Several people mentioned having a hard time connecting to Nita, aka an unlikable heroine. So I watched a recommended romcom last night, thinking that maybe I just had to get back to my romance roots to remember how to write a protagonist people wanted to read about. I picked one that wasn’t about a successful
Sorry, I digress.
The one I watched had an interesting premise and came recommended (either the AV Club or Jezebel, can’t remember which), but it was godawful, mostly because the heroine was so vile I wanted her to die alone. So then I went back to a June 2018 romcom that I had liked, also about an ambitious woman in the city who did not have an adjacent moppet, to see what made me root for her, all in hopes that I would see a way to making Nita a heroine readers wanted to spend time with. (Spoilers for two romcoms ahead.)
The awful heroine movie is No Sleep ‘Til Christmas, and the premise is that Lizzie, the heroine, can’t sleep and it’s screwing up her life right before Christmas season which is her busiest season (she’s an event planner) and also the month before her huge, expensive wedding to a sweet, handsome surgeon who’s crazy about her. Then she does a cute meet with a poor but honest bartender who also can’t sleep, and it turns out when they’re with each other, they both get a good eight hours of shut-eye. They start meeting on the sly to sleep together, and because they’re no longer sleep-deprived, they become successful at their jobs and evidently fall in love subconsciously, since the vast majority of the time they’re together, they’re unconscious.
In the rom-com that I liked, Set It Up, the heroine, Harper, is also a moppet-free ambitious professional in the big city. Bedeviled by an impossible boss, she meets a nice guy who is also bedeviled by an impossible boss, and they decide to fix up the impossibles so they’ll have time to pursue their own lives. Struggling to keep their bosses’ romance going requires that they talk to each and cooperate, which is a believable path to getting to know each other and inevitably falling for each other.
And then I analyzed why I loved and rooted for Harper and wanted Lizzie to end cuddled up to her money and alone.
• The first scene No Sleep is Lizzie with her fiance and his mother. Lizzie is half asleep because of her insomnia, but even drowsy, she’s not happy about how close her fiance is to his mom. Then there’s a montage of sleeplessness, but really the first scene is enough. Mom is nicer than Lizzie.
• The movie begins with a montage of harried assistants doing horrible things for their bosses, and then getting out at the end of the day, finally free. Except for Harper, who watches them all go wistfully, stuck at work because she works for a boss-zilla who has just demanded a second dinner. Harper orders dinner while she runs back and forth across the office to add steps to her boss’s Fitbit, all of which tells the viewer that Harper is harried, hardworking, and determined to do well. Also she has this story she wants to write about senior Olympics that she really wants her boss to publish because it’s so important . . .
• Nita’s first look is drunk in a place she’s not supposed to be with a new partner. The drunk part is definitely putting people off, so as much as I hate it, that’s going to have to go. I’ll think of something.
The Cute Meet:
• Lizzie literally runs into Billy when she is driving aimlessly through the streets at 3AM and he’s jogging at 3AM, both because they have insomnia. Yeah, she hits him with her CAR. But he’s just fine (no, he’s not, he bounced off the hood if her CAR), so they yell at each, blaming each other for the accident.
• Harper meets Charlie when she doesn’t have enough cash to pay for boss-zilla’s dinner so he pays for it and then takes it her; desperate, she talks him into splitting the order into two dinners, which he does, although he lies to her about the pickle. Her last words to him are, “You’re a monster,” but he is eating the pickle he lied about, so it’s warranted.
• Nita meets Nick in the bar and knows instantly that he’s not real; he’s not impressed with her until she drinks five shots of scupper and only passes out briefly. I think it works, and I like the throwaway line about neither of them belonging anywhere, so I’m leaving that in place.
• Lizzie is a hugely successful event planner based on the way she spends money like water; she also has complete power over her professional life and her love life. Her big problem: her insomnia is making her . . . I don’t know. Inefficient? Cranky? Selfish? Unfortunately she’s still those things after she starts sleeping through the night, so sorry, still not likable. Plus, the minute I saw Lizzie splashing money around to solve her problems and planning on dropping a bomb of money on a big fancy wedding, I drew back. This chick has it all and she’s still bitchy and demanding?
• Harper is an assistant at the beck and call of her abusive boss, and has a terrible love life. She’s trying to keep her boss happy, an impossibility, while writing at night, hoping her boss will give her a chance to publish one of her articles. The minute I saw Harper staring in fear and frustration at her computer screen as she tried to write, I felt a bond. Harper is not perfect, in fact, she’s kind of a doormat, but she’s a plucky doormat.
• Nita has troubles–something in very wrong on the island she feels responsible for–but she’s not coming across as vulnerable, so I don’t think readers worry about her. I can up the threat to her job, Jason can do that, but I also need to up her fear quotient. Argh. Vulnerability is so key to any character but especially to a protagonist and especially in the first scenes. Must cogitate on this.
• Lizzie wants a successful career throwing big expensive parties and a big expensive wedding, and she’s getting both. She also wants a good night’s sleep, and nothing is working, and she’s worried her insomnia will screw up the things she’s already getting, the infamous “I don’t want” negative goal. It doesn’t help that there’s no time spent on why she can’t sleep aside from her daddy was never around when she was little (does not explain the insomnia or why it’s only happening now) or that all the obvious solutions are hand waved away (yes, Virginia, there are pills that will knock you on your ass no matter how traumatized you are by a Wound from Your Childhood).
• Harper has a dream that someday she’ll be a great writer, a great journalist like her boss, and she’s willing to go through all of the trauma and delayed gratification and work to achieve that dream, which right now is focused on finishing her senior Olympics story and getting it published by her boss. Extra points for not having a ridiculous Wound from Childhood.
• Nita also does not have Wound from Childhood, so that’s something, but her goal to keep the island safe is too unfocused, I think. And it needs to be clear in that first scene which means ARGH given everything I’ve already discovered, I’m going to have to rewrite that first scene from scratch. DAMN it.
Best Friends and Family:
• The people around Lizzie pretty much do what she tells them to. Her best friend (?) is her assistant, who mainly exists to worry about Lizzie, and who gets dismissed a lot, comic relief made flesh, except why she’s friends with Lizzie is beyond me; I’m assuming it’s because Lizzie pays her. Lizzie meets Billy’s best friends when she goes to demand he do something for her, and she insults them. She’s also bitchy about her fiancé’s mom, who appears to approve of her and be excited about her wedding and even goes to bail her out when Lizzie get arrested for threatening a bus driver who refuses to let her ride for free. The best line in the whole movie is at the end when Mom tells her, “I should have left you in that jail cell.”
• Harper has a best friend who is also her roommate, a BFF for life, absolutely supporting and loving and not comic relief. She also has a full life of her own, getting engaged early on to a guy who also thinks Harper is great, and Harper at no point makes their engagement about herself, she’s just delighted for them. And when Harper meets Charlie’s roommate, they laugh and bond, excellent foreshadowing for the future.
• Nita has just met Button in the beginning, but they’ll build a professional relationship and have each other’s backs. The people Nita is close to are her brother and sister, who clearly love her, approve of her, and support her, and she clearly loves them, too. Sandy and Daphne at the diner are good friends, and the people Nita interacts with have respect for her as a cop, and Nita attaches to Rab pretty quickly and then to Jeo, and then to Max, so that Nick’s cohorts become Team Nita pretty fast. I think I’ve got this one covered.
• When Lizzie hits a snag, she lies, she browbeats, she use people. Worst heroine scene ever: Lizzie threatening a perfectly nice bus driver with her shoe because the driver won’t let her ride for free. When life gives Lizzie lemons, she throws them at innocent bystanders.
• When Harper hits a snag, she brainstorms and solves her own problems, often fixing things for those around her, too (Charlie’s boss gets his dinner). She gets exasperated with Charlie, but it’s for legitimate reasons, and she never threatens him with her shoe.
• Nita’s reactions depend on the snag; she doggedly pursues her investigations, but she does melt down when she finds out the supernatural is real and Nick can smite. I think that’s a point for vulnerability, and it also makes her more human (irony), but it’s important that she cowgirls up pretty fast, and insists she’s fine even while her head is exploding. I think this part works.
• I have no idea why Lizzie and Billy fall in love. She’s a Type A control freak/snob and he’s a slacker who can barely find his shoes. The story makes a pass at trying to say that she inspires him to get organized and he shows her the beauty of not planning, but it doesn’t work. She insists on calling all the shots in their relationship, she’s awful to his friends, she co-opts him into her lies to her fiance even though one of Billy’s few assets is that he’s an honest guy, and in the end she goes back on her promise to be a silent partner in his bar. This relationship is doomed because Lizzie is awful.
• Harper and Charlie, on the other hand, bond over their shared horrible work experiences, which leads them to decide to fix their bosses up with each other so they can get some downtime, which leads them to problem solve, cooperate, and work together to keep that plan going, which leads them to fall in love. Because of the way she handles herself in the partnership, Harper deserves her HEA.
• In Act One, Nita meets and investigates Nick, and in Act Two they form a partnership and work together to investigate, forming a bond, so I’m good there. Then in Act Three, Nick does the multiple personality thing, and Nita sticks with him, even though the Nick she knew is gone and he has no idea who she is. It’s that unconditional love bit; the idea that you stick no matter what. I’m happy with that. Then Act Four is . . .
• Lizzie leaves her honest, loving fiance at the altar to undoubtably ruin Billy’s life, starting by hitting him with her car again. I could spend days on this dumb ending, but then the writer doubled down by doing a one-year-later denouement in which Lizzie and Billy are in bed about to go to sleep when a baby cries, and they both say, “Not it.” Yes, the last scene is both of them refusing to take care of their child.
• Charlie tells her he loves her. Harper, who is not stupid, tells him she loves him, too. They kiss. There is no dumb one-year-later scene because Harper doesn’t need a one-year-later scene; we’ve watched her establish a solid relationship with a good guy and it’s going to work out for them because they’ll make sure it does.
• Nita goes to Hell to get Nick back. It’s a rom-com run, but I’m okay with that, mostly because it’s such a button on Nita’s I-can-and-will-do-anything-to-take-care-of-the-people-I-love character.
So I rewrite the first scene, and then read through and work on Nita’s vulnerability. I can do that. Argh.