HOW NOT TO WRITE A FEMALE CHARACTER.
- Do not give her a TRAUMATIC PAST Traumatic pasts become a problem when they are reductive. In other words, they are a “shortcut” for characterisation in terms of understanding who she is. Most commonly, female characters will have dead parents, a dead sister and/or have been raped in many spec screenplays. If it’s shoved in simply as that short cut. “She can handle [THIS PRESENT SITUATION] in the story, because [THIS TERRIBLE THING] happened to her *before* the story began”. It’s not difficult to see why this is a favourite of writers: a traumatic past for your protagonist can be a GREAT move and work well. In movies, female characters often have dead children, such as Ryan Stone in Gravity. We assume Stone will give up, in order to “be with” her daughter. Instead, the opposite occurs: Stone decides on a fatalistic attempt to reach Earth – “get there or die trying” – in the name of her daughter Sarah, whom Stone describes to dead colleague Matt as she free-falls through Space. Therefore: If your female character has a traumatic past, it needs to INFORM her actions in the story, not create an automatic “shortcut” to understanding who she is.
- Do not make her a facilitator of male emotion. This one is very simple. A female character needs her own AGENCY – that is, her own ability to drive the story through any variety of actions. She should NOT just be there as a sounding board for other characters in order to “crack them open”. This is lazy writing, yet wives, girlfriends, work colleagues and psychologists often provide this facilitating function in many spec screenplays. Stamp this out in your edit, however you can! This does not mean your character *can’t* be a wife, girlfriend, work colleague or psychologist OR that they have to “not care” about that male character … It just means they CAN’T “make it easy” for the male character to describe his pain or motivations. Don’t *allow* your female character to fall into a place where she exists solely for the male character/s to use as a sounding board.
- Do not think she has to be a ROLE MODEL. One of the biggest myths the internet likes to spread is that representations of marginalised characters (such as, but not limited to, women) must be POSITIVE and a thus a ROLE MODEL to “inspire” others. It may seem like a good idea on the surface, but writers soon realise “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions”. Why? Because every single time a female antagonist appears, especially in movies, such as Catherine Trammel in Basic Instinct (1992) or Amy Dunne in Gone Girl (book AND film), cries of “misogyny!” abound … As if women CAN’T be manipulative or have bad intentions to others. Now, I would dearly like to see more infamous women represented in fiction, both made up and true story – men aren’t the only ones capable of crime and mayhem! I think the little-used “Femme Fatale” character is a huge loss to cinema in particular. Far from being a stereotype, “Femme Fatale” is a ROLE FUNCTION that can be used well, just like its male equivalents, such as “villain”. But sometimes criticisms attempt more nuance, with well-meaning people suggesting that *because* such a character is a representation of a marginalised group of people, writers have a “responsibility” to try and help change society’s viewpoint of that group. I do think ultimately a writer’s only responsibility is to tell the best story s/he can. This may include a character in the story who is perhaps racist or misogynist, but the context and storytelling should let us know the writer does not condone that character’s behaviour. In short, it should not be assumed that the mere inclusion of a despicable character means the writer behind it is secretly thinking the same thing! Positive representations *can* be great, but they’re not always necessary or even desirable in a particular story. A considered story choice should not reflect badly on the writer, even if we don’t like that character.
- Do not write “The Girl Character”. This appears most often to be a spec screenwriting issue, (especially fantasy and science fiction “quest”-type narratives). “The Girl Character” happens when scribes attempt to write a group of characters – particularly in action and/or comedy screenplays – but also ensemble casts of characters in spec TV pilots. In such works, there will be a group of seven or eight characters, only one of which will be female (occasionally, two). Each male character may represent some sort of skill or attitude, such as The Leader; The Second In Command; The Maverick; The Funny One and so on. Most of the male characters will usually be exceptional: they will be incredibly brave; incredibly shrewd; an incredible risk taker; incredibly funny and so on. In comparison, the only thing that may set the woman in the group apart will be her FEMALE-NESS. This means she is probably one of the group’s girlfriends (or a wannabe girlfriend) and/or she will be “vampy” to get what she wants … Either from the group and/or their enemies. If there are two women in the group, the other one is invariably an ice maiden-type who’s manlier than the men! The men may confess to being scared of her and/or make fun of her, the subtext being that she’s “less” than a woman somehow. Some women are indeed more hardcore than a lot of men. Why not?? Writers can totally pull off a vampy female character or a hard core hottie who is rounded and authentic. So the problem is not these two character role functions per se, just the fact they are OVERUSED, reductive and BORING. So, don’t be reductive in your female character choices. “The Girl Character” is boring, whether you have one OR two of them… Ryan Stone in Gravity, or Amber in Deviation (2012). Simply counting women does not guarantee effective, or even interesting, characterisation. Sometimes a female secondary character is the only one in a group in an otherwise male-centric environment. This is usually to underline notions of sexism in the workplace, such as Lindsay in The Abyss (1990) who works on an oil rig; or female fishing captain Linda in A Perfect Storm (2000). In both stories, the women have the answers for the men … if the men JUST LISTENED.
- Do not forget her ROLE FUNCTION. Regardless of gender, characters need role functions – a reason to be IN the story, in effect. At foundation level, characterisation in all fiction, no matter the medium, *generally* works like this: Protagonist versus Antagonist – protagonist has a goal; antagonist wants to stop him/her *for some reason*. Secondary characters work to HELP or HINDER the two main roles in their respective goals. Peripheral characters usually perform a thematic or tonal function.
Always make characters real people with positive human qualities and frailties. Regardless of gender.
Hey, thanks for checking out this episode of ON LOCATION.
Please visit the rest of the site and remember I offer a free ten minute consultation with no obligation whatsoever.