In every romantic comedy there is certain criteria that has to be met. Obviously it has to be funny and even more obvious, it has to be romantic. When a character is being romantic they can’t be funny (unless we’re laughing at them) and when they’re being funny they can’t really be romantic. Being the suave doofus that I am my attempts at romance are funny but that’s not really what I mean here.
There are mainstays that work their way into every romantic comedy because of these needs and I thought I’d outline them here, since I’m done with my first draft now, to ensure that I have covered everything that needs to be covered. So, we have:
The Protagonist: Male, female, robot, whatever. Generally the protagonist can go two ways; they can be so unsure of themselves that they have trouble starting a relationship and can easily screw it up (Anything without Hugh Grant) OR they can be so sure of themselves that their pride screws things up for them (Anything with Hugh Grant). No matter how you approach the situation, they’re going to screw up a relationship at some point in the story. Whether they’re dumped in the beginning, dumped in the middle, or dumped at the end their shortcomings are going to bite them in the ass. So, naturally, in order for the romantic comedy to come to completion we must have them fix their problems, win their heart’s desire, and that’s that. Or you could leave the theater feeling disappointed as in The Break Up.
The Interest: This is who our protagonist desires. They’re perfect (for them) in every way and you want to see them together, you know you’re going to see them together… but HOW are they going to get together? Will our protagonist overcome their problems so that their interest can see the real them and fall in love with them? Probably. Even so, the goal of the romantic comedy is not the getting there, it’s HOW you get there.
The Best Friend(s): Our protagonist and our interest both (usually) have best friends and they are generally the comic relief. They are able to point out what’s wrong with life, provide some advice that may or may not work and to generally take the pratfalls when things go wrong. The protagonist gets the blame, they get the funny, of course. These characters are generally scene-stealers because they’re very entertaining, they’re there to lighten the mood and really bring out the comedy in a romantic comedy. Look at Jack Black in High Fidelity. I was highly invested in John Cusack fixing his life but every time Jack was on screen he stole my attention, BUT, when he was not there I wasn’t pining for him to come back. They have to be entertaining but not overly likable, that’s your protagonist’s job (even is they are a jerk). One best friend is fine, but it’s fun to see the best friend get to know the interest – for better or for worse.
The Plan/Problem: Our protagonist’s plan or problem (the foil of the story, our inciting incident as well as our climax decision) is in itself a character. It drives our protagonist along and forces their decisions and moves the story along. If the protagonist was perfect and had what they wanted, we wouldn’t have a story, simple as that. So our protagonist must fix what is wrong with their life (if it’s a plan, usually a way to happiness/money, if it’s a problem, they realize at the end they were Hugh Grant all along).
The Antagonist: Now I haven’t mentioned an antagonist directly because in a romantic comedy there usually isn’t a REAL antagonist. The “sort-of” antagonist is usually someone that’s either interested in the interest as well, already with the interest, was with the interest at some point, or steals the interest away – but they’re not out to DIRECTLY get our protagonist, they’re just kind of in the way. They don’t have to be stopped/killed/destroyed/etc. merely pushed to the side by our protagonist coming through on their plan/solving their problem. Look at Tim Robbins in High Fidelity. He was living with JohnCusack’s interest, and John was pissed about this (and acted out in his fantasies) but by the end of the story John has solved his problem and Tim Robbins goes on his merry way – presumably home to Susan Sarandon.
Everyone Else: The rest of the characters in the story are people either helping along or detracting our protagonist with their plan/problem solving but are generally there for a laugh. You don’t need a lot of subplots going on in a romantic comedy or you end up with Love Actually. While that was a good movie and entertaining, it seemed more like a lot of half-stories than a complete story. While Hugh Grant’s was the most developed I was the most interested in the “Christmas All Around Me’ guy.