‘They want you to be the girl in the room.’
There was a time, early in my screenwriting career, when those were my most hated ten words. It meant I was being considered for a job because producers were recognizing the importance of having female voices in story rooms.
But it sucked because I went into these meetings or jobs feeling like I was there to be just ‘the voice of the ladies’ — rather than a human being capable of expressing the full human experience, as seemed to somehow be assumed of male writers.
‘What would a woman say here, Shelley…?’
Thankfully, this specific kind of hiring doesn’t happen as often. (Though I do also want to acknowledge that my colleagues of color and my queer colleagues are still battling this kind of tokenism.) We’ve made incredible strides in creating, running, and writing for so many unforgettable television shows since the early 2000s that people now believe we can write more than just ‘the girlies’.
And we can write for shows that aren’t pigeon-holed as ‘women’s programs.’ We’ve proven time and time again that we can do so.
But sometimes I still get asked about how to make female characters who pop off the page. Or how to make these creations sharper or realistic or more distinct.
I think this is less about having a specific female voice or point-of-view than it once was — but is now more about a recognition that there are still places where screenwriters (of all genders) can fail their female characters specifically.
Having spent a lot of time working in this space and thinking about this issue, I have a few tips I can offer.
1. FORGET ABOUT GENDER
Thinking of female characters as ‘different’ can set you off on the wrong foot. Think first about what makes any character good or exciting or compelling. And write that.
Assemble and discover the qualities that make the person you are creating unique — without regard to whether those qualities are ‘guy things’ or ‘girl stuff’.
As a woman who tends to be introverted, I often see myself more in male characters – who are often permitted to be the ‘strong, silent type’, and who aren’t necessarily as socially- or relationally-motivated.
I’m far more a Luke Danes than I am a Lorelei Gilmore. (Though I do love Lorelei and also find her attractive, just like Luke.)
And as a person who is by no means Type A (like, honestly, I think I’m like Type X, that’s how far away I am from A) I also feel that ‘control freak’ or ‘detail-oriented’ are over-represented amongst female characters, just as ‘chill’ or ‘rebellious’ are over-represented amongst male characters.
I think I lean more Mulder than Scully, if measured on the X-Files spectrum. That’s a thing, right?
I’ve known plenty of Type A men, but I’m struggling right now to name many male characters with that trait.
Frasier? But he was so coded as ‘fussy’ and ‘annoying’ that this male outlier status was practically the whole point of him.
These personality traits can shape us far more strongly than our physical bodies, though they are often just as in-born and aren’t strictly socially imbued.
When we start from the gender binary, we can become trapped in stereotypes.
As an exercise, try writing your character as the opposite sex. Then ask yourself what changes in their personality or actions when you flipped their gender?
If the character changes a lot, you might want to look at some of the assumptions you are making about who they are due to their hormones alone.
Or try writing your characters as non-binary — and see what other edges of their personality you can find when you throw the whole guy-girl binary up in the air!
2. BUT DON’T COMPLETELY FORGET ABOUT GENDER
It’s a simple fact that we live in a society which treats women differently than men in ways both big and small. This is something we all recognize and do innately when we write historical characters.
If a woman proposes to a man in a Victorian drama, we all know she’s a maverick or an outlier (and a badass in her own way…) If a contemporary female character desperately seeks marriage at 18, we know she’s a specific type of person. But if we are writing a Jane Austen-era girl who isn’t obsessed with her marriageability at the same age, it tells us just as much about her.
If we as writers ignore the personal history which builds our character completely, the people we are making up won’t ring true either. Remembering the society and upbringing that your character has received is essential for creating a well-rounded person. And part of that environment is sexism in all its forms — whether your character honours their upbringing or pushes against it.
Write a biography for your character, just as the best actors do. Include your thoughts as to how your character’s understanding of their femininity developed them. Even if the events of this biography don’t appear in what you are writing, you should know how their upbringing shaped who they have become. This includes sex-based bias. Girls are most often socialized from birth to be ‘nice’, collaborative, to make themselves attractive. How did your character experience these pressures? If she did not, how did it feel when she did start to see them around her?
3. DON’T FORGET SEXISM STILL EXISTS
Some of the strongest notes I ever received from a network executive were from a man twenty-years my senior. It was while writing a female character (and a comic character) who was my contemporary. He objected to her laughing at an enemy’s misfortune (‘not nice’), hiring someone to baby-proof her home (‘naïve and lazy’), and referring to her baby as her ‘kid’ (‘very trashy’.)
It suddenly occurred to me that these were all notes that a disapproving father might give his daughter to correct her behavior to a way he would approves of – and this is not a coincidence. (For the record, I did not receive any similar notes on any male character.)
Additionally, it made it really, really difficult to make this character funny, because it was like her judgmental dad was always in the room with her.
This is the dreaded ‘likeability’ flag that you will doubtless receive on your female characters from those who read your script, even if they aren’t an executive with daddy issues.
You may have heard of Main Character Syndrome, which refers to the psychological phenomena of believing you’re the main character in a fictional version of your life.
In TV series writing we also have Main Character Syndrome but it’s a different kind of phenomena which tends to make main characters very, very boring.
It happens because networks or studios want the audience to root for the main character without hesitation or reservation. This is why we often end up loving the sidekicks in properties so much. Because they are allowed to be outrageous, to make that edgy joke, to have a wilder take.
In my experience as a writer and as a viewer, a female main character has it twice as hard. One character I wrote for several seasons who broke some of the Main Female Character Syndrome rules was Erica Strange on Being Erica.
The premise of the show was that she tried to go back and fix a regret from her life in each episode – so it made it easier to argue that she should be allowed to screw up. It was baked right into the show’s DNA and I think that was part of the success of the character and the series.
Be prepared to let your character make mistakes, make jokes, have opinions rather than protecting them. But remember that the best defence is a good offence. You will be questioned when you let women swing for the fences in any way that’s interesting to watch.
Make sure you’ve thought about motivation for their less-than-ideal choices. It won’t ever hurt your writing to understand the why so deeply that you could defend them in a court of law (or at least against a silly network note.)
4. NEVER SET OUT TO WRITE A ‘STRONG FEMALE CHARACTER’
Sometimes I refer to this as ‘Clint Eastwood With Tits Syndrome’. Fight anybody who tells you to write this way. (Since this seems to be the second point I’m writing in a row that urges you to fight somebody, maybe I should be adding that I’m not condoning actual violence. Fight them with your words. Like, metaphorically. Like a strong female character would.)
People don’t ask for this quality in male characters. Yes, they might want to write a man who is especially heroic or stubborn or resilient. But ‘strong’ is such a dishwater adjective.
It also carries with it a sexist assumption about all the other female characters in media and in your work.
I truly think that if you focus on this as your guiding light, you’ll end up creating someone who is incredibly unreal and won’t give the moments of vulnerability that make a character anything other than two dimensional (yes, even Dirty Harry had his vulnerable beats.)
One of the best characters I’ve ever had the pleasure of writing was Wynonna Earp.
Created by Emily Andras (adapted from the comic book series by Beau Smith), Wynonna was a demon-killing badass who had to do horrible, difficult, physically demanding things in every episode.
She could be abrupt and angry and sometimes even cruel. But she also cried on camera on a fairly regular basis — and for my money, that was a big part of why the audience related to her.
We didn’t worry about her being ‘strong’ in every single moment. Sometimes we worried more about letting her break down so she could pull herself back together. Presenting a contrast that was so vivid was more affecting than if she’d just radiated strength the whole way through.
5. LISTEN TO WOMEN TALKING
This is my number one tip specifically for male screenwriters seeking to capture a female voice. Listen to a conversation between two women at dinner or on the subway or in a store. (Not in a creepy way, bro, back up.) Then go home and try to replicate it on the page.
Generally, I think this is an excellent way for beginning screenwriters to try and capture the rhythm of language and I would advise it as a regular exercise. I still use it regularly to try and capture teen voices more accurately as they seem more changeable. This is a little ‘hack’ I learned while riding the bus to my first screenwriting job on Degrassi: The Next Generation.
So thanks to the kids who rode the 70-O’Connor-North bus and who never knew what they were contributing!
Now go slam some dialogue!