Wanted: decent female characters for long-term relationship with writers

“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.

***

Quiz

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?

a). “Tak”

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

***

Results

Mostly As

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

Mostly Bs

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.

Mostly Cs

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?

Mostly Ds

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 

http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/writersroom/posts/Wanted-decent-female-characters-for-long-term-relationship-with-writers

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15 thoughts on “Wanted: decent female characters for long-term relationship with writers

  1. chrisontheatre February 18, 2013 at 10:56 am Reply

    There is one other solution to the “Dave” problem (i.e. a lead male character based on yourself): make you lead character female. I did that once when I had a story involving a main character that I knew was too obviously based on myself, with a story clearly derived from real events. To my surprise, simply by switching the genders round, and a few tweaks to traits of the lead character to work in the new gender, nobody put two and two together, and I got a lot of credit for all of the hard work I must have done to get a female character so believable.

    Obvious disadvantage to this technique is that you can only create a finite number of versions of yourself in your scripts before they all start looking the same. But I know you can make a lot of this. Alan Ayckbourn gets heaps of praise for how well he writes for women, and has uses that technique a lot.

  2. Sally February 22, 2013 at 8:35 pm Reply

    Hi Chris, thanks for the comment.

    That’s an interesting idea – reminds me of an interview I read with Sofie Grabol where she said that in order to play Sarah Lund in The Killing, she imagined the character was a man.

    Ripley from Alien was also originally written as a man, although I’m guessing isn’t based upon the author – unless he was secretly travelling through time, killing monsters from space between drafts.

    A lot of 1980s dramas seem to have this ‘woman who acts like a man – and is just as strong and competent (if not more so)’ kind of a character. Even Borgen and The Killing revolve around it to some extent. It can feel a bit dated. But I wonder if there is anything any better to take its place?

  3. mike March 1, 2013 at 12:28 am Reply

    I loved ‘Borgen’ – I thought it was absolutely brilliant and I adored Birgitte Nyborg. But I’m glad I watched it before I read your blog or I would have avoided it.

    You paint a picture of a world where women are assailed by horrible stereotypes and men are not – or not as much. Or not as badly. Or whatever. Well, I disagree. I don’t think the world needs more interesting female characters – I think it needs more interesting characters of both sexes because only then will the relationships work.

    In ‘Borgen,’ I loved the relationship of Birgitte and Kasper, her spin doctor, because it was all about the gradual building of trust and faith and cooperation between them with no romantic undercurrent of any kind. It’s so rare for a TV drama to show a man and a woman in that context and they did it so well. The moment when the once-cynical Kasper turns to the other reporter and says, ‘Birgitte Nyborg is the best prime minister we ever had’ and MEANS it … I shed a couple of tears on that one. It was beautiful.

    That kind of moment I would like to see more of.

    • Sally March 1, 2013 at 10:17 am Reply

      Hi Mike,

      I like Borgen too. Not sure what I said that would put you off it (that it’s excellent and has interesting female characters?)

      It’s the way women are described in many of the scripts sent into the BBC writersroom that I’m specifically talking about in the blog. Male characters in these scripts are sometimes described strangely too (ask Dave), but not in the same judgmental way, nor with as much of a focus on attractiveness.

      This is just my experience – but one that I imagine isn’t disconnected to the way some writers view men and women in the wider world.

      Of course, I would love to see more good male and female characters! Like you say, there are some out there – and I’m hoping there will be more in the next Script Room sift.

      • mike March 1, 2013 at 6:53 pm

        Dear Sally,

        It was the tone and the creation of the post-its Wall of Shame that would have put me off Borgen. I’ve known several women who use what men say to shame them and when they say something is excellent, it usually means that men are on the receiving end of something bad.

        Most men are not in a good place when it comes to understanding and trusting women so I can imagine that repressed longing, anger and judgement seeps out into their writing. I agree with your sentiment that it shouldn’t be there, but you seem surprised by it and I don’t get why.

      • Sally March 4, 2013 at 9:22 pm

        Hey Mike,

        Don’t judge me by my post-it notes! I’m just the messenger reporting back on what other people have written.

        Having been a script reader for a while, I don’t find the way many female characters are written surprising. I (and others!) have been coming across them for years.

        I made the post-its to accurately find out what the reoccurring problems were (as opposed to making sweeping statements about most men…most women… etc) and wrote the blog to help writers avoid them. I will let you know in a few months if it has worked!

  4. […] books.” | Live first, write later: the case for less creative-writing schooling. | Wanted – decent female characters for long-term relationship with screenwriters. | “What’s interesting about the rise of a […]

  5. Alan Baker April 15, 2013 at 7:16 am Reply

    I sympathise with you having to read lots of scripts with hackneyed character descriptions, but not with the feminist subtext demanding female characters be defined less by their looks. Physical appearance is simply more significant in terms of the way a woman is perceived by others than it is in a man, and that applies whether the onlooker is male or female. Miranda would simply not be Miranda if she were slinky and beautiful and her gawkiness would not be so incongruous if she were not set alongside pretty, elfin Stevie in the shop. A woman’s appearance is always going to say more about her social capital than it would about a man. I think it’s an evolutionary thing and a few decades of feminism are not going to change that.
    I notice that even the “ideal” female character description above mentions that she’s “unglamorous”. Also “His wife Alma” suggests she’s defined by her relationship to him. That can’t be ideal.

  6. Sally April 19, 2013 at 9:24 pm Reply

    Hi Alan,

    Cheers for commenting.

    I’ve no objection to characters’ looks being mentioned in scripts if it’s relevant to the story, but often it isn’t, particularly if they’re female. Female characters are dull if they’re defined purely by their looks – something that makes them difficult to read whether you’re a feminist or not.

    Words like ‘attractive’ ‘beautiful’ and ‘pretty’ are all fairly abstract. I imagine they mean something different to you than they do to me. You could also argue that all sorts of dubious behaviour is evolutionary, but that doesn’t make it desirable.

    Whenever anyone mentions a woman’s ‘social capital’ I start thinking about what this actually means. Can you buy stuff with it, like in shops and restaurants and the chemist? How do you know how much you’ve got left? Or when you’ve run out?

  7. georgiajames74 May 25, 2013 at 12:03 pm Reply

    Hi Sally, thanks for your writersroom posts – really helpful. I’d love to know which female comedy characters you most admire. I’m working on a sitcom for Writersroom and feel passionately about having strong female characters in the mix. Nighty Night, Spaced, Pulling, Seinfeld, Twenty Twelve and Green Wing are an inspiration to me on that front. Weirdly, Anne from Ever Decreasing Circles is one that sticks in my mind from childhood, too!

    • Sally May 29, 2013 at 1:23 pm Reply

      Hi Georgia,

      Pretty much all of those – and I also like a lot of Chris Lilley’s female characters (Summer Heights High, We Can Be Heroes, Angry Boys). And Absolutely Fabulous. Women working in PR seem to be a reoccurring theme in comedy: Edina in Ab Fab, Siobhan Sharpe in Twenty Twelve…

      But when reading scripts I try not to let my own personal taste interfere too much. Got to stay open to new ideas and perspectives.

      Glad you’re enjoying the blogs. Just finishing off a new one on soap operas.

  8. georgiajames74 June 3, 2013 at 2:09 pm Reply

    Thanks for getting back to me, Sally. Good point – I love Chris Lilley, though I haven’t seen Angry Boys. It’s now on my to-watch list. Very much looking forward to your soap operas blog. I’m a closet Corrie fan. I love it because it because it contains more humour than most soaps and delivers some killer lines (dare I say, at its best, lines worthy of Alan Bennett?).

  9. SueAB March 29, 2014 at 12:30 am Reply

    Having just heard you on Women’s Hour, I thought I’d reply. This would be so much more satisfying to post if my female character-driven script hadn’t just failed to make it through the first round of Script Room! I agree with your key point, but also am conscious that one of the first things the audience knows about the character is what they look like, and there is a trap in describing a character with unfilmable attributes like ‘determined’, which us novices get discouraged from doing. I’ve been taking the approach of describing what my characters (male and female) look or sound like and then demonstrating other attributes in the action. I’m now going to go back and check whether I’ve given more weight to female descriptions than male ones though!

    I don’t think there’s any getting away from the fact that looks are small-p-political for women in a way they aren’t for men. Us wannabe writers should be challenging that rather than reinforcing it.

    If only I’d written mine better, you’d have had a nice example of a non-looks-based, original, passionate, offbeat woman with a mission to counterbalance the drivel – I’ll try to provide you with one next time!

    • Sally Stott March 29, 2014 at 9:24 am Reply

      Hi Sue,

      Cheers for posting and sorry to hear your script didn’t get through. But remember, it’s just one person’s opinion. Better luck for next time!

      Sally

  10. dasherxi May 23, 2015 at 11:41 am Reply

    I’ve taken a look at your quiz, and applied it too several female characters I created. And I find that the answers you provide apply to none of them. I’m not entirely sure what to make of that.

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