There’s a fear in this kind of trope that the poor love interest will come off as a gold digger. Why that fear exists is another topic entirely, but the consequence of this fear is the “Hardworking Poor” archetype. They are characterized by a disgust of wealth and often a charitable nature.
Who are they?
In order to escape scrutiny, the love interest must never be lazy. In fact, they love work and they have a great ambition, working their butt off to achieve their dream no matter how tired they may get. This also helps create conflict between the two characters, as the rich love interest is usually irresponsible, or is perceived to be irresponsible. The hardworking poor scoff at their high and mighty comrade and their entitlement (hmmph!), usually right before tossing the muckiest cleaning implement their way and watching irritated as they fail to do the simplest of tasks. And this should rub off on the wealthy, it’s inspiring how they keep fighting even with the world of bills and working through college weighing down on them.
They should not be understood to be heartless, the hardworking poor will step in when their love interest fails, or when the other richie riches call them entitled, or a failure, or below their position. Though they may not understand their love interest’s struggle (because there doesn’t seem to be one from where they’re standing), they know that 1) if their partner fails, then they fail with them and 2) that they can be the bigger person.
They’re an intellectual. Never naive, they know the ways of the world. They can tell when they’re being seduced, and they are having none of it. Who has time for such inane distractions? Not the hardworking poor. They’re strong and independent with no time for love when there is more important things at stakes.
They’re brutally honest, it’s a virtue they pride themself on even when it goes to their detriment. It’s the only power they hold over their rich companion, and they wield it with wit. They’re quick to put down their love interest’s usual games and tricks and they won’t sugar coat anything. When someone messes up, they won’t be like all the yes men, they’ll yell and kick and scream and you better believe this is the first time their companion has heard this from anyone.
Their big give away is gifts. Whenever gifts are involved, they say “it’s too much, really, I don’t need all this stuff.” They’re uncomfortable with grand displays of wealth, even when they’re benefiting. Fancy cars? Mine runs just fine, thank you. Big houses? They feel lonely and chauvinistic. Hanging out with celebrities? Are they really even your friends? The one thing they don’t seem to be able to resist is a make-over. Even if they protest at first, they’ll give in when they see the size of those jewels or get that haircut their partner’s been begging them to get. Maybe it’s that audiences like a good make-over montage, or that when we see diamond we just have to have that on our bodies, or maybe it’s an essential part of their transition from poor to rich; giving them confidence and showing that anyone can fit in if they have the right clothes. Whatever it is, the make-over is exempt from the no gift policy.
Where are they?
The “hardworking poor” archetype is common in these types of romances. Paige Morgan, in The Prince & Me, is a great example, but also Josh Rosen in Geek Charming, Vivian in Pretty Woman, and Tiana in The Princess and the Frog.
Why do we like them?
You’ll often find this archetype working in tandem with a statement about how poor(er) people are better, or have a more happy and fulfilling life which is often the driving force of a class difference barrier. In a romance the two characters have to fall in love, so the rich protagonist must inevitably feel fed up or disillusioned by wealthy society. Often this is just an inkling until they meet some one who is “real,” i.e. the hard-working, poor, love interest.
They’ve never met someone who can’t be swayed by their cheap tricks, gifts, and grand displays of wealth, but now they’re standing face to face with a challenge to their power. Life had been too easy, and it felt fake. And that’s where the brutal honesty comes in. Not only are they not swayed, but they’re confident enough to say the things no one else is willing to say: the truth. This challenge makes sure that the audience knows that the rich protagonist is in love with them as a person and not just a pretty face. Their honesty sets the poor protagonist apart from the others who fawn over the wealth and glamour.
We like the “hardworking poor” because they’re without hidden motive. They are incorruptible. They can dip into the world of wealth without loosing the virtues of poverty.