Enemies-to-lovers and likeable characters

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Earthling

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I love the enemies-to-lovers trope, but does anybody else find it tough to balance with character likeability? I find it tricky to have the heroine thinking negative thoughts about the hero in her POV without either making her look petty and mean (if the reasons for her dislike aren't good enough) OR the hero look like too much of an arsehole (if the reasons are too good). That's also true with the genders flipped, though I find readers are generally tougher on female characters than male.

I think I have it figured out for my current manuscript, with the help of wonderful alpha readers, so I'm not looking for specific advice, but I thought it made an interesting discussion. How do you have two sympathetic characters dislike each other?

One thing I worked out from decades of watching comedy is that it's very hard to dislike a character who makes you laugh, no matter how bad their personality flaws (e.g. Basil Fawlty, for any fans of British sitcoms: most of us think of him fondly, even though he's a pretty horrible person). This works well for me since I write romcom-style - I try to make the characters' voices humorous so it's amusing even when they're griping about each other.

I avoid the obvious solution of having the conflict between the MCs all be a misunderstanding, so neither of them actually did anything wrong. I'm sure we've all rolled our eyes at contrived conflict that could be sorted out with one sensible conversation.
 

Layla Nahar

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It's funny how taste is so individual - it's one that drives me crazy. I can never suspend my disbelief.
 

Barbara R.

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Think of Jane Austen. In general, and in particular. PRIDE AND PREJUDICE is probably the prototype of the sort of enemies--to lovers scenario. I think that what Austen did is given each of them actual faults--excessive pride on his side, hasty judgments on hers---that would upset each other but not disgust readers. Then she added misinterpretations to increase the animus, on Lizzy's side, anyway; and finally she has each of them overcome those weaknesses and realize that they're perfect for each other.

Steal from the best is my motto.
 

Earthling

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Steal from the best is my motto.

That is a great motto!

It's funny how taste is so individual - it's one that drives me crazy. I can never suspend my disbelief.

Really? I don't find it unbelievable at all. I've experienced meeting someone who rubs me up the wrong way, or who I take an instant dislike to, then I get to know them better or realise why they are the way they are and all that irritation melts into affection. I've seen it in others, too. I don't think it's a rare phenomenon?
 
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blackcat777

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Teenage Me always used to be totally rude to anyone I was crushing on, with the logic that if I was acting like a jerk, no one would ever suspect I actually liked them. Though it was very indiscreet and likely drew attention to the fact disproportionately more. ;) Maybe that's why I love this trope?

On that note, though, for it to work for me in fiction, there has to be a difference between a character's veneer and their "real feelings." On the inside, the character has to be a good person. Maybe someone is cynical because they're afraid of being hurt or rejected? Maybe they're insecure? Then there's a huge potential for a great payoff if someone's shell finally breaks.

I like those little moments, too, when someone's behavior betrays their veneer--like suddenly protecting the other if they're both in danger, etc.

Enemies to lovers based on conflicting ideologies can work, too, but it turns me off if it gets overly political, my country vs. your country, men vs. women, etc. Maybe because sometimes conflicting opinions like that don't reconcile as well in real life. (Maybe that's my personal bias, too--I could never date someone who votes against me for a slew of reasons.)

Competition as foreplay can definitely be hot.
 

Zombolly

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I love the enemies-to-lovers trope, but does anybody else find it tough to balance with character likeability?

This is a timely post. I'm currently reading a book that shares a similar premise to my WIP, so I thought I'd see how my ideas compared. It turns out they are not the same at all, haha. I'm still trying to read the book, and I'm finding the enemies thing very hard to swallow. I've read a lot of enemies-to-lovers romances, but this book just CAN'T GET IT RIGHT. Warning, this might turn into a small rant.

I genuinely hate the heroine. She's supposed to be a strong female character...I guess because she's physically strong and kills for a living? I'm almost a fourth of the way into the book, and she's been captured the entire time, has sex with her nemesis because she was "dreaming," and spends every scene spitting vile at the hero. She has no agency at all. For the hero's part, he's kept her alive when his own kind wants to kill her, and when I last rage quit reading it he had her in a choke hold. Just...no! They both suck.

I've been trying to analyze what the author did that's turned me off so badly. Part of it is the violence. It's just gratuitous. I can't relate to the heroine because we hardly know anything about her reasons for hating the hero...or anything about her at all, really. So his people killed her mom? Big deal. It's like hating everyone from France because a French person killed your mom. It just makes the heroine seem stupid. She's stubbornly ignorant, and refuses to see the other side, even though she *totally wants to have sex with the hero again*. Gag.

The hero was pretty likeable up until this choke hold scene, and even then I was kind of rooting for him to kill her because she's so obnoxious.

I can get on board with hate sex if it's done right. Hate sex means they hate each other. The reader shouldn't hate them, too. We need to understand why they hate each other. They can even hate that they are attracted to each other. Just don't make me start hoping they off each other so I can stop reading...
 

Earthling

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<snip for length>

I can get on board with hate sex if it's done right. Hate sex means they hate each other. The reader shouldn't hate them, too. We need to understand why they hate each other. They can even hate that they are attracted to each other. Just don't make me start hoping they off each other so I can stop reading...

Good lord, that book sounds... interesting. I beta read a manuscript that sounds similar (it's not the same - there are key differences), but the author did a great job with it. The heroine's defensiveness and mistrust were logical and understandable, and there was no dream-sex.
 

Zombolly

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The book is almost 10 years old, and was extremely popular (it has thousands of reviews on Goodreads). I’ve read other books with some gratuitous violence, even between the love interests, and I liked it because the characters were enjoying the challenge. It was a part of the sexual tension. Overpowering an injured woman and threatening to choke her isn’t sexy. No thanks.

This was also done in another book I couldn’t finish, so maybe it’s a “thing,” but it comes off as bad taste to me. A lot of abusive spouses pull that move, so I find it disgusting.
 

blackcat777

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For all the things I've contemplated writing, I never thought about hate sex, and this thread gave me an intrigued pause.

For me, what makes the fantasy work is a focus on pleasure. As a reader, I'm happy (all too happy) to explore a loss of control, as long as it's gratifying.

So, any BDSM story is hot. Forced seduction/dubcon will work for me if it's about the struggle of surrendering to pleasure. As for hate sex, within the context of, "I hate your guts so much and I'm going to bring you to your knees with the best sex of your life just to spite you," will also do the trick. And these three scenarios are interesting to me, because it's a continuum of self-control for the person giving the pleasure (and the person receiving always giving in). In BDSM, for example, the dom will have masterful self-control (and thus feels very safe to me as a reader); hate sex lacks that self-control, but as long as the focus is on pleasure, it's still a gratifying way to explore those dangerous emotional places that are like dark chocolate. ;) I think a lot of ex-sex falls into this category (second chance romances, maybe?).

Hate sex where a person lacks emotional self-control and has a desire to genuinely inflict pain on the other person is terrifying to me, not sexy.

And I feel like stories involving one person using another person to selfishly get off (not wanting to hurt them, but not caring about the pleasure, either) provides more of an intellectual interest, but it won't get me fired up the same way because the pleasure dynamic is absent. FWIW, I read something like this in a satire recently and it worked beautifully, but it would have seriously sucked in a romance.

Conflict makes a story interesting, and there's plenty of conflict inherent in the dichotomy of someone you don't like making you feel good. It's up to the author to execute the exploration of the subject well...

On that note, I'm off to write a story about punching my billionaire boss in the face while we...............
 
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morngnstar

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I love the enemies-to-lovers trope, but does anybody else find it tough to balance with character likeability? I find it tricky to have the heroine thinking negative thoughts about the hero in her POV without either making her look petty and mean (if the reasons for her dislike aren't good enough) OR the hero look like too much of an arsehole (if the reasons are too good). That's also true with the genders flipped, though I find readers are generally tougher on female characters than male.

Good characters always have faults, so you just arrange for them to despise each other's faults.

The trick to getting readers to accept a flawed character is to make it a forgivable flaw. Show an understandable reason why they came to have that flaw. Maybe have them overcome the flaw by the end.

You can also make your heroine's pettiness forgivable. Give a reason why the hero's flaw is a pet peeve for her. Maybe it's a once bitten twice shy scenario. Maybe have her learn some degree of tolerance for the flaw.
 

frimble3

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Out of curiosity - what's the feeling about hating what a person does, not what a person is? The owner of the big company and the labour organizer? The environmentalist and the property developer? Starting off hating each other's position on deeply-held issues, then trying to find a middle ground, etc?
 

chompers

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I never understood hate sex. How can you have sex with someone you hate? I couldn't stand being in the same room as someone I hate, let alone share a bed.
 

Earthling

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Re: hate sex, I think of it as 'hate-that-I-want-to-have-sex-with-you sex' rather than actual 'I-hate-you-and-wish-you-harm sex.' I wouldn't find the latter at all sexy or romantic.

Out of curiosity - what's the feeling about hating what a person does, not what a person is? The owner of the big company and the labour organizer? The environmentalist and the property developer? Starting off hating each other's position on deeply-held issues, then trying to find a middle ground, etc?

I think there has to an 'internal' clash as well as 'external' or the conflict is too shallow. Like the real problem between the CEO and the union rep would have to be that the CEO was power-hungry or egotistical or selfish, and his 'doing' was just the external manifestation of that. If the CEO and union rep both cared passionately about social equality, their difference of job title wouldn't sustain an 80k novel.
 

Jeneral

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I'm writing an enemies to lovers WIP right now, so I've been wrestling with that balance of "make them hate each other but don't make them jerks that the reader can't stand." I really keep going back to Pride & Prejudice as a sort of template, since it's such a great example. I've had my characters make a bad first impression on each other, so she just thinks "well, he's a dick." The thing that's worked for this WIP is a sort of one step forward, one step back thing. Give them a reason to connect, but that connection is short-lived because something else reinforces the original bad opinion. And they just happen to push each other's emotional buttons, and they have to get to the point where they really connect and can share honest feelings with each other to overcome that.

Did any of that make sense, or did it all come out as word salad?
 

Marian Perera

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I like enemies-to-lovers, but it has to be done right. There needs to be a solid, believable reason these two are enemies, and it has to be personal (if it's based on prejudice against a group of people, or on something their families did, it's unlikely to work for me). As Barbara R. said, their flaws should make them clash without turning readers off.

I wrote a gay fantasy romance which begins when one hero discovers his ex-boyfriend has been beaten up. The hero is very protective of the people he cares about, so he's furious and decides to go after the person responsible. Then he discovers the person responsible is actually so powerful an entity that the ex is lucky to have survived. All right, he thinks, I'll lull the bastard into a false sense of security and shoot him in the back of the head.

And that entity turns out to be the other hero, who ends up sparing his life after the assassination attempt fails. But at the same time, he did beat someone up, so the question of why (and will it happen again?) keeps them apart. It's very much a push-and-pull between them.
 

Hbooks

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I thought "Dating You Hating You" did this well because there was that friction and circumstances forced the couple against each other at work, but it was a sympathetic situation and they still sort of had a prickly friendship thing going on, too. Neither of them came off as complete jerks, even when they were pranking each other.
 

Zombolly

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I like enemies-to-lovers, but it has to be done right. There needs to be a solid, believable reason these two are enemies, and it has to be personal (if it's based on prejudice against a group of people, or on something their families did, it's unlikely to work for me). As Barbara R. said, their flaws should make them clash without turning readers off.

This! It's exactly why I'm struggling with my current book. I have to read it in small doses because it's just not believable.
 

LadyEllie

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It really depends on the type of conflict. People with different goals can be enemies. Why are they enemies? Is it the conflict that’s not believable or is it the romance? If there’s a good character arc or a believable compromise, you can get away with more.
 

writerfrenzy

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The hero was pretty likeable up until this choke hold scene, and even then I was kind of rooting for him to kill her because she's so obnoxious....

I laughed out loud at this. That's certainly not how we want readers to react to the love interest. I kind of want to read that book now. Mind sharing the na,e?

Honestly, enemies-to-lovers is my all-time favourite romance tropes, hands down. That is, when it's done correctly.

I feel like the main thing with likeability is, as said above, to give flaws to each of the characters that the reader doesn't particularly care about. Having the POV character's mind clouded with judgement is also a good idea -- but make sure that judgement is reasonable. Maybe the other character did something once to piss her off and now she can't let go of it. It's good if he shows some redeeming qualities so the reader might have forgiven him for that, but of course it doesn't mean the POV character will.
 

girlwhowrites

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Theme of my book

This is the exact issue encountered in the book that I am working on. For me, however, the issue is not that either character is unlikeable (the girl has a good reason to be angry at what happened, but he caused the issue on accident). My problem is how to resolve the tension and allow her to forgive him for what happened without making it seem like she is totally flopping over a cute guy. I want her trauma and emotions to be validated, but also allow her to come to understand that what happened was an accident and he had no control of the results of his actions.

Thoughts? I can provide more details if helpful :)
 

Earthling

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This is the exact issue encountered in the book that I am working on. For me, however, the issue is not that either character is unlikeable (the girl has a good reason to be angry at what happened, but he caused the issue on accident). My problem is how to resolve the tension and allow her to forgive him for what happened without making it seem like she is totally flopping over a cute guy. I want her trauma and emotions to be validated, but also allow her to come to understand that what happened was an accident and he had no control of the results of his actions.

Thoughts? I can provide more details if helpful :)

Could she do something that accidentally hurts somebody - maybe even him?
 

RFEinc

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This is the exact issue encountered in the book that I am working on. For me, however, the issue is not that either character is unlikeable (the girl has a good reason to be angry at what happened, but he caused the issue on accident). My problem is how to resolve the tension and allow her to forgive him for what happened without making it seem like she is totally flopping over a cute guy. I want her trauma and emotions to be validated, but also allow her to come to understand that what happened was an accident and he had no control of the results of his actions.

Thoughts? I can provide more details if helpful :)

I just watched the second season of FRIENDS FROM COLLEGE, and without posting spoilers, one of the characters (who did something terrible within his marriage) says -- and I am badly paraphrasing -- "I'm not a monster, I'm just a POS who screwed up." It's stuck with me since I heard the line delivered, and it might apply here. Can he confront her with how accidental his mistake really was, but recognize that just because he didn't intend to hurt her/make her angry doesn't mean she shouldn't be? It puts the ball squarely in her court: Does she forgive because love is about forgiveness if it's about anything, or does she walk away?
 

triceretops

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I just had an enemies to lovers romantic suspense published and yes, if was difficult to balance out faults and foibles. They both had to come from a justifiable position--what would doubly appeal. I began with her very strict holistic and organic eating and health regime, and how his junk food habit really threatened her, but how her herbs, spices and raw foods were totally distasteful to him, which made him sick. I kind of took it from there, where each began to ignite over other little nuances. Their love hate was a perpetual machine that kept running on and on until things began to soften after each found some merit or surprise in the other's lifestyle. It was my first romance, and I knew about this trope, but little did I know how tricky that balancing act would be without going overboard and obvious.
 

aruna

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The book currently set as my profile has exactly that premise. He's a Wehrmacht soldier, she's an SOE agent but he obviously doesn't know it, he thinks she's just a simple French girl. He falls in love with her but in trying to impress her he behaves as a pompous prick and she can't stand him. But bit by bit he reveals a deeper side to himself and comes across as a man with depth and feeling and -- well. She does overcome her dislike, but only after a lot of soul searching.
 

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