8 Rules for Romantic Comedies

June 11, 2010

by Andie Nash

Character Names
It is important that the two leads have charming, bite-sized first names. Acceptable names for male protagonists are Jack, Sam, and Max. These names work regardless of the character’s age, personality, or profession. The rules for naming female characters are a bit more complicated. Is she quirky? Go with something cute like Lucy or Annie. Is she edgy? Go with a unisex moniker like Alex or Jesse. Is she hilariously old-fashioned? Go with a traditional name like Sarah or Kate.

The Rule of Opposites
Of course, it’s best for the male and female leads to be complete opposites. Acceptable opposites include: Frigid Rich Bitch + Funny Slacker Dude, Sexy Good Girl + Likable Bad Boy, Handsome Uptight Executive + Whimsical Artist Chick, Geeky Smart Guy + Hot Popular Girl. These roles can be reversed, but exercise caution when flipping the Hottie/Geek script. Beneath her nerdy shell, Geeky Smart Girl cannot be too smart—she is just a chick, after all—and must quickly be prettied up when the script calls for it (e.g. ditching her black-framed eyeglasses and donning a sexy dress for a night out).  The Hot Popular Guy can be a bit of a cad, as long as he redeems himself by the end of the film (see Freddie Prinze Jr. in She’s All That).

Gay Best Friends
It’s perfectly fine to issue your female protagonist a gay best friend. In fact, it’s absolutely encouraged—as long as you remember a few key points. Firstly, it must be a gay male best friend as opposed to a gay female best friend. After all, it’s a bit weird for an attractive straight woman to have a lesbian sidekick. The sole reason for a lesbian to even exist in a heterosexual romantic comedy is so that Ben Affleck can turn her straight (see Chasing Amy and Gigli). On the other hand, gay male best friends are a riot. They can be an endless source of “puh-lease, girlfriend!” quips and sassy gay observations. They can also—non-threateningly, of course—make funny lustful comments about the protagonist’s love interest in ways that her female friends cannot, lest they come off as crass or slutty.

The Race Card
Interracial romances can be just as funny and clichéd as relationships between plain old white folk, as long as you stick to a few simple guidelines:

  • The male lead should always be white. In fact, the whiter the better (see Matthew Perry in Fools Rush In; Ashton Kutcher in Guess Who?). Forget Katharine Houghton and Sidney Poitier, you hippies. That was the sixties. Middle America may be slowly coming to terms with white girl/non-white guy couples, but what do they know? Here in Hollywood, we’re still uncomfortable with the idea of non-white men dating our wimmins. Besides, making the female lead the “racial” half of the couple means you can cast a hot ethnic babe like Salma Hayek (if character is Latina) or Zoe Saldana (if character is black).
  • If the plot hinges on the couple getting married, familial disapproval on both sides is required. However, any instance of racism—especially on the part of the white relatives—should absolutely be played for laughs. The white parents can be hilariously perplexed by the slang used by their new in-laws; black siblings can comically shake their heads at their new brother-in-law’s white boy dance moves.

The Soon-To-Be Ex
Jilting unlikable significant others is a necessary evil when you’ve issued both your male and female protagonists their own romantic placeholders. There are several solid reasons to employ the Soon-To-Be-Ex plot device, including the following: a.) to create conflict, b.) to pad out the film, c.) to prove that the two main characters are at least desirable enough to have already landed romantic partners, d.) to symbolize the inferior aspects of the protagonists’ lives, so that they may cast off their old ways after realizing they’ve found The One. Please note: when creating a Soon-To-Be Ex character, it’s best to provide a cartoonishly vapid, self-absorbed (i.e. evil) witch of a girlfriend for him; a narcissistic, thoughtless (i.e. evil) tool of a boyfriend for her.

The Supportive Breakup
And on to the jilting. Serendipity, Sleepless In Seattle, You’ve Got Mail, The Sweetest Thing, The Wedding Planner, Runaway Bride. What do these films have in common? They all contain instructive lessons on ditching those pesky (but sometimes necessary) Soon-To-Be-Exes. IMPORTANT: real life break-up drama has no place in a romantic comedy when casting off these extraneous characters. The exes kindly refrain from stalking the protagonist once he/she has wised up and executed the dump, unless the plot hinges on the protagonist making a choice between the STBE and the soulmate. There are no late night drunken phone calls begging to be taken back, no passive-aggressive suicide attempts, no makeup/breakup/makeup sex involving the protagonist and the jilted STBEs. Best possible (and easiest) scenario: The Supportive Breakup. This is where the STBE gallantly accepts and understands the protagonist’s need to end the relationship in order to pursue their true love interest. Meg Ryan and Greg Kinnear even do a simultaneous Supportive Breakup on one another in You’ve Got Mail. Study this scene.

Funny Stalking
This is a proud tradition in romantic comedies. Take heed, though: Funny Stalking works best when it is carried out by the male protagonist, because everyone knows women can’t do Funny Stalking without coming off all creepy and annoying. Remember Lara Flynn Boyle as Mike Myers’s psycho ex-girlfriend in Wayne’s World? Neither funny nor charming. Did you see Sandra Bullock pathetically chase down Bradley Cooper in All About Steve? Neither did anyone else. FS is better left to male protagonists. For examples, watch Dexter Fletcher pursue Ione Skye in The Rachel Papers, Adam Sandler’s obsess over Drew Barrymore in 50 First Dates, and Ben Stiller stalk the hell out of Cameron Diaz in the mother of all Funny Stalking rom-coms, There’s Something About Mary.

Mutual Contempt = True Love
This is a no-brainer. When two attractive people instantly hate one another upon meeting, they are really just masking their love/lust (same thing) for each other so that they can come to their senses and realize that they are truly, madly, deeply in love by the time the credits roll. It happened with George Clooney and Michelle Pfeiffer in One Fine Day, Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke in Reality Bites, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail, Meg Ryan and Kevin Kline in French Kiss, Julia Roberts and Richard Gere Runaway Bride, and it can happen to your characters.

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34 Responses to 8 Rules for Romantic Comedies

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