“What do you think about death in the romantic comedy? Not the hero or heroine, but someone else who matters. Does this make it something other than romcom? Would readers revolt? Have been studying 4 Weddings and a Funeral – the writer was apparently advised to include the funeral to balance the sweet. . . . Had similar thoughts about the movie The Apartment which was tragic but listed as a romcom. It’s for my WIP – my critique grip is squeamish about a death I’m planning in a book that’s part of a romcom series and I’m wondering if it’s maybe too much for my reader?”
Well, first define “romantic comedy.” I’ve never thought The Apartmentwas a romantic comedy, so I’m no help there. My basic definition is that it’s a story of a romance that ends happily and is funny. If you can make a death work in that context, it’s a romcom. Obviously, there’s some calibration in there, but death is not antithetical to romance or comedy.
Here’s the thing about happiness: it exists in contrast to unhappiness. You cannot have highs without lows. Psychologically, you need both joy and pain to fall in love. Most romcoms bollix this up by using the Big Misunderstanding, which causes the lovers enough pain that they break up or turn on each other. But the Big Misunderstanding is stupid, makes the lovers look stupid, and is one of the main reasons people sneer at romcoms (along with the fact that romcoms are hard to do so there are a lot of really bad ones out there). There needs to be a real reason these people feel pain, enough pain to wake them up, make them grow up, move from the infatuation stage to the commitment stage.
Death of a loved one is big pain, not just for the characters but also for the reader if she was invested in the lost one. The problem is calibrating the pain. If it’s so overwhelming that the reader can’t get past it and sees the lovers going on to happiness and thinks, “How could they?” the whole meringue of romantic comedy falls flat. Of course, that’s true of any genre; I’m still not over the death of that puppy in John Wick. So the key is to make the lost one somebody that will have an impact on the plot and characters, but not be so overwhelming that the reader can’t recover from it. And in a comedy, that has to be negotiated VERY carefully.
One of the best short stories I’ve ever written is “I Am At My Sister’s Wedding,” done in four parts (four acts, five weddings), and in the third act, the narrator’s mother dies and so does her sister’s fourth husband, the good guy she finally got. It has such a huge impact on the narrator that she has an epiphany at the husband’s funeral, and then later makes a big decision at her sister’s fifth wedding because of that ephiphany. It’s a comedy because the narrator has a sharp tongue and is a real smart ass, but I’ve always thought it was really sad underneath because the narrator was so unhappy all the way through and mouthing off to hide it; that comes straight from one of my two biggest writing influences, Dorothy Parker, a writer who can make you laugh and weep at the same time. Still my MFA class thought it was funny as hell, and it had the deaths of two good people in it. Just not the narrator’s sister; she was too important and her loss would have sent the narrator too far into darkness, or her best friend, the only one who understood her, which would have left completely alone. In an earlier draft, that best friend who was gay died of AIDS (this was the nineties and one of my best friends had just died of AIDS) and it was too damn much. The mother was a vivid and important character, and the fourth husband was a good guy, but the reader could roll with losing them in a way they couldn’t with this close friend character or the sister who’d both been on the page a lot more.
But your question is more complicated because you’re also talking romance, an essentially happy genre. The good news is, pain is an integral part of romance. The relationship needs to be tested, the lovers have to feel pain and still decide to stick to each other, or nobody will believe they’ll make it. It’s just too easy to fall out of love when the bad times hit, so most romances incorporate bad times. And dealing with grief is one way lovers can bond, even beyond the way it can make a character grow up enough to enter an adult relationship.
So of course you can do it if you calibrate it so that it’s not overwhelming to the reader, and if the death has meaning within the story. No offing a character just because “sometimes people die;” that’s lousy writing. (“I am a leaf on the wind. Watch how I soar.” Whedon’s going to Writer Hell for that one.) The death has to be earned. It has to mean something important to the story, not just be there to jerk tears or give protagonist pain.
The death in Four Weddings wakes up the hero, who says after the funeral that while they were all running around talking about marriage, they’d failed to see that two of the group were married all along, their two friends who had a wonderfully joyful committed relationship but couldn’t tie the knot because they were gay. But it’s so much more: John Hannah’s reading of that damn Auden poem at the funeral will make me weep no matter how times I see it; it’s the purest example of love in the whole movie, so it also underscores the romantic theme. Hannah’s character may have lost the great love of his life, but he had that love. He hadn’t ducked it from fear or a need to fit into society, he had loved with all his heart, and that gives the protagonist the realization that he’s living a half life because he won’t take the chance. It’s integral to the story.
So the key, if you need a death, is to make it somebody who resonates but who we can spare; somebody to whom attention must be paid, but not too much attention; somebody whose death is integral to the plot (and not just for fridging purposes) and acceptable to the reader. Yeah, it’s a narrow road to walk, so don’t kill the dog or small children. (I kill the dog in Nita, so ignore that, but small children? No.) Just make it matter, to the reader, to the story, to the characters. Attention must be paid.
Just not too much.