Though male protagonists have disproportionately dominated the movies since the dawn of time, with each passing year, we see more and more movies featuring powerful female characters, some are even spearheading their own franchises!
Dead are the days in which studio executives would cringe at the prospect of green-lighting movies led by heroines like the seminal Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) in ALIEN. Now, times have changed, and many producers want to make those movies!
You should not be surprised if you attend a development meeting, and a producer
suggests demands gender-bending your macho script. To that and other ends, the following considerations might help you:
Flip Stereotypes into Strengths
Many of the negatively-charged adjectives sometimes associated with women are a matter of perception and an opportunity for a positive character trait. Isn’t “Emotional” just another word for Empathetic? Or “Irrational” for Rogue? Thus, “Fragile” becomes sensitive, and “Bitchy” becomes Assertive. Flip those negative perceptions into strengths and use them to elevate and empower your female characters.
Know the cliches and create something different
The trials and tribulations of creating strong female characters are not new. Ergo, many screenwriters have stumbled upon similar situations and scenarios that are now cliche. The more films and TV shows you watch, the more obvious they become. But here are few that you probably have noticed for yourself:
- A female character who’s either… a lawyer, a doctor, a cop, a stripper
- A female character whose backstory revolves around…a breakup, a dead child, parental abuse
- A female character who expresses herself through… eating, crying, boxing, dancing
Knowing the cliches allows you to break free from the common and be innovative. Originality is your friend!
What would a Super Hero do?
Instead of making a woman sleep with someone to get information, ask yourself: What would a Super Hero do? Suggestion: Arm your woman to the teeth (if it’s an action flick). Let her break into the Pentagon, guns blazing, and steal the files!
Instead of making a woman agree to work through the weekend to be considered for a promotion, ask yourself: What would a Super Hero do? Suggestion: What if — through some creative problem-solving and a dash of risk-taking — she seals a very important deal and saves the company!
The point is: don’t let your perception of gender roles influence your story. At times, when the story demands it, it’s okay. But know when your creativity is being blocked by what you think is right.
Make a Good First Impression
Introducing characters on the page is often a challenge. But female characters specially have been plagued by descriptions that revolve around their looks.
Producers are catching on. And they are making fun of you behind your back! In fact, one such executive, Ross Putman, got so tired of reading the same mindless descriptions over and over again that he started tweeting them.
To preserve the anonymity of screenwriters, Mr. Putman has replaced the characters’ names with JANE, otherwise descriptions are verbatim from actual scripts:
A gorgeous woman, JANE, 23, is a little tipsy, dancing naked on her big bed, as adorable as she is sexy. *BONUS PTS FOR BEING THE 1ST LINE
– Ross Putman (@femscriptintros) February 10, 2016
Though drop-dead beautiful, JANE (40) has the appearance of someone whose confidence has been shaken. She is a raw, sexual force, impeded.
– Ross Putman (@femscriptintros) February 10, 2016
Notice how these examples are blatantly crude and sexist. And the problem is not just “political” or a “matter of opinion”. In practical terms, when your script goes out to attract prospective actresses, your word choices can be a deal-breaker.
Understand “Her” Story
When looking for inspiration to write a female-based story, consider that side female character in the “guy movie.” Be it the girlfriend, the daughter, the mother, the sister. Imagine a story from their perspectives, their obstacles, their hurdles. You can turn any of these side female characters into the protagonist of their own movies. The beauty and challenge of screenwriting is making the audience care about people. If you can understand a woman through her struggles, you are better equipped to write female characters. (The same is true if you are a woman writing male characters.)
Knowing aspects of the “female experience” can greatly improve your writing. And if you are a woman, you don’t want to overlook that. In SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, Clarice Starling has to deal with a lot of colleagues and superiors, most of who look down on her, taking her only for a “pretty face.” Arguably, the movie would have been less powerful had the writers ignored this kind of workplace sexism.
Heighten the Conflict
What if Mom has to take the kids to school AND kill the terrorists? Don’t renegade your female character to the sidelines. Let her beat the odds and do the impossible!
The same applies to her goals. In the film THE ASSOCIATE, Whoopi Goldberg plays an intelligent investment banker who fails to succeed in Wall Street on the account that she’s a black woman. When she’s failed to be taken seriously, she creates a fictitious white man to prove her worth.
Use the Bechdel Test
A 1985 comic strip by Alison Bechdel depicted two women talking about going to watch a movie. One of them explains her requirements for watching movies:
- The movie has to have at least two women in it,
- who talk to each other,
- about something besides a man
This simple rule doesn’t guarantee success, but it is useful as an additional parameter. Not that every movie needs to pass the test. (Clarice Starling doesn’t have any profound discussions with another woman in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.) But know that some people are sick and tired of two women talking about a man!
(You can see the strip here.)
Any other thoughts? Comment below.