Lessons from Rom-Coms

Hearts Hubby and I watched a couple of movies over Valentine’s weekend. They were both, appropriately, rom-coms – romantic comedies – recommended to us by friends. We enjoyed them both as good examples of something light, fun, and sweet to watch while cuddled up with someone you love. But I liked one better than the other, and I think I’ve figured out why. NOTE – there are some spoilers here if you haven’t seen the films, but nothing that should really ruin it for anyone.

First up: Letters to Juliet (2010, Amanda Seyfried, Christopher Egan). Sophie, who wants to be a writer, visits Italy with her fiance. She learns about the tradition of young women writing letters to Juliet (of Shakespeare’s play) for advice, and turns her hand to writing a response to a letter just found that was written 50 years ago. This draws her into an adventure with the original writer who has come back to Italy to find her long-lost love, and the woman’s grandson (Charlie) who thinks this is a bad idea. He comes around, though, and Charlie and Sophie wind up together, as do the two long-lost loves. The message of the movie is that it’s never too late to find love, and once you find it you must never let it go.

Next: Music and Lyrics (2007, Hugh Grant, Drew Barrymore). Alex is a relic from an 80s pop band, living on his past as a kind of impersonator of himself. He has the opportunity to write a hit song for a hot young talent, but while he’s great at the music he can’t write lyrics. He stumbles across a young woman (Sophie) who has a brilliant way with words and convinces her to work with him, and they are successful despite her fears and his desperation. Along the way they find romance and also find the courage to be themselves without apology.

Here’s why I liked Music and Lyrics more than Letters to Juliet: because the characters and their relationship felt more real and more trustworthy.

Let’s take the two Sophies. In Letters to Juliet, she is engaged to a chef who is opening his new restaurant in New York City in 6 weeks. They go to Italy because it will be the last chance they have to go on vacation for a long time. He is passionate about food and cooking; she is less so, and winds up feeling left out and ignored as he travels around visiting suppliers and wine auctions. This annoyed me. If someone is about to open a restaurant in New York, where else would his focus be? If she’s so uninterested in food and cooking, why is she engaged to a restaurateur? At the very least, she should have come to peace with their differing passions and have expected them to spend time apart.

In Music and Lyrics, Sophie is timid and self-effacing at the start, because of a bad experience in her past. She spends much of the movie learning to have faith in herself and to be open to taking the risk of trusting others. This is a straightforward need and character arc that is rewarding to watch. At every step her character is acting in a way that is believable for her, and that kept me rooting for her the whole way.

Then there’s the male lead character. Charlie, in Letters to Juliet, is a jerk the first time we meet him. He specifically searched out Sophie for the sole purpose of scolding and insulting her, because her letter sent his grandmother on what he is sure will be a heartbreaking quest. That brow-beating, nasty facet to his personality couldn’t just have evaporated, and I didn’t see any convincing change to his true nature. And how do we know he loves her? He says he does, but we don’t see him do anything that shows this love. Finally, I can’t conjure up any image of the life they might have together. All they’ve shared is his grandmother’s quixotic romantic journey, which is nothing like the real life they will have to go back to.

Alex, in Music and Lyrics, is charming from beginning to end. There’s something sad about him hanging onto his long-past moment of glory, but he is comfortable with himself and never pretends to be something he’s not. From his first interactions with Sophie he is gentle and encouraging. He’s kind first, in love second. He shows his love for her by doing the thing that’s hardest for him: writing lyrics. They also have something they share besides just being in love: they write hit songs together. It’s easy to imagine them living a contented, rewarding life for years to come.

Let me repeat: Both movies are fun. They both do what they set out to do and do it well. I don’t want to discourage anyone from watching either movie. See them. If you like the genre, you’ll like these examples.

For me, for the writing, I take away two important lessons about character and relationships:

  • If I want readers to root for a character, I need to show why, especially at their first appearance. Show whatever it is that makes the character rootable – is he kind, is she smart, is he funny, is she generous? This is what Blake Snyder calls the Save the Cat moment – the hero is first seen getting the cat out of the tree, so we know he’s the hero.
  • If I want a couple to wind up together romantically, I need to show that they are in love and can have a life together after the final curtain. It’s not enough that they say “I love you,” there have to be actions, especially sacrifices, to back it up. And they need to have enough in common for this relationship to hold.

So that’s what I learned this Valentine’s Day about character and about love. Not a bad way to spend a weekend.

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