The clashing steel of dueling swords. The clashing zingers of sparring wits. The parry of longing gazes and averted eyes. And, at the end of it all, an unlikely love forms between two former enemies. There is no other hill that I’d rather die on than this: enemies-to-lovers is one of the best, if not the best, romance tropes in fiction.
Enemies-to-lovers is a romance trope that is commonly used in the fictional world, but has recently been popularized by young adult (YA) literature. This trope has taken form in books, on TV, in movies, and in some cases, goes beyond the realms of fiction and extends to reality. For many, the rich and intense slow-burn between two enemies turned lovers captivates and entertains generations of audiences. What better way for a romance to come to fruition than to have two rivals banter back and forth, then share an intense gaze of yearning, before leaning forward to seal the end of their enemies arc with a kiss?
It’s true that enemies-to-lovers, if done improperly, can be extremely unrealistic and may even set dangerous standards in romance novels. After all, it’s not appropriate for a character that’s a mass murderer, a war criminal, a mafia leader, or the person who killed the protagonist’s best friend, to be given a redemption arc simply for the sake of a romance. A healthy enemies-to-lovers relationship requires room to grow and the potential for a redemption arc for both characters. You can’t, and shouldn’t, romanticize a relationship between a mass murderer and the unlikely hero because the mass murderer is irredeemable; However, you can romanticise two academic rivals who have been at each other’s throats vying for the same research position because both characters are redeemable and capable of experiencing self-growth.
Enemies-to-lovers is rooted in its reflection of the nuances of human nature. In most relationships, platonic or romantic, there is a desire for some form of acceptance. We all want a partner who is willing to love us at our best as well as at our worst. We want someone who’s willing to forgive us, cherish us, and accept us, as much as we’re willing to forgive them, cherish them, and accept them.
Early literature has long explored the enemies-to-lovers trope, like in William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. The play features four main characters: Count Claudio, who falls in love with Hero, and Benedick and Beatrice who hate each other and don’t believe in love. They are both constantly at each other’s throats with insults, but their dislike towards each other seemingly falls apart once Claudio and Hero tricks both parties into thinking the other is actually romantically interested in the other, which indicates that there was another emotion in tandem to the hatred Benedick and Beatrice felt for one another.
Hate is not normally an emotion that manifests by itself. There’s always something more that fuels the hatred and underlies it, be it frustration, fear, or confusion. In Benedick and Beatrice’s case, they were overwhelmed by their own frustration for each other, but when they were misled were they able to open their minds. They could now see that beyond their dislike for each other lay another emotion: love.
Enemies-to-lovers also capture the tendencies to grow and change from people’s past selves, like in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth Bennet, an intelligent and extremely quick-witted young woman, serves as the main protagonist of the novel. Equipped with her sharp tongue (that has led her to make many hasty judgments), she tries to navigate a class-restrictive society that Fitzwilliam Darcy is a part of. Having come from a wealthy and well-established family, Darcy is extremely critical of Elizabeth when he first sets his eyes on her and looks down on her. Likewise, Elizabeth overhears the comments he makes and automatically assumes he’s too proud, just like others in their high society. Neither of them are particularly fond of each other based on their first impressions. However, over time, Darcy starts to warm up to her and makes an effort to grow from his past self. On the other hand, Elizabeth continues to remain prejudiced against him and goes as far as to reject his first marriage proposal. Eventually, when she opens her mind and lets go of her prejudices, she’s able to recognize Darcy’s changes, and only then, does a romance blossom between the two.
Enemies-to-overs, when done right, is meant to show that two people can change into better versions of themselves before embarking on a romantic journey. In life, people aren’t static, they change – usually, people only change after others point out things about their behavior that might be problematic. In truth, it’s really hard to be so self-aware and recognize every single questionable or wrong action that you’ve done, unless it’s pointed out to you — be it by your parents when you’re a child, a teacher when you’re a student, or your friends that you make throughout your life. Elizabeth and Darcy made flawed assumptions about each other but demonstrated their growth when they accepted each other, flaws and all.
Darcy evolves into a better person while Elizabeth learns to let go of her prejudices, and both have matured and grown to recognize their previous wrongs against each other, and are now willing to give each other a second chance and accept each other for their flaws. Darcy and Elizabeth make efforts to work on themselves as individuals before letting themselves fall in love. At the root of it all, maybe all we, as readers and as humans, crave is forgiveness and acceptance. We are at our most vulnerable when we’ve messed up, and sometimes, all we need is someone who’s willing to give us another chance, to show that we can change, and deserve a second chance. You’ll always be someone’s enemy, whether you want to or not, but it’s reassuring to know that it is possible for enemies to grow and maybe one day, become friends, if not lovers.
The lowering of dueling swords. The vulnerable whispers of tearful regret. The same shared understanding gazes and accepting eyes. And, at the end of it all, the exchanging of apologies and forgiveness between two former enemies. This is the hill that I would die on – the hill of forgiveness, second chances, redemption, and acceptance.
Judy Liu is a student at Stanford University. You can read more of her work at The Stanford Daily.