enemies-to-lovers: how to do it right
This romance trope everyone calls toxic is actually supposed to be one of the strongest and most beautiful relationships out there. Why? Because, to get to a place of unconditional love, the hero and heroine have to go through a lot of conflict. They have to learn honesty, communication, forgiveness, and more before their romance can blossom—unlike other relationships, in which these traits aren’t cultivated until after the romance starts.
So how you do accurately and authentically write an enemies-to-lovers romance? How do you avoid the overdone methods and cliches that undermine the beauty of the trope?
create believable conflict
So many times, ETL stories come off as petty and pathetic, based on a simple misjudgment or youthful mistake that doesn’t constitute a full-blown rivalry. Instead of basing your characters’ disdain for each other on “he’s on the opposite football team” or “she beat me in the school spelling bee,” give them a REAL reason to be enemies. Are they on opposing sides during a war? Did the hero kill the heroine’s father? Did the heroine keep the hero from pursuing the love of his life? Was the hero really an undercover spy?
And if you want to go the prejudice or miscommunication route, take some pointers from Pride and Prejudice. Sure, it started as a simple insult, but in an era that valued reputations and appearances, a snide comment dug deep. But Austen didn’t stop there; she piled the conflict high by giving Mr. Darcy an uncharacteristic attitude (at the time, most gentlemen were sociable and amicable instead of aloof and introverted) and introducing Mr. Wicked—I mean, Mr. Wickam.
All that to say, continue building the conflict between the hero and heroine over the course of the story; utilize the norms and ideals of the time/culture; and ALWAYS make sure the characters’ personalities and values are what the conflict stems from. After all, if the heroine is a saint who sees the best in everyone, it’s doubtful she’d hate one random man; or if she has no qualms with ex-cons, she probably won’t pick a fight with a certain one.
Don’t expect your plot itself to carry the story; take advantage of your characters, their arcs, their lifestyles, etc., and use them to craft conflict that’s genuine and believable!
- What’s the conflict between your hero and heroine? Is it believable and accurate for their time/culture?
- Why does this cause conflict between them? How does the conflict impact each character?
establish a physical connection
So, you’ve established that your hero and heroine are on opposing sides in a rebellion in their politically-twisted kingdom. Their conflict is believable, authentic, and external. All the pieces are falling into place… Or are they?
You see, to even bring about a romance in general, you must connect the characters. Either they’re neighbors, coworkers, or fellow parents at a PTA meeting—whatever the case, there must be a reason for them to be together. And I mean that both physically and emotionally.
To connect your characters, focus on two things: their roles in the plot and their character arcs. Are the hero and heroine tasked with spying on the same governor? Has the hero been sent to kill the heroine? Does the heroine rescue the hero despite (or in spite of) his allegiances? Ask yourself, how are they physically connected in the plot? How do their stories entwine?
As easy as it seems, you can’t just throw them both in the same castle and have them bump into each other a few times and call it chemistry. There has to be a reason—even if that requires separating them for a period of time too!
Now, about their character arcs...those have to entwine as well! Is the hero on the wrong side and the heroine reveals the truth to him? Are the heroine’s motives impure and the hero shows her a better way? Is the hero set on sacrificing himself for his cause and the heroine gives him something greater to live for? Think about what kind of impact the hero and heroine will have on each other. If it’s positive, there’s romantic potential...but if you find they only have a negative impact on each other, then you might wanna jump ship, if you know what I mean. 😉 Ask yourself, how will my hero and heroine change over the course of the story? And how will they each play a role in the other’s arc?
- What’s the plot of your enemies-to-lovers story? What journeys do your characters go on?
- How are they physically connected in the plot? How do their stories entwine?
introduce an emotional connection
There couldn’t possibly be something you’re missing, could there? Your plot is practically perfect, and your characters fit into it like puzzle pieces, and yet...somehow, the romance falls flat. It feels contrived and forced, probably because you feel like you’re forcing your characters to fall in love when they just don’t want to.
A lot of times, we can lean too heavily on the plot and making sure everything revolves around how the story is supposed to go that we forget who the characters are; and that’s a grievous mistake in any story, but especially enemies-to-lovers. If you don’t know and understand your characters and authentically write them, then either their rivalry falls flat or their romance does. Or both.
So, to make sure the transition from hate to love is smooth and realistic...to make sure your characters stand out apart from your intense plot...to make sure there’s actually good reason for them to fall in love, you have to showcase who they are.
Are they stubborn and proud? Or misguided and deceived? Why have they chosen the side or stance they have? Why do they initially refuse to like the hero/heroine? Things like life experiences, worldviews, culture, family, and more influence who your character is and why they do/think what they do, so consider them as you craft your characters’ backstories, reactions, and motives.
Now, what is it about them that’s so lovable? Are they loyal and steadfast? Are they compassionate and tender? Do they offer something—support, friendship, stability, etc.—that the other character never had? Highlight their good qualities and strengths and how they impact their potential love interest, because when you can connect your hero and heroine emotionally as well as physically, you’ve got a beautiful love story in the making!
- What words describe your characters? What are their good qualities?
- How do your characters connect emotionally?
entwine the themes of your story
The themes and messages of your story don’t just apply to the ending or the climax of the individual character arcs; it also applies to your romance and how it unfolds. Themes of honesty and communication will mean struggles of deceit and confusion in the hero and heroine’s relationship; forgiveness and mercy will mean bitterness and judgment; humility and understanding will mean pride and prejudice.
Jane Austen did it best; she was fully aware of the themes of her novels and not only how they impacted the characters individually, but how they influenced the characters’ relationship. Enemies-to-lovers especially can have heavy themes like the ones above, and making the relationship grow along with the characters as they work past their flaws will make it even more authentic and strong.
Try making a timeline of your character arcs and a timeline of their romantic relationship and see how they overlap. When your characters realize they’ve been blind or cold or prejudiced, they’ll begin to see their enemy in a new, loving light, and their relationship can morph into something more. This natural transition will make the pacing and progression of the romance smoother and more realistic.
And don’t forget that relationships are part of a person, not separate from them and who they are. What they learn on a personal level will apply to their relationships, and vice versa. Entwine them and watch your characters deepen and blossom!
- What are the themes of your story?
- How do the characters grow as people, and how can that affect their relationships—specifically with their love interest?
let them grow together
So, your characters are learning to be understanding, honest, and open-minded. They’re beginning to see where maybe they were wrong and their “enemy” was right, or how they can build a bridge to unite both sides, or how maybe they aren’t so different after all. They’re growing on a personal level and reaching the climax of their character arc…
But that’s not the end.
Not only are there lessons to be learned as an individual, there are lessons to be learned as a couple. As your hero and heroine navigate their blossoming romance, they can encounter past hurts and fears, people who oppose their relationship, and other hurdles. Just because they aren’t trying to kill each other anymore doesn’t mean everything’s all fine and dandy.
You need to give them battles. Whether you feel like the romance is boring and unrealistic or not, there still needs to be leftover conflict and new struggles they have to overcome—just like in a real-life relationship! Not only will your readers see how well the hero and heroine compliment each other and are just plain meant to be together, your characters will also grow closer and their relationship will be stronger.
This is probably where most people get upset with ETL stories. They fall in love all of a sudden with their sworn nemesis (who happens to be super hot), and everything is just peachy! But that’s not how real life works, and so your story shouldn’t follow this structure. Just like Romeo and Juliet, they still have a lot to work past and overcome to be together. ETL and forbidden love are two sides of the same coin, so keep that in mind as your story progresses!
- What kind of struggles can your characters endure?
- How will they grow stronger through it?
to sum up...
Before you even start writing, you need to establish conflict between your hero and heroine that’s believable and real (i.e., something beyond “he dumped milk on my head in the third grade”). As you begin developing the conflict and rivalry, you need to connect your characters and entwine their stories—both physically and emotionally. Once the time comes for them to see beyond their enmity, you’ll need to showcase who the characters actually are, what makes them lovable and redeemable, and how they build each other up and have a positive impact on one another. Don’t forget that the themes of your story have a huge impact on your romance, and your character arcs should mirror the progression of their relationship. Speaking of their relationship, just because they’re falling in love doesn’t mean all’s right with the world; they’ll still encounter battles they need to overcome to grow stronger!
Basically, take things slow and steady. Don’t rush the story and push for your hero and heroine to fall for each other; let them take each step at their own pace (and don’t be afraid for one to fall before the other...it makes for PERFECT angst, just sayin’). Follow patterns of reality before you keep pace with other books and story structures, and make each element of their relationship believable instead of over-hyping small things.
Of course, the best advice I can give ya is to listen to the Lord first, your characters second, and NEVER listen to yourself. Seriously. God has a marvelous plan for your story, and only He knows what great works He’ll do through your books—so follow His guidance foremost. And instead of listening to your head, how you want your story to unfold, and what the internet (minus me, of course) tells you, follow your gut and your characters. Because, trust me, they have minds of their own, and if you don’t let them have free reign from the beginning, they will take your story over when you least expect it!
So how will you be applying these tips? How can they help you write your ETL romance? (Follow-up question: what’s your ETL story about???) What novels have fantastic ETL romances? Let me know in the comments!
yours in spirit and script,
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