Imperfect. Damaged. Messed Up. These are all words I associated with characters in the early days of New Adult. It wasn’t until a recent conversation that I realized these characteristics are also inherent in the heroes and heroines of romantic comedy.
Perfect, idealized characters that saves the day, are great in small doses, but have no place in romantic comedy. What makes for compelling stories is a character that's flawed. That's the case for all fiction. Full stop. What makes romance particularly fulfilling is when you are following the journey of a imperfect character (much like us) that triumphs over circumstance and finds love. When a perfect character triumphs over circumstance... it's far less engaging.
So What Does a Comedic Flawed Character Look Like?
We all know what a damaged character looks like under angstier context. They're Angel in Buffy. They're Christian in Fifty Shades of Grey. They're Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. However, applying characters with similar issues into a lighter atmosphere turns them into completely different person.
One of my favorite romantic comedies (favorite films, really) is When Harry Met Sally. It's practically perfect in every way. But look who's behind it: Meg Ryan, Billy Crystal, Nora Ephron. It's no surprise. However, if we dive deeper, we see these imperfect characters for what they are. To give them labels: Harry Burns is commitment-phobic, condescending, and borderline nihilistic. Sally Albright, by contrast, is a neurotic, Type A romantic. They both like things the way they like them, but the way they like them couldn't be more different. And at first it makes them butt heads.
However, it's the witty banter and the side characters that makes this friends-to-lovers story truly work as a comedy (can you imagine how dark it could have gone with Harry's penchant for dwelling on death without Ephron's signature dialogue?).
In romance, it again comes down to the writing of those flawed characters. Look at Karina Halle's Smut. We're given Amanda who, much like Josie in Never Been Kissed, is a nervous puker. Within the first few pages we see this play out in a cringe-worthy scene:
My nickname in high school, aside from Amanda Panda, Lord of the Geeks, and Tits McGee, was Sir Pukes-a-Lot. It didn't matter that I wasn't a sir. I still got sick everytime I got really nervous, which led to many embarrassing moments during presentations, PE, and drama class. Clearly, having such a nightmare-worthy reflex defined my awkward teenage years, though I haven't puked in an awkward situation in a really long time, and I desperately want to keep it that way.
Sadly, it wasn't meant to be:
“Alan, I'm sorry,” I manage to get out, trying not to open my mouth too wide. “I can't, I can't... I can't...”
And I can't finish my sentence.
Up comes the vomit.
The scene ends with a vomit covered would-be-fiancé, a humiliated heroine, and the beginning of a delightful romantic comedy. For those of you who get sympathy nauseous, I'll leave you with this relatable reaction to running from the heroine that exemplifies Halle's writing, but won't leave you queasy:
Running is therapy.
At least that's what I tell myself. Over and over and over again.
This is good for you.
This is hell.
I'm literally going to die.
Why am I doing this to myself?
Can I stop now?
I'm going to stop.
I'll leave you with one of my other favorite examples of romantic comedy, which comes from Penny Reid. In particular, Grin and Beard It is masterful rom-com fantasticness. Again this is felt from the very beginning with the reader's introduction to Sienna, who can't read a map to save her life.
I cursed the map.
“BY MOTHRA'S NIPPLES! I FUCKING HATE THIS MAP!”
I'm a little embarrassed to admit, in my mindlessness I was also taunting the map, questioning its virility, flipping it the bird, and cursing now in Spanish as well as English.
It was the most cardio I'd done in over twelve months.
Stupid map, making me do cardio. I'll kill you!
Both authors present us with imperfect characters. Whether they can't handle an awkward situation without vomiting or can't find their way out of the woods without assistance—or any myriad problems they run into—it's their flaws that make them human, and humorous.
The Balance Between Flawed, Incompetent, and Obnoxious...
Now the problem with writing flawed characters in a comedic context is that they can become annoying or appear incompetent. For example, it's normal to miss the bus. In fact, it's normal to miss the bus every day. What's not normal is missing the bus because you tripped over your cat, who you accidentally dropkick out the window, or you miss the bus because ran into an old lady in a wheelchair and accidentally wheeled her out into oncoming traffic... Every. Single. Day. The crux of the issue is that the hero or heroine has to be relatable on some level.
Anna Faris in What's Your Number? walks that line nine times out of ten (I cringe every time she fakes a British accent with Martin Freeman... and I have been known to fast forward through that part). For those of you who haven't seen the movie, Faris refuses to go over her “number” of sexual partners after reading an article in a women's magazine. It's good old-fashioned slut-shaming... and the movie actually doesn't help itself out much because in the end Faris is overjoyed when she learns that Chris Evans, her true love in the film, is her Mr. 20 (the arbitrary number chosen by said magazine/movie). However, the journey along the way is pretty solid: Faris learns a lot about herself, including to accept her goofy, weird, flawed parts. While the situations are hyperbolic, they're also fundamentally human. We all have changed ourselves to fit an ideal—or known someone who has. We all have dated someone who's totally cringe-y—or known someone who has. We've all made a fool of ourselves for love—or known someone who has. If we can laugh at characters with faults not too far from our own, then we can find a way to laugh at ourselves, and that's half the fun in escapist reading, isn't it?
All that being said, there are exceptions to the rules. A perfect character can become funny when the circumstances around them unravel—or, like Carrie Fisher's Marie to Meg Ryan's Sally Albright, when the side characters are even more messed up than they are. But I find it's more fun when the main character doesn't have their act together.
So, thoughts? Do you think romantic comedy needs flawed characters?
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Jennifer Proffitt is a Midwest transplant to New York City. You can usually find her wishing time-travel was possible so she could go back to Victorian England or that she was a paranormal creature. But in the meantime, she fills her time being the Community Manger for Heroes and Heartbreakers, and reading and writing romance. You can find her on Twitter at @JennProffitt