How to Write Female Characters : A Guide for Male Writers
(from a guy who does it pretty well)
(ORIGINALLY POSTED AT NEEDLESS THINGS.)
I am in no way famous, but the thing I am most known for is an independent film I wrote about a 17-year old girl with an odd superpower. It is a little emo love-song of a film, a teen romance and coming-of-age story, and I am not going to plug it here. Me and the director and many members of the cast and crew spent the large majority of a year touring the film on the mid-level festival circuit. The number one question, sometimes the only question, I was asked during the question and answer sessions that followed each screening, as well as in numerous interviews I gave (one in Germany, remind me to tell you that story some time), from men and women alike, was this:
“How can you, a thirty-(mumble) year old man, write a teenage girl so well?”
My stock answer, the one I gave twenty times or more, was:
“I am deep down inside a teenage girl. I own every episode of ‘Dawson’s Creek’ and ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ on DVD. My wife is metaphorically a lesbian pedophile.”
It was always my killer line, and it always got me laughs.
The film has, after a rather quiet and inauspicious release, grown a cult following, especially online and through social media. Twitter and Tumblr and what-not. A lot of people have watched it on Netflix, even more have torrented it (dirty thieves!), and through said social media I get similar questions, almost daily, mostly from girls under the age of twenty:
“@chadjshonk You are clearly an old man. How come she talks and acts exactly like me? How did you do that? You are, like, at least, eleventy-one years old. (Why am I making a Hobbit joke?) Are you spying on me? Do I need to get a restraining order? Creep… Can I get a follow back? Maybe an autograph?”
(140 character limit ignored for sake of mild comedy)
I have received such questions and praise on other things I have written as well. The reason for this is not because I am an amazing writer who is deeply in touch with his inner girl and who has seen every episode of ‘Veronica Mars’ more than once. Although that is true.
Man, I miss that show.
The reason I stand out to people is simple:
Most movies are written by guys and most guys suck at writing women.
At the end of this piece, I am going to tell my secret. I am going to teach the male writers out there (and directors and artists and all sorts of creatives) how to portray real, non-stereotypical, emotionally authentic, women.
But, first, I’m going to go back to college.
(A fucking flashback? What a hack! And he’s trying to tell me about writing?)
The first script I ever wrote was called The Divine Wind (insert fart joke here). It took place on an American destroyer in the Pacific during World War II. It was sort of a tribute to my grandfather, who served as a cook on one such vessel, and it also explored the mind-set of the kamikaze pilot.
I look back on it now, and it’s embarrassing. Because it was my first try, and it’s not just very good. The script was well received in my screenwriting class, though, because there are, in my experience, only one or two people in any writing class at any level that have an even half-way chance of ever being a decent writer, but one student in the class had a question. She asked, “Why aren’t there any women in it? Are you afraid to write women?”
I thought the answer was fairly obvious. “What part about a naval vessel at war at sea in 1944 don’t you understand?” (I worded it less condescendingly…I hope). But the question stuck with me. Was I afraid to write women?
I told myself that I wasn’t and set out to prove it.
There are very few good parts, and practically zero great ones, in major motion pictures for actors who are women. But there are lots of parts for ‘girls’. Ever notice how once a young actress becomes famous for delivering a great performance in a small, arty film, they then spend several years playing only girlfriends to leading actors? It happens to nearly all of them. Every young actress, no matter the quality of her talent or beauty or fame will at some time or another be cast as ‘The Girl’.
It’s hard being an actress in Hollywood. Once you’re over a certain weight, it becomes hard to work. Once you’re over a certain age, it becomes hard to work. If you won’t show your breasts, it becomes hard to work. You take what you are given.
It’s even harder for older women. Whenever people complain that Meryl Streep is nominated for an Oscar every year, understand that there are only one or two truly well-written roles per year for women over fifty, and that Streep is automatically going to get one of them. It dramatically increases her chances of winning accolades.
Do you remember a great female character from any Michael Bay movie, other than Megan Fox’s ass? Or any modern action movie, really? Or Sam Raimi’s Spiderman trilogy, where he managed to take Mary Jane Watson, the sweet girl next door that you’re supposed to love, and made her a character that everyone hates? If you were to only watch the Star Wars prequels, you would assume Natalie Portman was the worst actress to ever live. Oliver Stone, David Mamet, and Akira Kurosawa tend (or tended) to avoid consequential women altogether in their original works.
Even Aaron Sorkin, who I believe to be the greatest living writer of English language dialogue, has a problem with how he writes his female characters. Every character he writes is amped-up and emotional and hysterical, but the women seem to always be 20-25% more emotional and hysterical. Or sometimes they’re just in the way. How many people quote Demi Moore in A Few Good Men? How many people remember she was in A Few Good Men?
Don’t even get me started on fucking Sucker Punch.
(I’m not mentioning Twilight because the books were written by a woman, but Bella is the worst written and most damaging major female character in recent film and literary memory. Kids, if you’re going to look up to a modern YA heroine, please pick Katniss. Kicking ass with a longbow > having a Caesarean section performed by a werewolf.)
These are just a few examples, even a couple from a few men I worship (hint: Michael Bay is not one of them. One day I’ll write a piece about how he was a racist filmmaker well before his Stepin Fetchit TF2 robots.). I highly recommend the Bechdel Test, a site that breaks down films from the point of view of how they present women in them. I won’t list Alison Bechdel’s criteria, mostly because I want you to visit the site, but I find it fascinating and true and have begun to look at my own work with her simple benchmarks in mind.
A large majority of women in film are written by men, and written terribly and shallowly and I know exactly why. I have cracked the code. The answer to the problem has been in front of me the whole time and I wish I had given this answer ever time I was asked the question instead of the stock ‘I watch a lot of Buffy’ answer that I always gave.
(Joss Whedon, who I quoted above, is, of course, an exception to this. Even in The Avengers, Black Widow, despite being the only female character of any consequence, was a fully rounded-out hero with her own goals and problems that had nothing to do with what was or was not between her legs. See also: James Cameron, Woody Allen, Kazuo Ishiguro, Richard Curtis, Quentin Tarantino, and others that aren’t coming to me at the moment.)
So here’s my advice not just to aspiring writers, but also to established ones who can’t seem to understand that a female character can be more than a sexual object. More than a nag or an overbearing mother. And more than a victim tied to the railroad tracks.
The secret to writing women (as a man) is:
Just fucking don’t.
The steps are simple:
1) Write a real character.
2) Give said character a female name.
That’s it. That’s the secret.
You’re welcome, writers of the world who didn’t ask for my advice in the first place.
As an exercise, take a character in something you’ve written, switch their gender, and adjust your pronouns accordingly. I promise you that, with a minimal amount of tweaking, it will play. I just did it in the book I’m writing.
Men and women are 95% the same, with that remaining 5% being differences in genitalia and learned societal ideas of gender roles.
(This also applies to writing someone who is of a different race, religion, sexual orientation, or nationality as yourself, by the way.)
Just write a damn person.
The reason so many male writers get it wrong is that they look at the fairer sex (Is it sexist to call them that? Did I just fuck my whole argument?) and say “Okay. I’m writing a female character. What makes them different from me?” Which doesn’t work. The only thing you can see looking from the outside-in are the surface differences: “Girls have tits and like shopping and talk about boys and care about clothes and get PMS and cry a lot.” What they disregard is how much alike all human beings are, how much the women they are writing are just like them.
So they write surface. They write affection. They write shallow.
When you try to portray a character who is an “other” to you, you get women who always take too long to get ready for dinner, black guys who say ‘nigga’ and ‘bitch’ every other word without any of the actual cadence and context of the slang, Brits with bad teeth, and prancing, swishy gay men who wear pink and scarves and ass-less chaps and listen to Streisand.
I recently finished my first novel, and it will be out in the Spring. It is told from the point of view of a 38 year-old, ex-military, Bengali lesbian living in Rome, Italy, a hundred years from now.
And she may be more ‘me’ than any character I’ve ever written.
And yet, we are still very different. If you’re really a writer, you love and become your characters, and they will say and do things that are unexpected and unplanned. They will tell you what they want. They will, organically, become women. You, behind the keyboard, no matter how manly you think you are, will find yourself attracted to the men in her story (if she swings that way). You will start seeing the world in a different way. The words coming out of her mouth will be a little different from your own. More feminine. More specific to who she is.
But that’s not where you start.
Labeling people as “other” is dangerous in society, and equally so in art.
I don’t know if this has been useful or interesting. Probably not. But it’s something I’ve wanted to get off my chest and here it is. My one trade secret:
In order for a straight white man to write a (woman, Arab, homosexual, Jew, little person, Tibetan monk, Martian) the only trick is…