AAR Loves… Enemies-to-Lovers Romances

I Hate You, I Hate You, I Love You: The Enemies-to-Lovers Trope

One of the hottest tropes across so many sub-genres of romance is the enemies-to-lovers storyline. You know the deal: couple meets, instant dislike, much antagonism, angry sparks turn to lusty sparks, maybe it wasn’t hate so much as… love? I’m a huge fan.

But while this is one of the most appealing tropes, I also find it to be the hardest one to do well. 

Case in point. I’m currently reading Erin Watt’s Paper Princess, which received an A- grade here at AAR. And I can see why. I’m completely engrossed and turning pages like crazy. But while I’m loving the general setup between heroine Ella and bad-boy Reed, I keep wincing as the story unfolds, concerned that this one isn’t going to check the boxes I need checked to buy their evolution from hate to love.

In order for me to fully enjoy an enemies-to-lovers romance, several factors must be considered.

First, there must be a real reason the characters are enemies, something deeper than a simple misunderstanding which could be resolved with an adult conversation. Whether they are from warring factions (A Kingdom of Dreams), competing for the same position at work (The Hating Game) or an academic/professional rivalry (Carry On), races/species/beings who hold severe prejudices (Cruel Prince) or one character did the other character wrong in the past (Better Than the Movies), the animosity between them must be genuine and understandable. 

A lot of enemies-to-lovers setups involve characters who get the wrong idea about each other either because of one or two negative encounters (Pride and Prejudice, Red, White, and Royal Blue), because of stereotypes (The Deal) or because they’ve been warned to stay clear (Fourth Wing). I’m okay with this as long as we aren’t dealing with some Big Misunderstanding or the enmity is based on lies. I need to see how the characters’ opinions of the other changes and evolves due to actions taken and, if necessary, the appropriate amends are made. 

Pride and Prejudice works so well because Elizabeth Bennet’s initial dislike of Darcy is legitimate. He is a pompous douchebag who insults her. But over time, she comes to see that this behaviour isn’t because he truly believes himself as better than everyone (or at least not better than Lizzie), but because he’s introverted and a product of his upbringing and societal expectations. It’s not just his efforts to help Lydia and the Bennett family avoid ruin, but his willingness to change once Lizzie calls him on his BS that allows us to believe her dislike evolved into genuine affection and love.

Next, I must be convinced the characters genuinely dislike each other. I don’t want to see the literary equivalent of a girl slap fight. I want genuine anger, actual revulsion, or maybe best of all, scathing indifference. One way this is accomplished is when the characters themselves are disgusted that they are developing positive feelings for their supposed enemy and most loathed person on the planet. They should be dismayed and disturbed that they have any feelings other than contempt.

Ironically, this need to believe the characters truly dislike each other creates a paradoxical situation for the poor author, because the actions of either party cannot be so heinous as to make them irredeemable. This is where a lot of stories fall apart. Either the animosity between the characters isn’t strong enough to sustain the enemies dynamic (and they are kissing within fifty pages) or the expressions of hatred go too far and create mean-spirited, unlikeable characters and/or door-mats out of those who end up loving them. An example of a book that many people love but I found took things too far is Penelope Douglas’s Bully

This is my issue with Paper Princess. So far, ‘hero’ Reed has left Ella to walk two miles home alone in the dark, he’s slut shamed her, he’s sexually harassed her, and he’s turned kids at school against her. He’s walking on the edge of the moral event horizon, and I’m anxious to see how or if he can turn it around. Meanwhile, Ella quite often gives back as good as she gets, but a lot of the time she doesn’t. I find myself shaking my head that 1) she’d put up with Reed’s crap and, more critically 2) she’d ever be able to forgive and love such a jerk. 

It’s a very fine line to walk. A person who is an enemy simply because ‘they were once mean to me’ is hardly an enemy, but one who mentally, physically or emotionally abuses another human being is damaged goods to be avoided. 

One way this paradox can be navigated effectively is to make sure the power balance between the characters is relatively equal. This is because people who are equal can be enemies. They have the ability to fight the fair fight. But when there is an extreme power imbalance and one participant can’t walk away or fight back effectively, we’ve got something more along the lines of abuser/abused-to-lovers.

I’m not talking about both characters having the same level of authority, financial means, social status, etc., but rather that both can give as good as they get. In Paper Princess, Reed has money and status while Ella is basically a homeless orphan. On paper, he’s got all the power. But Ella is quick on her feet and able to bring Reed down with a well placed insult or snark. They are mentally equal, with Ella able to hold her own. (Maybe that’s why I’m scratching my head when Reed pulls some horrible crap and Ella takes it without comment.)

When you do have a substantial power imbalance, you can end up with some very dark stories. One of the best** enemies-to-lovers trilogies is Captive Prince by C.S. Pacat, in which one of the main characters becomes a pleasure slave to the other main character. Their journey to love involves some brutal situations that are truly questionable, but if you want to see a writer take a relationship the full length of the spectrum from absolute enemies to devoted lovers, this trilogy accomplishes that well.

In the end, I will always jump at the chance to read an enemies-to-lovers story or watch a show where that form of relationship is featured (right now I’m watching Netflix’s The Witcher and loving me some Geralt and Yennefer, and I’m still swooning over Bridgerton Season 2’s Anthony and Kate!). I’m even more thrilled when the writer gets the dynamic just right, giving me all the feels.

If you are interested in some enemies-to-lovers recommendations, you can check out our enemies-to-lovers tag to find books that AAR reviewers have enjoyed.

What titles would you recommend that provide true enemies who evolve to find genuine love?

~ Jenna Harper

NOTE: Captive Prince involves some very dark scenarios, including rape, sexual slavery, and physical abuse. It’s not for those who are sensitive to these topics or find that such actions make a character completely irredeemable regardless of the context. 

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