10 Mar 2015

ROM COM RULES - Why Rule 1 [The Characters]?

Films have formulas and rules, but how well do films follow those formulas?  Why do the Rom Com rules exist?

I looked at 10 rules the Rom Com genre followed, tested 10 films against them and analysed the results, but I never looked at the rules themselves, so let's look at the first Rom Com rule...

They say before you can break the rules you have to understand them...


With any romance film, there's got to be a couple, obviously.  So with that covered we can end here, right?  OK, let's look at the detail:

1a.  The Couple

           i.     Balance - Unlike a lot of film genres where there will be a main character and a secondary love interest (usually a male hero and a female supporting character (sometimes called a Female Lead, although the opposite can be true in romances).  Rom Coms are usually a lot more balanced, showing the POV of both parties.

Really, a romance story can be told one of three ways:  Both parties, one party or an outsider.  As noted in the Manic Pixie Dream Girl rules those films - even ones trying to be rom-coms - usually focus on the male character, stereotypically Romance novels are about a female character choosing between two males and certainly in the Rom Coms tested, there were one-sided examples: Bridget Jones' Diary focused, obviously, on Bridget.

Although a one-sided story is possible, the rule states (and most films follow) a more balanced approach.  Viewers and readers want the protagonist to win and to get what they are after.  By making the two main characters the co-protagonist the viewers will want them to get together.  Otherwise, there is always the danger that if there is one main character the audience will route for them ending up with someone else or viewers may even think that ending up without a relationship is a better option.

A lot of Rom Com behaviour is actually quite creepy, but we're more likely to give a protagonist: someone who's POV we've experienced than a character we barely know.  Say, for example, we remove Annie's side of the story from Sleepless In Seattle, she because a creepy stalker woman that ... keeps seeing (which is still sort of true).

A lot of conflict and comedy in Rom-Coms is also based on misunderstandings, which are much easier to portray if the viewer has knowledge of both sides of the situation.

          ii.     Opposites in Attitude/Behaviour - You know, "opposites attract" and it helps the old "love/hate thing.  Examples include (but are not limited to):
                  - Fears Commitment vs Obsessed with Marriage.
                  - Uptight/Workaholic vs Carefree, Romantic.
                  - Neat vs Slobbish.
                  - Jock vs Nerd (especially in Teen romances)
                  - Privileged vs Wrong side of the Tracks.
Most of these can be summarised as one will be "fun" and the other "serious".  If they female character is "fun" she may be labeled (by critics) as a "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" although they appear in a range of films and often don't appear in "balanced" films, being seen mainly through the eyes of the male lead.  Of course, one (usually the serious one) will have to change for the happy ending.

Stories thrive on conflict, and the easiest conflict for a relationship is basic incompatibility.  It also makes the love seem so much stronger when one or both are able to look past or change behaviour to get together at the end.  Most of these are old staples of romance and don't really need covering.

Commitmentphobes are a good one.  They exist, stereotypically male. so the viewer has empathy.  But is also places a far bigger barrier to the happy ending.  A neat-freak can accept a slob, but a commitmentphobe must change or the couple can't end up together.  It also leads to the implication that it wasn't commitment that the character feared, they just hadn't met the right person yet.

Marriage obsession is the opposite.  Someone who goes to a lot of marriages or works in the industry allows a lot of wedding ("romantic") imaginary to appear throughout the film.  It also provides the ironic juxtaposition of someone around romance who never finds their own.  Of course, the person in the wedding industry could be a commitmentphobe which just doubles the irony.

          iii.     Opposites in Life - They will often be competitors or be set against each other in some way (a writer of bad films/a film critic, etc) to heighten the "love/hate" thing.

As stated above: conflict, and this one goes to a person's chosen career.

          iv.     Occupations/free time involving Romance or the Media - At least one will often have something to do with love in their profession (or home life); involvement in weddings or matchmaking or advice.  It's ironic, especially if they can't find love.  One (maybe the same one) will often be involved with me involved in the media.  So when the big embarrassment happens it can be broadcast.

Sometimes the media is just writing what you know, as scriptwriters often have journalism or other media backgrounds.  However, as noted, it can be about the embarrassment.  A lot of Rom Coms hinge on one person embarrassing or betraying the other and needing to achieve forgiveness before they can get together.  Embarrassment in front of friends and family, well, that's one thing.  Embarrassment broadcast on TV or the front page of a newspaper, that's something else.  In these days of social media, a tweet or image that goes viral can be just as bad leading to the death of journalism (in Rom Coms).

As noted above: romance based careers lead to romantic imagery and irony.

1b.  The Best Friend/Confidant - Usually each will have a sidekick and/or adviser (or a couple thereof).  This will usually be a best friend character, who will often be some combination of:
     i.     Ugly (for women: Hollywood ugly: "cute not beautiful" or "beautiful but not skinny".  For men:  Overweight, not attractive, usually an actor with a history in comedy.)
      ii.     Wacky, especially if the friend-lead is the serious one.
    iii.   Slutty/Sleazy, if only in word and thought but not in action (once again, especially if the hero/heroine is "repressed".)
     iv.     Family, may be a best-friend parent or a best-friend sibling.
     v.    The Opposite Sex, usually the same sex, but can be the opposite sex; a still-friend ex, a friend-zoned friend or to stop any complications, gay.

There are multiple uses for these characters:  broader comedy (stuff the protagonist couldn't get away with or over the top slap stick), unpopular advice or encouragement (who else would suggest getting drunk and going to a strip club was the best way to get over the other person) and good advice or encouragement (the protagonist needs someone who will always listen and someone who will give them the final push.)

They have to be Hollywood ugly so they don't compete with the main characters, plus "ugly" people are funnier and wackier.  A family member offers that extra level of trust (and if necessary, betrayal) and a member of the opposite sex can offer the other side's view.

1c.   The Third Person - One (or both) may have a current or ex (or another possible future) romantic interest.  Usually, but not always another man for the woman.  They will be a better "match", sharing common interests and goals, but there just won't be the "spark" or passion.  A fiance is common as it means that there is a wedding in the future.

The love triangle is again, a staple of romance.  Whereas it may be the main conflict of a standard romance and the story may hinge on the choice, there's rarely any real choice in a Rom Com.  There's the One True Love and the Third Person.

Now, a Rom Com may push the idea that the Third Person will win, but that doesn't mean it's every really going to happen (My Best Friend's Wedding, excepted), rather, that's just pushing the fear that they may never get together.

The third person also makes the relationship with the other protagonist look better.  The third person may be completely compatible, but dull.  They may be annoying.  They may show that the main character is just settling but unhappy.  They may show that what they've found now is real love and nothing before was.

~ DUG.

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