Learning How To Love (Or, An About-Face Conversion)
Originally published in Read a Romance Month on Aug 2016
Bless me, friends, for I have sinned.
For, until recently, I did not believe that opposites could attract.
Perhaps second only to the Cinderella trope, enemies-to-lovers is a foundational pier of the romance genre. Yet for three decades, when I watched or read a romance in which two vastly different people quarrel their way to True Love, I didn’t buy it. I laughed, I enjoyed, but I rarely believed the happily-ever-after would last long. Even one of the most famous plays in the English language—Much Ado About Nothing—didn’t move me.
Let me note here that I am not conflict-averse. This wasn’t about avoiding strife. The notion of individuals who are profoundly incompatible somehow magically becoming compatible simply rubbed me wrong. I love sexy sparks. I adore snappy banter. But even more far fetched to me than cinder-girl-landing-rich-prince was the long-term potential of a couple whose relationship was based principally on banter and sex. It seemed specious, Writing 101 trickery: argue, argue, sex, argue, more sex, argue, even more sex, argue, OH HAPPY RECONCILIATION.
Effective entertainment? Yes. Honest storytelling? No. You see, enemies-to-lovers stories weren’t happy fantasy to me. They were actually a little heartbreaking. If opposites really attract, then why is there so much war in the world?
And then I wrote an enemies-to-lovers romance.
Writing, for me, is a very different process than reading or watching. When I read or watch I allow myself to be drawn entirely into another world. My willingness to suspend judgment is usually strong; if the storytelling is great, I’m uncritical of the story’s underpinnings (unless those underpinnings are sexist or racist, but that’s another post altogether). When I write, I allow myself to be drawn along too, but not by someone else’s vision of the world, rather by my own.
That world vision is inspired by values like justice, kindness, generosity, mercy, joy, and gratitude. I crave humor, mystery, and adventure in a romance, and hot chemistry is a must. But we all know that the heart of a beautiful love story isn’t shenanigans or sex. It’s courage. Compassion. Helping the lover to become a fully realized person. Giving of oneself for the sake of the beloved. And for the longest time I simply didn’t believe that was possible for a pairing of true opposites.
So for the first enemies-to-lovers romance I wrote, I relied on fantasy. Seizing the Freaky Friday model, I thrust my hero and heroine — nemeses from birth — into each other’s bodies and forced them to learn to understand each other, intimately.
Sexual chemistry, yes. Snappy banter, to be sure. Crazy fun with Regency-era gender norms, a total bonus. In writing that novel I did not abandon the characteristics of romance that I hold dear. But still it didn’t make me a convert to opposites-attract romances across the board. After all, in reality nobody gets to live in the enemy’s actual skin.
So I tried it again with another book. I had to. I mean, I really had to; I had a contractual deadline. For years I’d been laying the groundwork for this book in earlier novels in the series. This would be the series finale, a love story between steadfast enemies. This romance had to happen, no matter the obstacles.
But this time it was a classic historical romance. No fantasy. No tricks. Just two very different people — two people entirely at odds with each other — learning how to love.
And then it happened. Right there in the writing of it. In living through it with my characters as I wrote, I finally discovered that enemies-to-lovers is not about circumstances or passion overcoming incompatible goals. It isn’t even about two people putting aside their differences in order to compromise. Rather, it’s about that ubiquitous essence of humanity that is not explainable by chromosomes or pheromones, quantifiable by wealth or beauty, or even defined by acts of sacrifice. It’s about laying down pride and fear. Opening oneself entirely to the other. Accepting pain yet privileging hope.
It’s about learning how to love. Real love. The kind of love our divided world needs. The kind of love that romance readers and writers strive for in both fantasy and real life every day.
Part of my writing process is falling in love with each couple I write. With this book I fell in love harder than I ever have before, because it’s the most honest story I have ever told. What’s more, now I’m eagerly reading and watching enemies-to-lovers romances, even those I’d disbelieved before, and loving them. The armor of doubt I’ve worn for years has crumbled. I’m a convert.
So bring it on Beatrice and Benedick. I’m ready and willing to fall.