When the hero or heroine of your love story or romantic comedy is choosing between two lovers, you must be careful not to lose sympathy for your hero, and not to create any ambivalence about the outcome of your story, even though someone’s heart might be broken. The same applies when your hero is competing for the affection of the romance character/love interest, and the hero’s rival will be jilted if the hero wins. In either case, you have four ways to create a satisfying ending for your story.
1. Make the character who will be left behind a jerk who deserves to be jilted. So if the heroine’s – or the Romance character’s – current love interest has done something underhanded to break up the hero and his soul mate, or if the rival is pursuing the hero for insidious reasons (his money or position, for example), then we won’t feel bad that the rival gets dumped. Titanic, Wedding Crashers, Shrek and Working Girl all have Nemesis characters who are the romantic rival for the hero or heroine, and who underhandedly try to destroy his or her happiness. And in Bridget Jones Diary, Daniel Cleaver shows himself to be a self-centered two-timer, so Bridget can go with Mark Darcy guilt free.
2. Let the rival be the one to realize the hero isn’t her destiny. If the rival is the one who calls it off after realizing the hero won’t really bring her happiness, and if she’s OK with that, then your hero’s off the hook. In Sleepless in Seattle, Walter is OK about breaking up with Annie, and even encourages Annie to go after Sam. As he tells Annie after she hands him back her engagement ring, he doesn’t want to be “…someone you settle for. I don’t want to be anyone someone settles for.” Because we see that his heart isn’t broken, we’re OK with her leaving him. Similarly, in Sabrina, David realizes that Sabrina was just an infatuation for him, but that she really belongs with his brother Linus.
3. Give “Ms. Wrong” someone better to be with, who makes her happier than the hero can. In What’s Up Doc? Eunice has met her true love – or at least a more appropriate partner – and is happy to be with Larabee after Howard breaks up with her. And in Sense and Sensibility, Elinor can be with Edward because Lucy, to whom he was engaged, has married his brother Robert.
4. Leave your protagonist alone at the end, but better off moving on. This is very rare in romantic comedies, less so in dramatic love stories. But once in a while, the hero or heroine realizes that the person she was pursuing was not really her destiny after all, and the romance character belongs to someone more deserving – as in My Best Friend’s Wedding, Mrs. Doubtfire, Shakespeare in Love, and of course, the greatest “I’ll-leave-my-true-love-for-a-higher-calling” movie ever: Casablanca.