As writers, we’re constantly told about the importance of character. No character, no story. When I was new to writing, I believed that story was the evolution of the tale from beginning to end: Once Upon a Time, to an adventurous Middle, to a Happily Ever After. But as I’ve gotten older and hopefully wiser, I’ve come to realise that this isn’t true. Plot deals with what happens to drive the story through all the familiar check points along the road-trip from beginning to end. Story deals with what happens to the characters as a result; how they change for the better (or worst!), how they react to their situations and, ultimately, what they learn from it all.
Classic Australian rom-com Paperback Hero is a wonderful example of unlikely protagonists delivering story with heart. We’ve all read books or watched movies where the popular girl falls for the popular boy, and has to overcome a flimsy sham of a conflict in order to finally be with her One True Love. Paperback Hero turns that trope on its head, with not one but two unique protagonists vying for their Happily Ever After throughout the course of the narrative.
Charismatic truckie Jack Willis travels the long dusty roads of rural Australia with a secret in his heart – he’s been publishing best-selling romance novels under the name of his best friend, Ruby Vale. Ruby, a diner owner and enthusiastic pilot, spends her days trying to stall her impending marriage to local vet and naive good guy Hamish. Jack’s publisher invites Ruby to promote ‘her latest book’ in Sydney, and he manages to talk her into pretending to be an author so that his reputation can remain intact.
From the outset, it’s clear that Jack and Ruby have a very close relationship. They show the classic Australian ‘best mates’ scenario in its full glory, with practical jokes and rough-housing all evident from the get-go. It’s obvious that the intention here is the friends-to-lovers trope, with just enough ‘oh but we’re just mates!’ talk thrown in to keep the tension ramped up. The thing I actually loved about this dynamic was the way they retain that closeness throughout the story, even as they come to realise they have deeper feelings for each other. It highlights the way that their feelings develop in a sweet, genuine way.
Let’s look at the characters themselves, and how their unique makeup makes for a fantastic story.
Jack’s passion is his writing, even though he’s really fond of his truckie lifestyle and his token Blue Heeler. Although on the outside he’s a rough-around-the-edges, true blue Aussie – on the inside he’s sensitive, romantic, and a dreamer. He’s charismatic, with just the right touch of arrogance about him… until he has to face his fear of losing his tough exterior and ruin his reputation through people finding out he writes romance novels. As is the same for so many of us writers, his artistic temperament and ability to dream also mean that he has a terribly hard time believing in himself. It’s why he finds it so hard to reach for his writing career and – ultimately – for Ruby. He’s not actually the tough-guy everyone thinks he is and expects him to be – and that scares the hell out of him.
Ruby owns the run-down local diner, but her passion is flying and her head is in the clouds. Unlike other characters who are portrayed as tomboys, Ruby’s gumption enhances and plays off against the more feminine side of Jack’s sensitivity. This is where they trade traditional gender roles somewhat – Jack’s role to feel and emotionally express himself through his writing, and Ruby’s role to ‘fix’ the problems of those around her in a heroic sense (her plane, her neighbour’s marriage/life, Jack’s inability to own his creativity). Ironically, it’s her lack of ability to fix her own life that results in her main conflict: should she marry sweet and well-meaning Hamish or fight to make Jack realise she’s been there for him all along?
Ultimately, we get our Happily Ever After. But again, it’s in an unorthodox way, with Ruby clinging to her admirable independence until the very last, and Jack realising that her independence is what gave him strength all along. He learns to be proud of his talent and his career.
What’s the same? The romantic tropes are by and large well represented. The plot is somewhat predictable, but far from stale owing to the unique qualities present in the characters.
What challenges the norm? Rather than the narrative relying on a single protagonist, both characters are given real motivation, goals, and conflict. We’re not only invested in the heroine!
Why do I love it? An Aussie movie with heart, simplicity in execution, and true-blue actors who respectfully portray Australians – without the cheese!
What did I learn? Dare to be different – creating characters that fit popular romance tropes needn’t be boring!
Seen the movie? What are your thoughts?
Stay tuned for my next #romcommentary, My Big Fat Greek Wedding: Star-Cross’d Lovers.