He Writes like a Girl
Gary Goldstein looks beyond the adage of writing what you know, and offers advice on writing for characters of the opposite sex.
When I was a boy growing up, one of the things I most dreaded to hear was that I did anything “like a girl.” With “He throws like a girl” being perhaps the number one affront. That was what society was like back then, and unfortunately, to a large extent still is.
But as a writer, it was vital that I learned to “write like a girl,” or at least, to write for female characters. In this article, then, I will explore my experiences with creating female characters. And while this may be of most interest to male readers, I hope it will also prove of value to anyone seeking to write for characters of the opposite sex.
Although conventional wisdom may dictate that men are best suited to write male-oriented characters and situations, and that women are most qualified to pen distaff parts, this theory has been upended countless times.
Ranald MacDougall’s screenplay for the classic mother-daughter melodrama Mildred Pierce (based on the novel by James M. Cain), Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s vivid creation of foes Margo Channing and Eve Harrington in All About Eve, and Robert Harling’s play and film adaptation of the beloved women’s dramedy Steel Magnolias, are just a few examples of guys writing the heck out of the opposite sex.
Flip-side cases: Leigh Brackett scripted three westerns and an adventure flick for famed tough guy John Wayne, Nancy Dowd concocted a vivid bunch of male hockey players for the raunchy comedy Slap Shot, and Andrea Berloff wrote the fine script for the male-dominated action-rescue drama World Trade Center (for director and notable “man’s man” Oliver Stone, no less).
As they say, “writers write.” We research, we observe, we recall, we imagine; we figure it out. I’ve written scripts featuring cops, crooks, convicts, lawyers, athletes, shrinks, politicians, soldiers, moguls, actors, realtors, sex workers and sex addicts–and I am none of those things. What I am is a writer.
Muddying all that, however, is the age-old advice to writers, co-opted from a quote by Mark Twain, to “Write What You Know.”
Taken literally, that could severely limit many scribes’ output; that is, if you should only write based upon one’s life experiences. (Though If you’ve climbed Mt. Everest, performed brain surgery or planned the crime of the century, you may be ahead of the game.)
Truthful, first-hand knowledge and experience is more likely to inspire more authentic kinds of writing. And, of course, mining our deepest personal emotions can result in some effective characters and storytelling. So starting out, a writer may almost naturally default to their most memorable life events and closest relationships as the basis for a film or TV script, stage play or novel.
But, really, how often can you go back to that well? And just because we think something that once happened to us is riveting, that doesn’t guarantee that everyone–or even anyone–else will.
If you’re a career fiction writer, this means you will have to crank out an ongoing number of scripts, stories and/or novels to actually have said career, much less make a living at it. In which case you’ll ultimately be forced to look well past the nose on your face to create new narratives.
The main characters in my first two screenplays were fictionalized versions of me, just culled from different times of my life. But as satisfying as it was to write both of those scripts, I knew I had to expand my repertoire.
It took a few more scripts to get there, but I eventually wrote a screenplay with a female lead, one whose world and relationships had little to do with mine, in a genre I’d yet to tackle (a thriller). In short order, I found her voice, explored her psyche, felt her pain, and exorcised her demons.
It proved a liberating, creatively rewarding writing experience and became the first of many female-centric stories I’ve scripted. To say the least, it doubled my creative options.
Strangely, writing a script whose tense and provocative story rested mainly on the shoulders of one very specific, damaged woman proved far less daunting (for this male writer) in practice than theory. Perhaps that’s because the character, Janine, was in some ways such an “everyperson;” a well-meaning victim of her own impulses, as, of course, many men can also be.
To say I wrote Janine more “vulnerably” (i.e. “female”) than I would have penned a man in the same life-threatening situation, would be to sell her lead character short. Yes, she’s a wife and mother, and brings feminine energy to a situation that similarly-themed thrillers (Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct come to mind) may have approached from a male perspective.
However, my way into Janine was, as it is with crafting most protagonist parts, to put the character where he or she would least like to be and make that person explore, fight, worm, scratch or drive their way out of it.
As for Janine’s “voice” for her dialogue: like any character, her key flaw (what she’s doing wrong, what she needs to learn) or signature behavior informed her cadence, choice of language, and approach to references. Crafting strong dialogue requires a “good ear” and sense of authenticity to fit whoever may be speaking–male or female.
A few screenplays later I wrote a First Wives Club-type comedy about three best female friends in their late-40s who find themselves in a wild, life-changing situation.
This trio of single ladies turned out to be a hoot to write and spend time with. I hope I did them justice, and made them as happy as they made me. The script also solidified my confidence in writing the opposite sex, pushing me far out of what I may have considered my creative comfort zone and learning so much in the process. (Go ahead, ask me anything about menopause.)
But how did I approach the creation of this threesome? In some respects they fulfilled a few of the popular comedy archetypes, whether male or female, that can emerge when you put several disparate, if like-minded “buddies” together: the cautious one, the impulsive one, the leader, the dense one, the joker and so on.
Then I shaped each woman to become her own unique version of that perhaps more familiar “type,” with the high-concept situation I placed them in naturally helping them to form and grow as distinctively and, I hope, as realistically as possible. Did I draw from women–people–in my real life to create these characters? No question.
Women’s roles have moved front and center in much of my recent writing, due in part to a series of script assignments for the Hallmark Channel, whose original movies largely feature female leads. Again, it was the recognizable behaviors, relatable concerns and character-based story concepts that helped drive my creation of this particular array of women: from florists to fashionistas; dog lovers to holiday humbugs.
Researching a particular field, career or arena, can also help inform the way you write a character’s attitude, motivations and allusions, whether male or female.
Then there was a half-hour pilot I wrote, the basis for a fish-out-water romantic comedy between two women. Could my same premise have involved two men? Sure, but making the leads women seemed more inventive, accessible and, in this case, more credible.
The protagonists here are an odd couple-pairing: forthright versus tentative, experienced versus naïve, yet set in two very specific worlds that helped guide me toward originality over what could have easily been stereotype. No matter the sexual orientation, I was able to draw on classic romantic comedy dynamics and obstacles to flesh out these dimensional, intriguing ladies. Sometimes the more unique the story setup, the more singular a character’s voice can be.
But it’s my current stage play April, May & June, a dramedy about adult sisters who convene to close up their late mother’s house, which has proven perhaps my deepest experience writing female characters. It allowed me to explore not only the psyche of three very different women of a certain age, but the unique, poignant and complicated bonds of sisterhood–and daughterhood.
Of course these siblings, April, May and June, are characters first, women second (as they would be if they were men–though they’d definitely be named something else!). But what was my personal point of entry–as a writer first, man second–for these sisters?
Well, there was my own sister, with whom I’ve always enjoyed an extremely close relationship. Then there were my three first cousins–my only first cousins–who are a trio of very connected and, not unlike the siblings in the play, very distinct women.
With these ladies as a kind of foundation for the characters, I then attempted to make April, May and June very much their own creations, yet specific to the family history I concocted for them. I also made them each a year apart, which uniquely informs parts of the narrative.
Their voices? Gender apart, different sides of my own, sure. But also amalgams of many women, beyond my family members, I’ve known, observed and appreciated.
Were the sisters hard to write? Not especially, though throughout their creation, I always kept their authenticity in mind, especially the ways in which close siblings with deep histories often act: loving, teasing, competitive, argumentative, loyal, blunt, warm and silly with references that only those who grew up together would know.
When the woman who eventually signed on to direct the play first read it, she said the women reminded her of her own three sisters, of which she is the middle. It was a huge compliment.
Interestingly, the character in the play who I may have felt closest to was the sisters’ departed mother, who we never see but only hear about. For me, she was almost more vivid, more heartbreaking in her absence than the three characters that are actually present.
That’s because the mom, Ellen, lived a life that seemed small and unrequited on the outside, but is revealed to have far more depth and breadth than her daughters may have ever imagined.
Patterned a bit after my own late mother, a kind woman who had her share of misses at the brass ring, Ellen represented to me those underestimated underdogs who are far happier in their unassuming existences than those around them could ever abide by. People live the lives they choose–and sometimes those that choose them–but who’s really to say what’s right for another person? Especially when one’s own life may be far from perfect itself?
These aren’t necessarily male or female themes, but human conditions that hopefully most viewers or readers can relate to. And perhaps that is the most important point to make: as writers, we should write not for male or female characters, but simply for characters, with whom we explore the human condition.
And if along the way I’ve crafted characters, who just happen to be women, that prove memorable, endearing, provocative, familiar, or just plain entertaining, than I’ve succeeded as a writer–sex chromosomes be damned.
For tickets and more info, visit www.theatre40.org
Featured image: Jennifer Lee Laks, Jennifer Taub and Meredith Thomas in “April, May & June”. Photo by Ed Krieger.
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