This post was originally intended to be a satirical comment on the state of female characters in screenplays written by men.
But, ironically enough, after talking to a handful of male screenwriters, I realized that there is a legitimate, long-standing issue amongst male writers when it comes to writing female characters.
I say this without judgment: some male writers just don’t know how to write female characters. Which is why I’m here to help!
How Are Female and Male Characters Different?
I’d love to say, “they aren’t.” I’d love to say, “for every iconic male character, there’s a female counterpart.” But unfortunately, that’s not the case.
Jason Bourne’s stoic killer instinct is mirrored in Angelina Jolie’s kickass spy in Salt. But the difference? Evelyn Salt has a softer side, a love for a husband or a fellow spy that tempers them. Jason Bourne’s romantic subplot is much more subtle and is completely secondary to his character development in the movies. And don’t get me started on James Bond — the suave womanizer has no feminine parallel, and even Luc Besson’s femme fatale spy Nikita is rougher and more emotionally unstable than the Bond.
Female characters seem to be the first to show vulnerabilites, the first to seek comfort in the arms of a loved one, the first to fall in love, the first to break down.
Hollywood’s still got a ways to go before female heroines can be considered equals to famous male heroes.
Female Characters as an Ideal
There are two overused stereotypes that terrorize the screenwriting world: the Prize, and the Harpie. They aren’t characters — they are just stand-in stereotypes lacking concrete personalities. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen these one-dimensional stereotypes plague many a screenplay that’s been sent to me for notes from male writers.
So read these and banish them from your stories!
When female characters serve only as goals and not standalone characters with their own set of wants and traits, we have a problem.
In Drive, Carey Mulligan’s character was put on a pedestal as a beautiful, perfect thing that ought to be protected. She wasn’t afforded any character development– in fact, she was not a character. She was an ideal. A goal.
Female characters often serve simply as idealized motivations. ‘Here is a beautiful woman, now go protect her’ is the common thread with movies. She’s the prize, the treasure, the girl to be won because she’s beautiful.
She’s the incarnation of evil, and there’s no particular reason why. This trope stands in for a true villain, and rings false because there’s no motivation behind this character.
Why is she evil? Because she just is.
I loved Brick with the passion of a thousand suns, but its female characters were severely lacking. Both Cara and Laura fulfilled the Harpie trope, both sending men into dangerous situations to get killed and playing them like puppets just ’cause. Their motivations were never clear, and when they ended up betraying the main character it was like, “well, duh. They’re not characters, they’re stereotypes.”
Examples of Well-Written Female Characters
- Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman in Christopher Nolan’s Batman. Christopher Nolan writes his female characters very well. Catwoman is a devious thief whose 180 transformation in the third Batman is something to be studied.
- Elizabeth Swan in Pirates of the Caribbean 1-3. This character wins the award for ‘most well developed over a trilogy.’ She goes from being the dutiful Governor’s daughter preparing to marry a man she doesn’t love to a Pirate King charging into battle with her true love by her side. She outsmarts Captain Jack Sparrow, kissing him so she can handcuff to the mast of his own ship so her and Will can escape the Kraken. She’s emotionally complex and motivated by a variety of factors. She never goes down without a fight, but she’s also capable of loving and being loved. Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio once mentioned that Elizabeth is the true main character of the trilogy. In my mind, this is part of the reason why the fourth Pirates wasn’t as strong.
- Trinity in The Matrix. Watch the first scene of the movie. Only then can you begin to understand why Trinity is not only a kickass character, but she’s also got an arc of her own.
- Thelma and Louise. Thelma and Louise are polar opposites, and they’ve both got their own backstories, quirks, and personal philosophies.
How Do I Describe My Female Characters?
For the millionth time, ‘beautiful’ is not a character trait. And the next time I read, ‘she’s beautiful but she doesn’t know it’ in a script I’m going to kill someone.
If your female character is of importance to the script and not some random extra, then she deserves at least one defining trait that helps the reader picture her.
SALLY (20’s) is beautiful with blond hair and long legs.
SALLY (20’s) is a no-nonsense Brooklyn woman in a chic business attire with her hair up in a messy bun – messy only because she’s been at work since 7am.
I’ve also read a lot of creepy descriptors of female characters that are downright salacious in the most uncomfortable way possible. Women executives do exist in this business, so as a rule of thumb write your descriptions knowing that other people will be reading them.
How Do I Write Female Characters?
Like you write human characters.
One amateur screenplay I read contained a female character who was mercilessly berated and insulted by the tough guy main character whom she had just met, but thirty seconds later she inexplicably risked her life to help him.
The problems outlined above occur when writers rely on stereotypes and generalizations to stand in for where character should be. But if you aren’t sloppy with the character development, and you put some thought into why this character is acting this way and what their goals are, you’ve already set yourself apart from most of Hollywood.
Basically, it comes down to this: the emotional heart of a character is androgynous. Find that emotional truth, and the rest will follow.