A to Z Challenge 2014 · How to write Romantic Comedy · Romcom Alphabet Soup

Disguise, a Romcom must-have

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An ongoing series about how to write romantic comedy.

Call it what you will: disguise, camouflage, mistaken identity. All are favorites of mine. They’re timeless and are key elements of almost every folktale. Yes, disguise is another driver in the romantic comedy genre.

Also included is misunderstanding, that is to say, not realizing who someone truly is. The heroine makes an error in judgment, or maybe she herself is not who she appears to be. Or perhaps she is more than even she realizes, with untapped abilities that have never yet been called into play.

The pirate who is a nobleman, the clerk who is a business tycoon, the model who is a professor. We love these, and we eagerly turn pages. Even the non-romantic TV show Undercover Boss works on our fondness for (well-intentioned) disguise.

But disguise is tricky, especially in the set-up. You, the writer, must make the disguise seem believable and the person disguised, likable. Almost as if it happened unintentionally or for a desperate reason. Or, of course, to save face, either his own or the heroine’s.

If the disguise is for reasons of villainy, there must be a genuine change of heart. But handling the reformed rake requires a delicate touch, for the reformation must be believable. Most of the time it just isn’t. I’ll cover this topic in a later post.

I often use my own weaknesses. For example, I have difficulty recognizing people when they are not in their ‘proper’ setting. A church friend at the supermarket or a student from several years back at the mall, even finding a friend in a large auditorium—I am easily confused. When I set up the pivotal mistaken identity element in Mercy’s Embrace (which later turned into intentional disguise), I gave my failing to Elizabeth. Admiral McGillvary, a man she dislikes and has seen only from a distance, would never be where she encounters him. She is completely taken in, which adds to the fun.

To illustrate this, here’s another excerpt. It’s easiest—though a bit deplorable! —to quote my my own work. Like viewing the back of a tapestry, you’ll easily see what I’ve done.

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The last shred of his patience gone, McGillvary strode out of Lonk’s office. “There must be a decent pen somewhere in this hovel,” he said under his breath. He came into the front office. A row of clerks sat at tall desks copying out documents. The reception area was empty.

So much the better, thought McGillvary. He was wearing someone’s ancient brown coat, which was too short in the shoulders and arms. His cuffs were splotched with ink; his waistcoat was generously stained with coffee. But there was no time to think about his appearance; he must find a pen. There were none on the counter, so he began pulling out drawers. One stuck fast, so he tugged at it. And of course it came suddenly free—both the drawer and its contents went flying. However, among the items on the floor were several pens. McGillvary knelt to gather them. He never heard the chime when the outer door opened.

A faint cough and an “I beg your pardon,” caused him to look up. A woman’s face peered down at him—a lovely face, framed by a charming hat with curled feathers. It was all he could do not to stare. What the devil was she doing here?

Mr Snape came into the front office and found McGillvary kneeling on the floor. He threw up his hands. “Good gracious, Mr McGil—!”

McGillvary’s glare silenced him. “We have a customer, Snape,” he said quietly. He climbed slowly to his feet, aware that his face was flushed.

Miss Elliot presented a calling card. “I beg your pardon, Mr…Gill,” she said. “Would you be so kind as to inform Mr—” she broke off to consult a paper, “Mr Harold Lonk that Miss Elliot is here to see him?”

Patrick McGillvary’s eyes never left her face. Could it be that she did not recognize him? And then he remembered the moustache. What luck that Pym had lost yesterday’s bet, for the moustache was gone and, by all appearances, his identity was safe! He took the card she offered, planting an inky thumbprint in the process. Miss Elliot’s brows rose. “Let me give you another,” she said.

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Tomorrow we’ll have a look at Embarrassment, and how it can ruin your romantic comedy.

Thanks for stopping by!

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[excerpt from Mercy’s Embrace: So Rough a Course by Laura Hile, 2009]

2 thoughts on “Disguise, a Romcom must-have

  1. I personally love disguise for nefarious purposes and suddenly that turns and puts the disguisee in the position to choose to do good. (The show Burn Notice is famous for this. Though the hero, Michael Weston, is usually, overall working for the good.)

    In romances it can be interesting when one of the protags adopts and identity AND all the stereotypes that go along with it. Then, “in the field” find that much of the time stereotypes don’t hold or are overblown. Ex: The city person who straps on overalls and tries to adopt the ways of the hillbilly only to find that those live in the hills aren’t so stupid after all. And they fall in love of course.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Yes, yes, and yes! In the latter example, disguise combines with the “walk a mile in my shoes” theme, another favorite.

    Those that live in the hills are usually anything but stupid. And the older we become, the more we city folk understand the “Trespassers Will Be Shot” signs. They ain’t referring to no elk and bobcats!

    Liked by 1 person

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