If you grew up in the early 2000s, you probably mutilated a daisy at least once to help you guess whether your crush shared your feelings. You’d pluck off the petals one by one, reciting “he loves me” or “he loves me not.” At age nine, I didn’t have a true love, but pretending was fun, and handfuls of daisies met unfortunate ends thanks to my mock indecision.
This floral game of roulette is what the enemies-to-lovers trope looks like from afar. One minute, the antagonist is giving the heroine a glare and a cold shoulder. The next minute, he’s showering her with gifts and compliments. The journey from silent treatment to rose bouquets is packed with conflict, which tantalizes readers. They bring their desires for the relationship into every scene. Because they’re invested in the outcome, they’ll listen to any message the story communicates.
The queen of romance, Jane Austen, used this trope to massive success in her eternal classic, Pride and Prejudice. Alas, not every author is as shrewd as Jane Austen. The mainstream approximation of enemies-to-lovers tends to be more Gothic than Victorian: the love interest verbally, physically, or sexually abuses the protagonist before realizing that she deserves respect as a human being. The notion that a creep can reform through the influence of a pretty lady is a delusion, but authors targeting middle-grade and YA audiences often promote it.
You can’t trash the entire trope, because redemption and reconciliation are biblical concepts. Falling in love amid the transformation is a bonus. But portraying frenemies requires caution and a thorough understanding of the traits that define a constructive relationship.
Creating Healthy Enemies
An integral aspect of the enemies-to-lovers trope is, of course, mutual contempt. Character A offends Character B, and Character B swears she will never, under any circumstances, associate with Character A, so she scorns him every chance she gets. She hopes his coffee is perpetually lukewarm, his socks always slip off his heels, and he stubs his toe at least once per day.
The first time that Elizabeth encounters Darcy, he ruffles her with his famous zinger “but not handsome enough to tempt me,” and she swears to despise him for eternity. Assuming that you’re familiar with Pride and Prejudice (if not, your eyeballs are skimming words from the wrong writer), you know that Darcy eventually apologizes for being a prideful jerk, and Elizabeth regrets snubbing him for a single remark. In a walnut shell, he learns to swallow his pride, and she learns to stop being judgmental. Their initial clash forces them to confront their own flaws to become a legendary couple. Hurt is necessary only when it inspires positive change.
However, choosing the wrong type of pain can turn your innocent lover’s quarrel into a maladaptive romance. The fantasy genre is infamous for couples who massacre each other’s families and burn each other’s villages before experiencing the flutter of attraction. Rude words can easily be forgiven, but building a wholesome relationship after inflicting intense trauma is unrealistic, if not impossible. The harsher the injury, the longer the protagonist will need to heal, and the stronger the love interest’s remorse needs to be for readers to believe any of it. He must also face consequences for his misdeeds or the story will lose its equilibrium.
If you’re ratcheting up the stakes because you’re scared that readers won’t take a small conflict between two characters seriously, don’t be. Humans are simple and funny and petty and insecure. We don’t need someone to murder our parents to wish the plague upon the perpetrator. A stolen parking space is enough to rankle us.
Creating Healthy Relationship Development
Once the love interest has harmed the protagonist, he needs to admit his faults before entering into a relationship with her. He won’t be compatible (or even likable) until he’s recognized and started to work on his own problems.
In the first draft of my novel, the love interest is a fake hero. He gallivants through life, playing the good guy and gaining all the fame without making any sacrifices. But when gallantry threatens to be dangerous, he abandons the protagonist. Toxic versions of this trope would have him divulge his tragic backstory and manipulate the protagonist through pity instead of acknowledging his poor behavior.
Using past events to validate the love interest’s motivations is acceptable. For instance, perhaps my reluctant hero stood on the front lines once-upon-a-time and failed to protect someone he cared about, which has paralyzed him from trying again. Backstory, however, is merely an explanation—if the love interest leans on it as an excuse, he’ll ruin the relationship. He needs to risk his safety or dignity to pursue virtue without the guarantee of a reward.
Near the end of Pride and Prejudice, Darcy chases after Mr. Wickam and pushes him to marry Lydia, which costs him a large amount of money and time. Though he’s wed-locking the couple for Elizabeth’s sake, he keeps his involvement a secret. He believes that he’s to blame for Wickam’s false promises and wants to deal with the situation alone. When he humbles himself without any selfish incentive to do so, he proves that he’s worthy of Elizabeth’s hand.
Making Sure Your Protagonist Grows from Her Mistakes Too
Character development shouldn’t be limited to the love interest, because the most compelling couples balance out each other’s weaknesses. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth shows Darcy that less affluent people still have value, and Darcy shows Elizabeth that not all socially awkward aristocrats are pompous. They become well-rounded individuals because they learn from each other.
In the case of my charlatan hero, his biggest weakness is cowardice, which means his counterpart needs to be a woman who’s willing to jeopardize her life for her loved ones. And if her flaw is obsessive, all-consuming perfectionism, the love interest needs to be chill enough to bounce back when he messes up. Together they should embody the “iron sharpens iron” concept Solomon writes about in Proverbs.
However, the love interest shouldn’t be the protagonist’s sole teacher, and vice versa. Otherwise the story will revolve around conversations that expose his/her issues, and that’s not only boring but also damaging. It implies that one person has the power to change another, which is a lie that traps victims in abusive relationships.
In reality, the false beliefs that lead to failure should teach a character the most lessons. Mr. Wickam is one of Elizabeth’s. When she first meets him, his pure, not-from-concentrate charisma overwhelms her, and she decides that his impressive social skills indicate he’s a good man. Later, when she discovers that he’s a backstabbing con artist, she realizes that she can’t always rely on her own perceptions.
Love Is More Than Tension
When most readers pick up a book containing enemies-to-lovers, they’re eager to watch the characters fight until Cupid swoops in. They want to be nine-year-old me, tearing petals off a daisy and hoping the final one lands on “he loves me.” But the trope has far more potential than pop culture gives it credit for.
Characters who resolve conflicts and strengthen each other demonstrate the beauty and endurance of healthy relationships. The world needs representations of loyal, selfless men and women to encourage audiences to embrace God’s design for humanity. We’re not decimating daisies—we’re planting gardens where readers can harvest ideas to take home to their own spouses and significant others.
And that, my friend, is a task Jane Austen would be proud of.
A long time ago on a hill not so far away, Gabrielle Pollack fell in love. Not with ice cream or cats (though those things are never far from her side) but with storytelling. Since then, she’s been glued to a keyboard and is always in the midst of a writing project, whether a story, blog post, or book. She was a reader before becoming a writer, however, and believes paradise should include thick novels, hot cocoa, a warm fire, and “Do Not Disturb” signs. Her favorite stories include Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn saga and Nadine Brandes’s Out of Time trilogy.
As those who know her will confess, Gabby is a whole lot of weirdness packed into one INFP. Sharp objects, storms, and trees are her friends, along with stubborn characters and, on occasion, actual people. When she’s not writing, she’s shooting arrows through thickets and subsequently missing her target, jamming on the piano, and pushing her cat off her keyboard. She hopes to infuse her fiction with honesty, victory, and hope, and create stories that grip readers from the first page to the last. Her other goals include saving the world and mastering a strange concept called adulthood.
I love this post! The “enemies to lovers” trope is one that I see done SO much (and SO badly) in YA fiction. Your Christian perspective on it is really helpful for me. I especially like how you drew lines between healthy relationships and unhealthy relationships/obsession. Thank you!
(I also really like your daisy metaphor 👌)
First of all, this was hysterically entertaining. My eyeballs are blessed to have skimmed these words.
Secondly, THANK YOU FOR WRITING THIS. When done well, enemies-to-lovers makes for extremely compelling romance (Anne and Gilbert are one of my favorite literary couples) but it’s become one of my least favorite YA tropes, mainly because so many cases end up (unintentionally or otherwise) romanticizing toxic relationships. I’m here for the pettiness, not the abuse.