Frenemy. First appearing in Webster’s in 2009, in print as early as 1891, and in our lives possibly as recently as this morning with that text from our bestie, the term refers to someone who is or pretends to be a friend but is also an enemy or rival.
Readers can usually readily identify with the frenemy trope in romance novels because in almost everyone’s life there is at least one frenemy: the co-worker who issues the subtle jabs, the friend who undermines our confidence, the relative who secretly celebrates our failures. Within the pages of a novel, a frenemy can provide spice, create havoc, and increase tension. As we develop frenemies for our story, to avoid setting one up as truly an enemy, we must take care to cultivate equally engaging characters.
4 Tips for Writing Engaging Frenemies
1. Each character must be likable to the reader, even if not to each other
In Get a Life, Chloe Brown, Talia Hibbert first introduces each main character in an isolated and positive light before the friendly sniping occurs. The heroine has a near-death experience that causes her to reevaluate her life and decide she needs to be more adventurous. We are given a sense of what Chloe’s life was before: her fears and anxieties, as well as a hint at the reason for them—chronic pain.
When we meet Redford Morgan, he is up to his elbow unclogging a toilet for an elderly tenant in the apartment building where he is the supervisor. The humor and kindness that he exhibits while dealing with the lonely widow who needs something repaired at least three times a week pluck the readers’ heartstrings.
We’re already invested in these characters before they cross paths and their witty banter is put on full display. Chloe believes he’s rude; Red considers her a wealthy snob. It also irritates Chloe that her sisters adore him—another nod to his being a likable character. Yet when she needs someone to teach her how to live life to the fullest, Red is the one she turns to because, in spite of the tension between them, she recognizes he isn’t the enemy.
2. Each character must have an empathetic backstory
Tools of Engagement by Tessa Bailey opens with the hero fostering his niece while his sister has taken a sabbatical from parenting in order to figure out her life. Wes Daniels is obviously in over his head, but his love for the five-year-old is clear from the start, making him incredibly empathetic. Then we meet the heroine, Bethany Castle, and quickly realize that her past has forced her to believe she has to project perfection at all times. She may come across as having it all together, but as she hosts an evening with friends, her fears that something will be found lacking reveals her vulnerabilities and serve to make her relatable. To forge her own path, she has to break away from her overbearing family.
But she’s going to need the help of the younger Wes Daniels, who enjoys teasing her about their age difference since she is much older than he is. They’re always at odds, frenemies striving to ignore their attraction by focusing their barbs on the reason they shouldn’t be together: Bethany has had too many temporary relationships and Wes is in town only until his sister sorts out her life.
3. The banter should be clever or witty, but never cruel or mean-spirited
When establishing the characters as frenemies, the effective use of dialogue is crucial and harkens back to the first rule about keeping the characters likable. We don’t want the reader cringing at words spoken, rather we want the reader to find the dialogue interesting, fun, or revealing. We want the conversations between the characters to paint a portrait of promise for the reader.
Sarah MacLean’s mastery of repartee brings her characters to life, makes them multi-dimensional, and provides a deeper understanding of their strength, personality, and ability to face the challenges thrown at them. In A Scot in the Dark, the recently anointed Duke of Warnick discovers his inheritance includes overseeing the well-being of the scandalous Miss Lillian Hargrove. He travels to London to find her a suitable husband, but Lillian is not at all pleased to see him.
She pushed open the door to find him behind a newspaper, a plate piled high in front of him, nothing but shirtsleeves visible. “You slept here?”
Alex Stuart did not lower the newsprint when she crossed the threshold. “Good morning, Lillian.”
“You’re not staying. There are eight other residences in London, Your Grace, not to mention wherever you’ve laid your head the other times you’ve been to town—I’m sure you can find another that will suit.”
He lowered one corner of his paper. “How do you know I’ve been to town before now?”
“Good God,” she said. “What happened to your face?”
“A lady wouldn’t notice.”
His right eye was swollen shut, black, and a wicked shade of green. “Is the lady in question blind?”
With frenemies, banter can be used to deflect, to avoid answering questions, or to turn the tables on the other character. Dialogue can be an important tool for defining the relationship, but also for showing its evolution through the story.
4. The reason behind being frenemies shouldn’t be something so simple it could be cleared up with a conversation
Misunderstandings are fine, but a deeper reason must drive the frenemies-to-lovers scenario forward. In my current release, Scoundrel of My Heart, my heroine, Lady Kathryn Lambert, and her best friend’s brother, Griffith Stanwick, have a love-hate relationship. She once confided in him, and he used the information to his benefit, and in so doing, betrayed her confidence. Trust was destroyed, and it’s not something that can be regained with a conversation. Actions, as well as growth on the part of both characters, will be necessary to change the dynamics of the relationship.
As all these stories demonstrate, a properly set up frenemies scenario can provide a foundation upon which to build a story, but eventually, our characters must develop and grow in order to take control of their lives, their pasts, their scandals, and their futures. But the spark must start with engaging characters who will keep the reader turning the pages.