyone seem to love the enemies to lovers trope?
I simp for an enemies to lovers romance arc as much as the next person. This trope has definitely been trending and is big across multiple genres that incorporate romantic subplots.
It’s not just us obsessing over fictional flirtations without reason. There’s psychology involved in why this trope is universally enjoyed. Our brains are drawn to the struggles and strife of others, and also the path to overcoming those setbacks. Often, the hardest things to overcome are the most appealing to a reader.
When placing that idea in the concept of romance, the most challenging obstacles to overcome toward the happy conclusion our brains are craving will ultimately come in the form of two people pitted against one another. Reason tells us two people should not be together, but add in some misunderstandings, mutual attraction, and a common goal, and we’re all ready to watch the two beat the odds and fall for one another. Cue the swoon.
Will they, won’t they?
Half the fun of enemies to lovers is the give and take. The dynamic of trust and mistrust adds major tension to the story and amps up when stretched over time and done subtly.
Last week, I posted a guest article about writing slow-burn romances. A key way to do that is by upping story tension whenever possible and keeping the pair from being together with reasons that make sense.
In enemies to lovers, the pair obviously can’t be together because they’re labeled as “enemies” to start. There is something that keeps them from seeing eye-to-eye and it’s something major they will have to overcome through their concurrent character arcs.
Reasons for being enemies
A cornerstone of your enemies to lovers arc will be the reason they are enemies. This is the foundation that establishes where your characters will sprout and grow from, like two little love ferns.
Some common reasons that might put your characters in opposition are war, heightened misunderstandings, kept secrets, feuding families, opposing beliefs, opposing socioeconomic classes, rocky first impressions, long-standing rivalries, and competitions.
There should be elements in their histories and backstories that set the pair against one another. Yet, nothing should be irredeemable. That’s big for this to come across as satisfying. Forgiveness is an important concept for enemies to lovers, but forgiveness only goes so far and readers will only buy into so much.
If one character does something irredeemably malicious or cruel, there better be one major misunderstanding about what they really did or consider revising to make their differences less severe. If you’re uncertain whether your character’s actions are irredeemable, rely on feedback from beta readers.
Also, a character can shed their pride and realize they were wrong about their worldview, but they should never abandon their core beliefs. If a character diverges from their fundamental values, readers won’t find actions and motivations believable.
Friends before lovers
You have to walk before you can run and you have to be friends before you can be lovers. Now that you’ve established why they don’t get along, the characters have to overcome their differences.
This is done by putting the characters in situations where they are pushed together, most often for some common goal. This doesn’t mean they have to have the same motivations, but there should be some driving force to get them working together. Show why the characters share a growing bond.
Get the characters alone and get them talking to each other. This could be a loud or raucous argument or a vulnerable shedding of emotional armor. Either or both, you’ll want your characters to have a moment where they air their grievances on why they are enemies and what the other has done wrong or presumably done wrong. Then they reveal pieces of themselves that emphasize the misconceptions that have kept them as enemies or pieces of common ground that can bring them closer.
Pump up the heat
Build the sexual tension early and subtly. Like painting with watercolor, it should be done gradually with layers of delicate brushstrokes to build to the greatest payoff.
It’s nearly impossible to find someone you utterly detest attractive. When you show the pair’s attraction early, you’re showing that there’s a potential for romance.
Show a character calling out specific features of the other that they fixate on. Show them getting jealous of another potential partner for the character. Have them imagine what it would be like to touch, kiss, or sleep next to the other. Have one character get uncomfortable or shy if the other is in a state of undress.
Remember, since a relationship is so much more than what the eye can see, the sexual tension needs to be built up as the two characters build common ground and trust with one another.
Build trust, then test it
It’s boring for a hero to go on a quest and meet zero obstacles. Similarly, it’s not satisfying for the growing trust between characters not to be tested.
They could have both shared their deepest vulnerabilities, then one of them is forced to use that vulnerability against them. Or a personal bias set against one character is proven true. Or even they could have a gloves-off argument.
There are several ways to test the trust that is slowly being built, but it’s crucial to challenge and strain the budding relationship. It’s okay to break it (breakups happen), but do not demolish it. All the damage undertaken will only strengthen the final happy result, so long as it’s not pushed past the point of redeemability.
Watch out for toxicity
A big part of nailing an enemies to lovers trope is by having proper justification. It should make sense to the reader why they don’t get along and it should make sense when they start to cop feels. Swooning for someone who has caused you harm or trauma is often not justifiably redeemable, so the relationship would appear toxic.
The characters’ hatred should never be a result of personal abuse or trauma. Instead, base the characters’ hatred on misunderstanding and things outside of their control.
Know the difference between bullying and teasing
Teasing can be coy and clever. You can establish banter between the two characters that make jokes at one another’s expense. A few scathing turns of phrase can prove to stoke the fires within the heat of your enemies to lovers plotline, but you wouldn’t want those fires to burn and cause irreparable damage.
If ever the dialogue turns to verbal abuse, you might have stepped too far. I might be repeating myself here, but never go as far as having one character cause trauma. That won’t build a functional and believable relationship.
The relationship should be mutually beneficial
We all want our happily ever afters! The end product of this enemies to lovers song and dance should be something that improves both of the character’s arcs. Their world views should be widened. They should both benefit from their union. Overall, both characters should walk out of the story changed for the better than how they were in the starting state.
That’s not to say a negative character arc isn’t possible, but for the delicate balance of enemies to lovers, you want to show that the characters are better together.
Four phases of enemies to lovers
When sitting down to write an enemies to lovers plotline, consider your characters within each of these four phases.
- The hatred
Establishing a reason why the characters don’t get along. Show them interacting when there’s intense mistrust and why not fling a few insults if the mood strikes? These people don’t like each other, and now is the time to show it.
2. The acceptance
Inevitably, the two characters will be forced to work together or interact more with each other. They aren’t thrilled about this arrangement, but they now share some common goals. Usually, they have different motivations for why they want to achieve this goal, but they accept they will need to work together. This is a great time for the characters to air their grievances.
3. The friendship
The walls start coming down. The friendship is best done subtly. It could be small like a remembered favorite food or a helping hand, or it can be big like saving the other’s life. The friendship is fundamental to building trust, and this will be when most backstory and misunderstandings are revealed. The friendship will also be the most precarious phase because the pair will have newly built trust that can and should weaken.
4. The romance
After the friendship has been tried and tested, the pair will come out stronger and at this point, sparks will be ready to fly. The intoxicating blend of overcoming misunderstandings and established mutual attraction will allow your characters to slide into the romance phase and your readers will applaud.
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