When asked about favorite tropes, the one that seems to come to most people’s minds first is the hate-to-love trope. While I love me some good angst, this isn’t a trope that usually makes my list. I think it’s because I don’t always like how it’s handled. Essentially, there’s Good Hate-to-Love and there’s Oh-No-This-Is-Borderline-Abuse Hate-to-Love. Today, I’d like to discuss with you the difference.
Characters who originally hate each other but grow to love each other can make some of the best ships. However, there’s a fine line between healthy and unhealthy when it comes to the realization of these ships. It all boils down to one thing: power imbalance. If there is any sort of power imbalance, the relationship is not going to be healthy. One half of the relationship is automatically at a disadvantage.
In real life, we often consider things like age gaps and differing social or professional statuses power imbalances. While this can be the case in fiction, it doesn’t always constitute a problem (nor does it always in real life). The problem comes in when we consider how these characters treat each other. Is the character with arguably more power using that power in order to hurt the other in some way? Are they, essentially, just bullying and abusing the character with which they’re meant to fall in love? How much does the other character fight back and do their rebuttals carry as much weight? Do this feel like genuine competition in some way or does it just feel mean?
These are the questions you have to ask when considering why some hate-to-love ships work, while others don’t. Let’s illustrate this using two of the most popular ships from Harry Potter: Dramione (Draco and Hermione) and Drarry (Draco and Harry). Both are examples of the hate-to-love trope; however, one uses the trope well and the other one most decidedly does not.
Let’s begin with Dramione.
We have Draco Malfoy, proud pureblood and known bully, and Hermione Granger, proud Muggleborn and known bookworm. Based solely off these descriptions, it would be easy to say they could actually work together. But then you remember the fact that one of Draco’s main victims is Hermione. And it’s because she’s Muggleborn and therefore “less-than.” He spews vitriolic prejudice against Hermione and other Muggleborns, going so far as to call her a slur. And how does Hermione respond? Well, she usually doesn’t. In fact, a lot of times she’s (understandably) reduced to tears. Due to Draco’s bullying, it takes Hermione years to be proud of her heritage.
So, are we really to believe that Hermione could ever fall in love with the boy who caused her extensive psychological damage? Or that Draco could put aside his prejudices enough to overlook them and fall in love with a Muggleborn (never mind the racist implication, “You’re not like other Mudbloods!”)? There’s so much ugly, ugly history here, there’s no conceivable way these two could ever stand as a good example of a hate-to-love ship.
But what about Drarry?
After all, Draco is still the same character. So why would this relationship be different? Because Harry is different. Thus, the relationship changes. Every step of the way, Harry and Draco are equal. No, Harry doesn’t go out of his way to humiliate Draco the way Draco does him. But whenever they go toe-to-toe, they’re evenly matched. They share a fairly proportionate amount of wins and losses. In fact, the two are set up to not only be rivals, but foils. Harry is the Chosen One, the hero the good guys can rally around. Draco (though, admittedly, to a lesser extent) is the Dark Side’s answer.
Both are very well-known around the school: Draco for his wealth and father’s influence and Harry for being The Boy Who Lived. They’re both flanked and supported by loyal sidekicks. They’re both (to some extent) adored. Both are also fairly well-matched in terms of magical skill. They share an even amount of support, influence, and power. As such, neither one ever truly has the upper hand.
And then there is, of course, the fact that the two think and talk about each other constantly. They’re always very aware of each other. And, in the end, there is an underlying sense of mutual respect. They save each other’s lives. They ultimately come to the same conclusion about which side is right (though we can all agree only one really does the work necessary to ensure a victory) and actively protect each other. Honestly, if anyone can stand as a good example of a post-canon (or even within-canon) hate-to-love ship, it’s them.
What have we learned today, kids? Well, we’ve figured out how to dissect a hate-to-love ship and determine whether or not it’s a good example of the trope. Essentially, if your ship has a power imbalance and the character with more power abuses that, you’ve completely misunderstood what makes that trope (and relationships) work. Other bad examples of this trope include Rey and Kylo Ren from Star Wars, Cleo and Magnus from Falling Kingdoms by Morgan Rhodes, and Nina and Matthias from Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo.
While there is an abundance of ships that fail to adequately use the hate-to-love trope, that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of writers out there absolutely killing it. Other good examples of the hate-to-love trope are Tea and Kalen from The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco, Gauri and Vikram from A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi, and Han and Leia from Star Wars. Basically, they can stand in opposition and they can bicker constantly, but they have to be equals in some fundamental way.
Of course, even though we know this, that doesn’t mean we always totally succeed. Sometimes writers find a gray area that does some things right, but other things very wrong. This is often due to the characters starting off with an ambiguously-abused power imbalance that is later rectified. However, even then, the banter and new-found equality is still imperfect (and possibly still concerning). A few examples of these so-called college tries are Feyre and Rhys from A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas, Agniezskia and The Dragon from Uprooted by Naomi Novik, and Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy from Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen.
What do we do about all this? We continue to have discussions like this, where we point out exactly what does and doesn’t work about a relationship. This will help writers develop healthier relationships, whether they’re using the hate-to-love trope or not. But it’s all “just fiction,” right? If you truly believe that, it just means you’ve forgotten the power fiction has. Perhaps that means you and fiction have a power imbalance you need to work out yourselves. And for that, I wish you the best… ish.