Enemies to lovers is a popular trope, especially in sci-fi and fantasy novels. How can you bring your pair together and make readers ship them?
What is Enemies to Lovers?
The enemies to lovers trope is when two characters start off as enemies and, over the course of a book or series, end up in a romantic relationship. These ‘enemies’ have to overcome their differences or misconceptions about each other, and in the process, they fall in love.
The type of ‘enemies’ they are can vary from actual enemies to simple competitors. Maybe it’s a prince and a thief pairing. Perhaps they’re soldiers from warring countries. Maybe they’re rivals in a competition and both want the grand prize.
However they butt heads at the beginning of the story, they eventually need to work together toward some common goal. This collaboration serves as a catalyst for their relationship to move out of the ‘enemies’ stage and onto something more.
The Stages of Enemies to Lovers
How long your trope gets drawn out depends on your goals, your plot, and how you structure the relationship. I’ve seen this play out over one book or four.
Regardless, when you’re writing an enemies to lovers arc, there will be certain points in the narrative that build this relationship up.
Start with why the characters are enemies. Define what makes them butt heads, and you can even show readers on the page. If it’s a mercenary hired to find a fugitive, let’s see that in action.
Then, highlight the reason they come together. Often, these ‘enemies’ realize they need to work together toward something. In science-fiction and fantasy, which is most of what I edit, the characters have to go on some quest together.
You also want to highlight any physical attraction early. This can be incredibly subtle. Maybe one character has dimples, and the other notices. Maybe one notices the other has very shiny hair. It can also be more overt, but subtle can be fun.
As the story continues and the characters are wary of each other, start putting them in situations where they can build trust. Maybe one saves the other’s life, and the other repays the favor later on. Maybe they’re camping out for the night, and one shares that they’re scared of the dark, so the other builds a bigger fire. These little moments of give and take–and of vulnerability–start to sow the seeds of trust.
Eventually, something comes along that challenges this loyalty they’ve started to build. Maybe a secret is revealed, or one character has to choose between their enemy-turned-ally and an old ‘friend.’ This will vary based on your plot, but there’s usually a test put on the new relationship.
And finally, the characters have their breakthrough moment where they realize they’ve fallen for each other. Your point-of-view character may realize this before they admit it out loud, or maybe it simply happens spontaneously in a dangerous situation. However you set up the big breakthrough, it does have to come onto the page eventually.
After the breakthrough, they have to decide how they want to move forward.
This is a general pattern of events, and there’s a lot that will happen in between these moments. As you write, think about how each action, reaction, and decision will impact the state of this relationship.
Watch Out for Toxicity
The give-and-take, the kind of “will they, won’t they” dynamic of enemies to lovers is what makes it so fun for readers. That constant tension can keep readers hooked and wanting more.
However…enemies to lovers isn’t just as straightforward as “they were enemies and fell in love.” There’s more nuance to it than that.
The enemies to lovers trope, especially in YA fiction, falls into the ‘toxic relationships’ category easily. After all, two people who dislike each other… How do you get them from that distrust to falling in love? It’s not straightforward for authors, and it’s not always for readers, either.
The enemies to lovers trope, at its heart, is not about two characters torturing and bullying each other because they ‘like’ each other. Think of the stereotype of a boy pulling a girl’s pigtails in school because he likes her. This isn’t how anyone should treat another person, let alone someone they like romantically.
As I said at the beginning of this post, enemies to lovers is a catchy way of saying your characters have to overcome their differences/misconceptions. That doesn’t mean they’ll get along in the beginning of the story, and they certainly won’t be instant best friends, but they don’t have to resort to bullying or drama to be considered enemies to lovers.
In healthier depictions of the trope, the characters don’t manipulate one another. They become allies, even for what they think will be a brief period, but that leads to their misconceptions being dispelled and their attraction to grow.
That’s not to say you can’t show a toxic enemies to lovers trope on purpose. This can also be a teaching moment if you’re mindful of your portrayal of events.
How you build these dynamics and how characters come out the other side is important in what your audience will take away from your story. As writers, we need to acknowledge that our readers are probably going to identify the underlying messaging in our work.
We can’t guarantee exactly what they’ll take from the story, but it’s still our responsibility to try to make our message clear.
If you’re going to use enemies to lovers, just be mindful of the message you’re sending through character actions and reactions. You can use this well-loved trope without romanticizing the toxic potential lurking beneath the surface.
Showing Tension & Conflict in Enemies to Lovers
Since you probably don’t want to show characters bullying each other, think of other ways to highlight tension and conflict. A few examples include:
- Character 1 has shifting allegiances outside of their new alliance with Character 2.
- Characters A and B aren’t sure of the others’ intentions after their common goal is achieved.
- Character 2 loves to eat a food that Character 1 hates, and it’s one small way to antagonize the other.
- Character A is keeping a secret from their enemy-turned-temporary-ally, Character B.
- Characters 1 and 2 used to be lovers, broke up, and now have to work together.
There are plenty of ways to show them working through conflict. A lot of this is going to come from conversations, necessary apologies, and lessons learned.
Showing Their Connection & Forming Bonds
And just like every relationship has conflict, you’ve also got to show why the characters share a growing bond. This is especially important in enemies to lovers because these pieces of common ground are the catalysts for the characters moving away from that ‘enemy’ dynamic.
Some examples include:
- Discovering they share certain values
- Small shows of vulnerability by revealing parts of their past or their fears
- One saves the other’s life–or they save each other!
- One reminding the other of someone they lost
- Discovering they share a similar hobby or interest, or even a favorite food
- Discovering they have a similar backstory or past
And as a side note, all of this applies to relationships outside of the romantic pairing you’re writing. Friendships, allyships, and all other relationships on the page are going to require this kind of give and take–big or small!
Once you know what these characters have in common, you should also introduce small shows of friendliness and affection. Some ideas include:
- Character A is going into town to do some recon and get supplies. They also pick up Character B’s favorite food. Character B can be quietly surprised, or they can use the opportunity to tease Character A about the show of friendship.
- Character 1 revealed a past trauma to Character 2. Something triggers Character 1, and Character 2 offers some kind of wisdom or comfort in that moment.
- Character B ensures Character A has enough blankets for the night.
- Character 2 remembers Character 1’s coffee order.
Think about the way we build friendships and relationships in real life. Grand gestures are all well and good, but it’s usually the small moments of connection that form the groundwork for all of our relationships, romantic or not.
Your enemies to lovers pairing also needs a set of rules and boundaries for their relationship. Because they’re going to be working together for some reason and don’t usually get along, they may need to have a conversation about how their arrangement is going to work.
Some examples include:
- Who takes the night watch
- How resources are shared
- How information is shared
- What happens after they reach their common goal
- How sleeping arrangements work
This sets up their expectations for each other. While it’s important to honor those boundaries to keep establishing trust between your characters, you can subvert these ‘rules’ throughout the story to play up the “will they, won’t they” dynamic.
Subverting Rules & Creating Tension
For example, let’s say your characters are traveling on a quest and agree to get separate rooms whenever they stay at an inn. One night, there’s only one room available, and it only has one bed, so they have to share. Maybe one character insists the other takes the bed. Maybe they agree to share and wake up snuggling. This type of situation can be fun for readers and bring the characters closer together.
Shared information and secrets is another example. Maybe the pair agrees to share information, but one of them discovers something new and decides to keep it a secret to keep the other safe. This isn’t done out of malice–it’s the opposite! But somehow, someone reveals the secret-keeping, and the character in the dark feels betrayed. This sets up a challenge to the loyalty they’ve worked toward throughout the story and forces the pair to have a conversation about what happened and how to move forward.
These are just two examples of how you can take the rules your characters have created and twist them to further the relationship.
Your characters can and should make mistakes. Mistakes don’t necessarily make the pair toxic as long as you show resolutions, apologies, etc.
Will you write enemies to lovers?
At the end of the day, enemies to lovers is another trope structure you can use as the framework for a relationship in your novel. It’s a fun trope to work with. Just stay mindful about how you portray certain actions and qualities as you write.
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