Tropes serve the function of signaling story elements to the audience and of providing shortcuts to understanding said story. While badly-written tropes can come off as “cliche,” the most common fiction tropes are so popular, and are relied on so heavily, because they have a fundamental logic to them that the creators know most or much of the target audience will grasp instinctively. However, various tropes are similar enough in essential elements that they are easily confused or misidentified (sometimes by design). In such cases, the surrounding context of the story and structure, as well as an understanding of how such tropes work and – significantly – why they work, should be given special consideration. Here we examine how the “enemies to lovers” trope is used in modern popular fiction and compare and contrast it with how Kylo and Rey’s relationship is presented in the Force Awakens. The comparison will show whether their relationship, as presented in canon, is in agreement with or in violation of the trope.
“Enemies to allies,” and its popular counterpart, “enemies to lovers,” are extremely common and popular story tropes. As such, it is unsurprising that fans have debated the use of these tropes in the Star Wars Sequel Trilogy. Though it must be remembered that in mainstream, published fiction, “enemies to allies” and “enemies to lovers” are not interchangeable tropes, just as two characters who may be easily written as friends are not necessarily set up in a way that allows for structurally-logical romance.
Both the “enemies to allies” and “enemies to lovers” tropes are set up through the inclusion of two equally antagonistic characters or a heroic character and a villain/antagonist. Often the villainous character is of a similar age and, in the enemies to lovers trope, typically of opposite gender as the protagonist . The villainous character is usually set up in such a way, either through portrayal or background, to inform the audience that they should not be seen as “pure evil” a la, say, Emperor Palpatine in Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.
It is also quite common, when the “enemies to lovers” trope is used, for both of the enemies to be portrayed as being equally morally gray, just positioned on opposite sides of the conflict. Such is sometimes the case with James Bond and his femme fatales and the titular characters in Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Typically when either of these tropes are used and one of the enemies is portrayed as heroic while the other is portrayed as being villainous, the “evil” character is portrayed as being morally grey at worst and is never shown in the story doing anything that the audience would be likely to consider unforgivable. The story creators want the audience to eventually like this character and see them as an acceptable (through the lens of current social morals) love interest. Making the audience despise the “evil” character initially is counter productive to that end. This is why Catwoman is a jewel thief, not a mass murdering terrorist, and why Mara Jade is part of a criminal gang when Luke first meets her, not an Imperial agent.
When the conflict between the characters isn’t of a violent nature it is sometimes the case that neither characters is portrayed as committing any truly evil act. Often the character don’t like each other due to some misunderstanding (Pride and Prejudice) or a character flaw on the part of one or both of the characters, such as selfishness or a temper (Disney’s Beauty and the Beast). Typically the conflict between the characters resolves when the character that was in the wrong, or believed to be in the wrong, proves themselves to be heroic or otherwise of good moral character. The Beast saves Belle from the wolves and their conflict resolves and their romance begins. Mr. Darcy goes above and beyond to take care of Elizabeth’s family and corrects his mistake when he realizes why Elizabeth is angry with him. Elizabeth falls in love with him once she sees all that he has done.
By contrast, Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens is clearly presented as a villain (in both appearance and action). He is portrayed as sympathetic due to his deep internal conflict and through his status as the son of two beloved Star Wars heroes, but he also violates the setup of the “enemies to lovers” trope in that he is shown as committing acts that could be deemed unforgivable by the audience. Moreover, the narrative does not take pains to downplay the visceral evil of these acts. He personally kills and orders the deaths of innocent civilians (after Captain Phasma asks him what to do about the villagers, suggesting that gratuitous mass slaughter is not necessarily standard practice, even in the First Order). Also, despite the fact that he felt “torn apart” at the time, he murdered his father, Han Solo, one of the most beloved characters in cinematic fiction. This crime was committed onscreen and clearly voluntarily.
Throughout the history of fiction, the act of murdering one’s kin has been considered one of the most heinous acts a person can commit. The fact that Kylo’s father was also such a beloved character ups the risk of the audience developing strong feelings of animosity toward the character. This is something that a writer would not want to risk with a character if they later intend to portray the character as the love interest of a heroic character. The audience may not forgive the character as easily as the character’s intended love interest and that will make it much harder to sell the audience on the idea that the couple becoming romantically involved is a good thing.
Typically when the Enemies to Lovers trope is used, the characters are portrayed in such a way that one character can never be seen as truly being the victim of the other. There are several methods to achieve this. One is to make the characters equally aggressive toward each other. Often, the actions the characters take against one another are portrayed as a playful rivalry and the characters are portrayed as more impressed and/or attracted than fearful and threatened when their counterpart wins a round. This is how the trope is used in James Bond movies, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and with Batman and Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises.
The way to prevent one character from appearing victimized by the other character when one character is portrayed as considerably more aggressive is to shift the power balance of the relationship in such a way that it favors the less aggressive character. The shifted power balance allows the less aggressive character to not fear the more aggressive character. This is how Luke and Mara’s dynamic is initially portrayed in Heir to the Empire. Mara wants to kill Luke, Luke doesn’t want to kill Mara, but he’s also not shown to be terribly afraid of her at any point.
Now contrast this with how Rey and Kylo Ren’s dynamic is portrayed in The Force Awakens. Throughout most of the movie Kylo is portrayed as the more aggressive character. Rey only ever behaves in an aggressive way toward him in response to an act of aggression that he makes toward her. On Takodana, she fires on him because he is stalking after her. During the interrogation scene she only enters his mind on accident as a result of pushing him out of her mind. The lightsaber battle in the snow would never have even happened if Kylo hadn’t pursued Rey and Finn.
Throughout the movie Kylo also has the power balance of the relationship shifted in his favor. When Kylo and Rey first meet on Takodana, he is portrayed as powerful, frightening and unstoppable while Rey is portrayed as terrified and helpless by comparison. Rey attempts to defend herself, but Kylo easily overpowers Rey and abducts her. In the Interrogation Scene (which J.J. Abrams refers to as “the torture scene” in the TFA audio commentary and Rey refers to as “torture” in a recent issue of the Poe Dameron comic), Kylo again is shown to have the upper hand. Rey is his prisoner and initially she isn’t able to resist when he probes her mind. She is shown struggling, clearly in pain, and crying, making clear that despite Kylo’s treatment of Rey being somewhat less intensely aggressive than his interrogation of Poe, it is far from benign. Rey’s distress makes no impression on Kylo, nor inspires any sense of guilt or tenderheartedness.
Eventually she is able to fight back and force him from her mind and briefly ends up in his, but even as Kylo leaves, Rey is still his prisoner. The power balance has shifted slightly but is still in his favor. Even after Rey’s escape, the power balance is still in Kylo’s favor. Rey is a fearful fugitive on a base under Kylo’s authority. In the duel in the snow, Kylo is portrayed as having the upper hand through most of the fight. He flings Rey against a tree, knocking her out (despite having shown an ability to simply immobilize with the Force), defeats Finn, and has Rey on the defensive for most of the fight. The power balance doesn’t shift to Rey’s favor until the ledge where Rey is able to channel the Force and defeat Kylo.
In conclusion, J.J. Abrams violated multiple presets for the Enemies to Lovers trope by portraying Kylo committing truly evil acts and by portraying both the level of aggression and the power balance between Rey and Kylo as being tipped in Kylo’s favor throughout most of the film. Storytellers try to avoid portraying their characters as truly evil when writing enemies to lovers stories because it risks the audience not forgiving the character when it comes time to for the romance to begin. They also tend to not write the characters as having a dynamic where the balance of power and the balance of aggression both favor one character over the other. Initially setting up the characters with that unbalanced dynamic risks casting them in the roles of aggressor and victim in the minds of the audience. The storytellers don’t want that dynamic to carry over into the romance part of the story for obvious reasons. The fact that J.J. Abrams did set up Rey and Kylo with that dynamic and did show Kylo committing acts of great evil suggests that the Enemies to Lovers trope was not the trope he intended Rey and Kylo to follow.
Our next article will continue to compare the Enemies to Lovers trope with how Rey and Kylo’s relationship is presented in the Last Jedi and what possibilities that leaves open for Episode IX.