Writing Effective Female Characters
Throughout the history of cinema, there have been a lot of underwritten characters. Sometimes the story is amazing, but the people – the moving parts – aren’t. If you are unable to connect with who you are watching on screen on a human level, it can be a challenge to care enough to invest your time.
Female characters in film, especially, tend to be more underdeveloped than male ones. Is there one defining reason for this? No, but there’s a lot that could be adjusted to help change it to create more enriching stories.
Sometimes, poorly written female characters are done so by the hand of a male writer. Maybe this is because there are more of them, or maybe it is something else.
This isn’t a blanket statement, by any means. Bad writing is bad writing regardless of the screenwriter’s gender. So, where is the error being made? It’s worth considering how one may change to write more fully-realized female characters, regardless of the gender of the writer.
The Male Gaze
The “male gaze” behind the lens is hardly a new concept, nor is the theory of the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” coined by critic Nathan Rabin. There are reasons that we know these by occurrences by name, and it is because they have consistently found their way onto the screen. The idea begins on the page, so there has to be some connective tissue for the reason this happens.
Generally, the portrayal or lack of depth is why these female characters are used as tools in someone else’s narrative, usually a male character.
There are instances that are more egregious than others. There are also examples where females in films could be perceived as poorly written or lacking, but it actually works to further drive the movie’s purpose. This is where things can initially become more difficult to decipher. Why is it okay sometimes and not others? It’s all about the narrative’s purpose, which should always be taken into consideration.
For instance, in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the character of Clementine (played by Kate Winslet) could be considered one of those “Manic pixies” but really it’s about our main, male character’s perception. In this way, you could actually learn from Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay, because he manages to show the origin of one of the most commonly made errors when formulating a female perspective: the stereotype and preconception.
Clementine’s portrayal often changes in the film depending on the context. When we see her as something other than an extension of Joel’s psyche and memory, we see her as more. Therefore, the character isn’t written poorly, it’s actually cleverly woven in a way that shows the seed of where these mistakes happen: how men sometimes see us.
Often writers focus too much on the physicality of female characters versus the intellectual and emotional element that is embedded into who we all are.
This could be said with females in action films that often have the female body as their most defining part, usually front and center in a way that is exploited. It isn’t that beauty externally can’t be appreciated or shown, it’s the lack of internal substance and the gratification of exposing the female form that belittles the feminine addition to a movie.
There is also a slew of horrors that include women merely as vestibules for slaughter or sexual exploitation, but it wouldn’t be as conclusive to the point of this article. Half naked women being chased by murderers and never having any lines of substance is a trope for a reason. Neither would be lingering too long on the many female characters integrated into comedic movies that are there merely to serve as one-note romantic throwaways. Some, are quite misogynistic. Jokes are made at their expense, and while some might be genuinely funny if the character they are aimed at is nothing more than a “blonde” joke. What is their purpose? Women are more than the sexual temptation, the unattainable chick, the guy’s girl, the frigid queen or the temperamental nagging wife. These clichéd characters are written to fulfill the prophecies of their male counterparts, and that’s a shame when there have been so many wonderful female characters throughout the history of Hollywood, many by men.
Women are everywhere, in all shapes, sizes and varying ways, so why aren’t they always captured this way in a story? Why do they sometimes feel as background shades instead of truly formed, colorful additions? Some of the most famous women in films, such as Ellen Ripley, Clarice Starling, Jackie Brown, and Marge Gunderson all stick with us for a reason. These are central women who resonate because they are more than just background. You connect and understand them as fully-realized people and it makes their purpose in the movie imperative.
We don’t always understand the other gender, the small details, and characteristics. It’s not an easy thing to do, one that shouldn’t be expected of any of us. The reason is because, even though there are common differences between genders, those aren’t our defining traits. Those are individualized.
There’s something to be said about doing your homework on a screenplay. There should be genuine engagement with the character as a person: their traits, emotions, fears, and passions. What makes them tick? What drives them? Maybe that discovery will happen over the course of many drafts, but what’s important is that you are doing it.
Nobody is one-note and exploring the diversity and capturing that on the page is important. We all have preconceived notions about people and things, even if we don’t always recognize it. When that applies to screenwriting, it inevitably gets infused into the final product. If someone sees women a certain way, their cinematic representation is going to reflect that. This bleeds through into a screenwriter’s work regardless of their gender. There are many one-note, less developed female characters written by women. When sitting down, diving into a character, regardless of their sex, the same care and mindfulness should be taken with each one. It is always worth it to really dig into what you are trying to say and who these people are, so you can elaborate on their specific traits.
It’s important for any script to contain authentic characters. Even if the setting is fantastical, there’s a humanity to each that needs to be recognized to keep your audience invested. Guillermo Del Toro often brings us to hauntingly beautiful places and has had several female characters as our guides, all of which are wonderfully layered.
The same can be said with Alex Garland, with films such as Never Let Me Go and Annihilation, 28 Days Later and Ex Machina. He has proven his ability to either originally or in an adaptation, create females with real depth. Even in Ex-Machina, a character that is AI, she’s written in such a way that makes her seem more human and detailed than a dozen actual human ones sprinkled throughout cinema. That’s a problem.
Noah Baumbach has written some amazing female characters in movies like Marriage Story and Margot at the Wedding. He has a knack for creating honest, often disheartening stories and the women within them are created with care. As humans, we are flawed, messy creatures, regardless of gender. There’s no one version of a girl or a guy, and there’s no right or wrong perspective. It just has to seem real.
Sometimes this applies to fantastic movies that center around a main character, but still lose focus on the women surrounding them. It may be that the writer just isn’t thinking about the characters as important or in line with the construct they are building. Which is entirely sensible. However, if you are going to give adequate screen time to a woman, give her the story she deserves. Nobody exists in life for the sake of someone else, so why should that be the case in a movie? Take the time to make these supporting roles more fleshed out, more realistic. Your screenplay will be the better for it if you look at each character as their own island and find what makes them unique.
What makes a female authentic though? This may be specific to the viewer and how they connect to the story being told. Just like any character in any form of story – we want to relate. We want to familiarize, feel, and have something about them resonate. Some of my favorite female characters emphasize the struggles we all face, through all the variants on the spectrum of emotion, but without ignoring the fact that they are feminine. Greta Gerwig is often brought up as a fresher female voice and it is for good reason. She has been able to bring authenticity and vulnerability to her characters. Not to be confused with weak or fragile as some female characters are designed, but innately human.
Eva Vives, the screenwriter of All About Nina, is another recent artist who wrote a beautiful and intelligent female in the star. Diablo Cody’s depictions in Juno and Young Adult are both some of the most interesting, even when they are unlikable, characters.
So, how does one write female characters well and naturally? It’s important to be conscious of the way you are representing these women in descriptions and dialogue. One can’t think of the perfect representation of a female or how they’d like them to be. We all have people in our lives, so consider ones you have actually met. As with any writing, it draws from a point of experience. If you don’t have a lot in your life that you can pull from, do your research, read, listen and see where your imagination takes you. There’s no one accurate way to write a character, you just need to feed and nurture the ones that you create, to make sure they feel real.
One important thing to consider is that no writer, regardless of sex, should abide by stereotypes. It’s good to avoid clichés and tropes. After all, originality is what sells and what inspires. Maybe it isn’t obvious this is happening as the words pour out onto the page, but it is there. Is it because it’s easier? Perhaps, but what good thing is truly easy? We all have stories, a past, and a definitive journey that has taken us to where we are now. If you find that female’s story authenticity will follow. Any great screenplay relies on their characters to be gripping. Think about the journey you want them to take and see what happens, just be mindful of the characterizations. What’s their motivation? Try to live in the headspace of this character so the audience views the world as they do. There’s something interesting about each of us, and that should make its way to the screen. With so much diversity to be explored, you just have to pick from the endless possibilities. Who will your next compelling female character be?
I’ll leave you with this: go find meaning and substance when you’re developing, and make sure to consider perspective. Always appreciate your instinct as the writer, but be aware of the choices made when building these fictionalized versions. We don’t always have to have lived in a character’s exact shoes, as writers, we just have to find the depth of theirs. And, I’ll give you hint: it isn’t always heels.
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