“Jane is simultaneously beautiful yet plain, assertive yet vulnerable, and strangely charismatic for a woman who has very little to say.”
“Tara is a gently hysterical, workaholic drone – a highly intelligent woman held back by nothing except an exceptionally plain face.”
“Erica is surprisingly attractive considering she is in her mid-40s and has recently had half of her thin, but not too thin, body torn apart by a werewolf.”
These are a few examples of the way female characters are described in many of the scripts sent in to the BBC Writersroom that we, as script readers, get to read. They are frequently derogatory, incongruous and judgemental, and range from the hilarious to the horrific – sometimes within one sentence. In many instances they focus heavily on physical appearance in a way that is neither useful to know nor possible to film.
You may be disappointed (or relieved) to learn that I made up Jane, Tara and Erica. Much as I would like to, I can’t show you real female character descriptions submitted by real writers. These can only be viewed by trained readers wearing industry standard protective goggles. Instead, I have created some far less extreme imitations to a) demonstrate what the problem is and b) gently encourage those who need encouragement to write women in a more insightful way.
During the last Script Room sift – where we read 1780 scripts – a few of us readers copied the most bizarre female character descriptions we came across onto post-it notes and stuck them on the wall (see the picture above). Some descriptions of male characters also worked their way in. The latter tended to go something like this:
“Dave is an everyday bloke with no sense of fashion, but a cracking sense of humour. He is likable slacker, neither attractive nor unattractive, but very good at writing.”
Dave is a familiar figure to us. He often appears in sitcoms. Often he is called Dave. Sometimes it’s Steve.
The female characters on the post-its – women like Jane, Tara and Erica – were described less sympathetically with a combination of reverence and disgust. They were good looking but thick, glamourous but old, hot but vain. However, worst of all, they inevitably ended up dating Dave.
If all of the above sounds like predictable male fantasy stuff to you, that’s because a lot of it is. Using equal opportunity forms, we can estimate that two thirds of the writers who submitted scripts to the last Script Room were male – and although not all of the dubious female character descriptions were written by men, a lot were.
You might ask whether it really matters how a character is described. Isn’t it what they do and how they behave that counts? Yes, but a nonsensical and hackneyed character description invariably leads to a nonsensical and hackneyed character – one that is underdeveloped and difficult to care about and understand. Characters that are defined predominantly by their looks are not interesting to spend time with. What might fulfil the needs of a magazine shoot is unlikely to sustain a ten-part television series.
An ideal character description is probably simply a short summery of need-to-know information. For instance, The Girl by Gwyneth Hughes contains one that goes like this: “His wife ALMA brings him a final dirty cup as he finishes his perfect clearing up routine. She is 61, small, bright, determined, unglamorous, and English.” What Alma does is more important than what she looks like. Indeed, most of the scripts in the Writers Room Script Library choose to show the characters in action rather than describe them at all.
Writing recently about the excellent second series of Danish TV show Borgen (which has just finished airing on BBC Four), The Sunday Times’ AA Gill said:
“The female characters are strong, attractive, independent, flawed, both sexual and businesslike. But they’re not exceptional: they’re simply equal, which is surprising, and reminds us how stereotypical most English-language drama still is.”
If English-language drama is stereotypical (and is it?), can writers be blamed for copying what they see in comedies, dramas and films that get made? It’s true – you don’t have to do more than turn on your TV or visit your nearest cinema to find clunky, predictable depictions of women worse than any I could make up. Yet creating your own versions of these won’t make them to go away. The world isn’t perfect and neither is every script ever produced. Rather than emulate mediocrity, why not aim to get rid of it?
There are interesting female characters out there – and Scandinavian dramas, such as Borgen, The Killing and The Bridge, are currently a great place to find them, as is the Script Library. If you think, like me, that there should be more – and your imagination isn’t filled with a giant ‘hot or not’ list, but believable women with interesting stories – perhaps you could write about them for the next Script Room? The window for submissions opens today.
Here are some questions to help you test the originality of your female characters in the form of a women’s magazine quiz because, as everyone knows, this is the most scientific way to test anything.
1. How would you describe your female character?
a). A maverick detective with a rubbish personal life and obsession for wandering around forests at night with a torch
b). A vivacious brunette with eyes like saucers who thinks she’s cleverer than she really is
c). A 95 year-old chess champion secretly taking performance enhancing drugs
d). A kooky yet crazy fun-loving chick, good looking but wearing glasses.
2. What is she most likely to say?
b) “Do you think I’m pretty?”
c). “Check mate”
d). “Sometimes, I just want to run forever!”
3. In what clothes does she feel most comfortable?
a). A chunky knit jumper with snow flakes that is more expensive than you would think
b). A hot pink bikini – and she’s not even on the beach!
c). A plastic gold crown
d). Neon leggings, a tutu and a blazer from the 1970s
4. Where does she spend most of her time?
a). Parliament – when she’s not solving triple murders, she’s running the country
b). Socialising with the rich and famous
c). A 17th-century castle bought with her winnings
d). Reading comic books and talking about superheroes with her male friends
5. What makes her different?
a). She can mend a bicycle
b). She’s a bitch
c). She’s an alien
d). She’s a complex hotchpotch of every woman you’ve never met
Your character is Slorgen, a cross between Sarah Lund from The Killing and Birgitte Nyborg from Borgen. Both of these characters are great, but they already exist. Maybe it’s time to step away from the sandwich cake and think of someone new
Oh dear. Your character is the familiar and often nameless ‘sexy babe’ – someone defined predominantly by what she looks like who, over the years, you have clearly come to both desire and despise. Please return to the start of this blog.
Wow – your character is certainly unique. It’s always refreshing to read about an interesting older woman, but perhaps you could still develop her some more. Why does she play chess? Why does she cheat? Are you avoiding such questions by turning her into an alien?
Ah, the kooky, crazy chick. She might seem super original, but I’m afraid she is also a familiar character – one who has so many traits she often ends up being defined by none of them. You may well be in love with her. If so, try watching Ruby Sparks.
Written for BBC Writersroom