Why “Perfect-on-Paper” Love Interests Always Come Second

Perfect on Paper: when the love interest that might seem like a good one, but isn’t the one… They’re the characters who get dumped, sidestepped, or even left at the altar – but they don’t deserve it like other characters might. They aren’t secret villains, concealing their infidelity or outright cruelty beneath an intentionally deceptive façade. So what exactly makes for a perfect-on-paper love interest, and how do these qualities differ between the male and female versions of those characters?


Perfect on Paper: when the love interest that might seem like a good one, but isn’t the one. A good story needs conflict–and when it comes to romantic stories, someone’s feelings usually need to get hurt for that conflict to come to a head. Some romances use the classic love triangle formula, where two near-equal romantic interests compete for the protagonist’s affection and audiences root for one character or the other based largely on taste. Other times a protagonist faces a clear choice between a good partner and a blatantly unfit one

But these stories – the ones that use “perfect on paper” people – try to find a little more nuance in romantic dilemmas. They put forth these characters who seem like they should be a good match for the romantic lead… but for some reason they’re just not the one.

They’re the characters who get dumped, sidestepped, or even left at the altar but they don’t deserve it like other characters might. They aren’t secret villains, concealing their infidelity or outright cruelty beneath an intentionally deceptive facade. So what exactly makes for a perfect-on-paper love interest, and how do these qualities differ between the male and female versions of those characters? Here’s our take on those perfectly nice people – and why cinema keeps using them in our onscreen love stories.

Jay: “Your mom and I were perfect on paper and you know how that ended.” – Modern Family

The perfect-on-paper guy has been a staple of romance stories, especially romantic comedies, for nearly as long as they’ve existed The trope goes all the way back to the ‘30s and ‘40s, when actor Ralph Bellamy repeatedly played men who lost out in romantic rivalries against the impossibly handsome and charming Cary Grant.

So what are the tell-tale signs of a perfect-on-paper guy? Part of his appeal is that he seems like a stable, dependable provider, so you can usually tell a romcom’s protagonist is with a perfect-on-paper guy if he has a steady job. Michael, Ben Stiller’s character in Reality Bites, works as an executive at an MTV-like cable channel, which could help Lelaina in her filmmaking career – even though he doesn’t have her passion or artistic vision.

And Julian, the doctor played by Keanu Reeves in Something’s Gotta Give, offers some stability to Erica’s chaotic life as a playwright. These men are secure enough in their careers and their finances to give women space for their own pursuits. Relatedly, the perfect-on-paper guy is supportive of his girlfriend – and his support is always genuine, although it can sometimes come off as condescending or detached.

This type of guy is devoted to the woman in his life – but he’s also independent – and not necessarily consumed with intense need for her. Because he trusts and supports her, and because he has a job and a life that occupies him, the perfect-on-paper guy doesn’t feel as entwined with his partner as her true romantic interest in the story.

Lon: “I meant what I said when I gave you that ring.”

Allie: “I do too, I do too. It’s just that when I’m with Noah I feel like one person, and when I’m with you I feel like someone totally different.” — The Notebook

And of course, the final tried and true trait of the perfect-on-paper guy is that he’s just so nice. Bill Pullman’s character in Sleepless in Seattle, for example, never gets mad at Meg Ryan for following the story of the lonely widower she hears on the radio. Even when the perfect-on-paper guy is being broken up with, he rarely exhibits any hostility towards the protagonist.

He’s also rarely an entitled creep like some other versions of the “Nice Guy” trope – and remains truly kindhearted even when the person he loves leaves him. Much like Ralph Bellamy, some actors seem to always be playing perfect-on-paper guys: Bill Pullman, Greg Kinnear, James Marsden. In fact, Bill Pullman was dumped on-screen by Meg Ryan, Jodie Foster, and Nicole Kidman all in the same year back in 1993.

Actors like Tom Hanks or Ryan Gosling never seem to be cast as “the other guy” – perhaps because they’re larger than life stars. Whereas guys like Bill Pullman are cast to represent reality–whether that’s a good thing, or something that his love interest needs to escape.

Perfect-on-paper women aren’t always as steadfast as their male counterparts. Even if they’re not being portrayed as villains, they often have secret-villain undertones, implying that there’s some lack of empathy that affects their compatibility with the leading man. While Perfect-on-Paper Guys are so nice and supportive it almost makes them too easy and boring, Perfect-on-Paper Gals don’t seem like as good of a fit for the romantic hero. They can be controlling, and it often seems that a change in the leading man’s life is necessary for him to fit with her.

Much like perfect on paper guys, the perfect on paper woman often has a successful, steady career… but she tends to be much less laidback and less satisfied with her position. She has a motivated, goal-oriented personality…and that’s painted as a bad thing. Instead of being a source of stability, her career is typically a symbol of disharmony. Sometimes her goals are more about the relationship and less about a career – for example, she’s dedicated to planning the perfect wedding. But that’s portrayed as frivolous, or a distraction from the real task of building a real, romantic partnership with the protagonist.

Because of this, the perfect-on-paper woman can often seem less interested in our leading man. She usually doesn’t pay him or his interests enough attention, and tends to treat him more like an accessory than a life partner.

Frank (To Joe): “Tell me something, really, how do you sleep at night?”

Patricia: “I use a wonderful over the counter drug: ultra-dorm.”You’ve Got Mail

Sometimes, it even goes one step further – she’s not just disinterested, she’s actively hiding something. Both perfect-on-paper guys and perfect-on-paper girls usually have pretty easy separations, but it’s more common for the perfect-on-paper girl to be harboring a secret dissatisfaction with the relationship that she has been too scared to speak on.

These doubts are often narratively convenient for the leading man – as they mitigate the potential cruelty of leaving a perfectly nice, perfect-on-paper woman. Just look at how conveniently Idina Menzel’s and James Marsden’s characters fall in love with each other at the end of Enchanted – two perfect-on-paper rejects who end up together. Unfortunately for the perfect on paper women, she’s often portrayed as a bit of a vapid nag. Compare Greg Kinnear’s kind and supportive character in You’ve Got Mail to Parker Posey’s.

Patricia: “If I ever get out of here, I’m going to get my eyes lasered.”

Joe: “If I ever get out of here…”

Patricia: “Argh, where are my TicTacs?! …What?” — You’ve Got Mail

Other times, like Anna Kendrick’s character in Drinking Buddies – there’s nothing inherently wrong with her – ; she’s just not quite as unpredictable and exciting as the love interest character played by Olivia Wilde. It’s worth noting that there are a lot more romcoms about a woman choosing between two different men than there are romcoms about a man choosing between two different women.

In male-driven romances, it’s more common for the main character to have to choose between a love interest and some other kind of life entirely – like a career move or perpetual bachelorhood that offers plenty of fun, but no emotional connection. When a romcom is built around a woman, it’s already assumed that she’s looking for a partner – she’s not asking whether to get married, but who to get married to.

Rom-coms are all about choices. Movies like Sliding Doors and Look Both Ways explicitly explore how characters’ decisions inform the overall path of their lives – romantic and otherwise. But perfect-on-paper characters are also a way of exploring choice. They’re a symbol for one kind of life that the protagonist could live – a safe, predictable, unexciting life. The protagonists of these movies often choose the movie-like rush of a “true love” connection over that stable, committed, realistic relationship.

Noah: “It’s not gonna be easy, it’s gonna be really hard. We’re gonna have to work at this every day but I want to do that because I want you. I want all of you, forever.” — The Notebook

And while that might make for an exciting love story, it’s questionable messaging. Yes, romantic relationships are hard work with anyone – but constantly rejecting “perfect-on-paper” partners for hot, unpredictable alternatives implies that long-term compatibility is tied to superficial similarities like similar attractiveness levels. Plus, this overly simplistic choice between two symbolic options pits people against each other in competitions that may not be so clearly and neatly resolved in real life.

And yet, this trope, like many others, reveals something truthful: it’s scary to form a long-term romantic partnership, and the “perfect-on-paper” character represents our anxiety that those partnerships won’t automatically flourish or be successful – even if they do seem to check all the boxes. We have gut instincts that go beyond someone’s “paper” qualities, and those feelings should give us the courage to not just do what’s expected by others, but what feels right to us.

That’s also part of the fantasy of the perfect-on-paper character: it’s reassuring to see two people who realize they’re not quite right for each other before they get married or have kids or build a life together. These perfect-on-paper characters might get dumped at the end of the movie, but at least it happened in time to spare them some long-term heartbreak. And maybe that’s part of the happy ending; we all want to find a partner we can feel certain is good – not just in general, but for us.