As an actress, writer, producer, and professional script reader, dynamic female characters are my specialty. With female led films being more in demand (hooray!), I’ve been asked more questions as of late about the problems I see in scripts with a female protagonist.
There are a variety of factors that contribute to a female led narrative being weaker than it can be, so much so that I’ve been developing an online course on the subject. These are the top five that I encounter in my work as a story analyst. With each typical issue, I’ve included questions for you, the screenwriter, to help you craft more dynamic female characters.
1. Lack of Character Development
I’m starting with Character Development, because it’s the biggest issue that I give notes on for female characters. As we know, character is king, so if your characters are not well developed, it affects the entire screenplay.
For weak female characters, their development usually doesn’t go past their physicality. Not only that, but their physical development is usually focused on how gorgeous, sexy, or beautiful she is. Details might be given about how revealing or form fitting her clothes are. Nothing is offered about her demeanor or personality.
This is so rampant that producer Ross Putman began to document the character intros for female characters he encounters in scripts. It doesn’t mean that female characters can’t be beautiful, but if that’s all that’s been developed about a character, then the character is weak.
In addition, the backstory and career of a female character are typically not defined. The usual careers that I see for female characters are real estate agents, teachers, and cops. The weakest female characters I encounter have no careers at all. She’s devoid of aspirations, her own passions, and opinions. She also tends to not have friends or family. If she has a friend, they’ll get together over a bottle of wine.
- MAKE HER DYNAMIC: What does she do for a living? What is her profession, her expertise? What’s shaped who she is from her past? What has she gone through? Has she grown up in poverty, the middle class, or in wealth? What education has she had? How does that affect her view on the world? Who are her friends? Where is her family? Does she have any siblings? What is she passionate about? What is she interested in? How does she relax? What does she do in her free time?
2. Unrealistic Vulnerability
I recently had a conversation with another script reader about the predicament we see female characters end up in of getting emotional to the point where they’re breaking down, tears instantaneously springing from their eyes. Weaker female characters often literally fall down crying because of the emotions they feel.
In short, vulnerability tends to be portrayed unrealistically in weaker female characters. They’re stereotyped as hysterical versus the emotional world of the character being developed thoroughly. (If you don’t know the etymology of the word hysterical, read up on it here.)
Weak female characters are often debilitated by the intensity of their feelings. A female character will receive bad news in an email, a text, on a phone call, and she’ll collapse in tears. This kind of vulnerability doesn’t take into consideration the aforementioned character development, which is why I put Character Development as number one. If a female character hasn’t been developed well, we have nothing to inform how she might respond to her emotions that arise. This leads to stereotyping.
Something else to consider: As writers, our stories inform and teach the audience, whether we or they are conscious of it or not. When we portray emotionality and sensitivity as debilitating, it sends the message that feeling emotions and being sensitive make one weak and incapable. In this way, femininity is portrayed as weak when women are shown on screen over and over again with unrealistic vulnerability.
- MAKE HER DYNAMIC: Go back to the questions under Character Development. From what your character has been through, her backstory, how might she deal with her anger? Her happiness? Stress? Sadness? Are there certain people in her life she feels more comfortable revealing her feelings to? How does she deal with her feelings in the workplace versus personal life? What does she do to avoid feeling or showing her feelings to others?
3. More Passive Than Active
This one follows on the heels of the unrealistic portrayal of vulnerability. When a female protagonist is debilitated by her emotions, it’s typical for her to become incapable of taking action. This leaves the door open for another character, often a male one, to come forward and be the one that makes a decision, thinks of a solution, overcomes the obstacle, in other words, the one that drives the narrative forward. This makes the female protagonist more passive, which weakens the character.
This doesn’t only occur in instances where the female character has been incapacitated by her emotions. In general, weaker female characters are not the ones that drive things forward. Any time you have a passive protagonist, it weakens the strength of the character.
- MAKE HER DYNAMIC: What is the main conflict in your story? Is the female protagonist coming up with the solutions to overcome it? What obstacles arise in your story? Which character(s) have the answers to obstacles? Is she the one taking action to overcome the conflict?
4. Less Dialogue
This one doesn’t need much explanation, and you’ve probably heard about it from studies done on the subject. Male characters tend to have more dialogue than female characters, even when the protagonist is female.
Male characters have the opportunity to dominate dialogue when they’re the ones that are more active and driving the narrative forward. All of the core elements of a screenplay are connected. I started this list off with lack of development, because that’s where it starts, and then it snowballs.
- MAKE HER DYNAMIC: First, see the questions under Character Development, Unrealistic Vulnerability, and More Passive than Active. How many male characters are in your script versus female characters? If female characters are in the minority, could one or more male characters be flipped to female? Is there anything a male character says that a female character could say?
5. Structure: Resolution
This one isn’t so much of an issue, but rather a typical ending that I see in narratives with a female protagonist. This typical resolution doesn’t take into consideration the development of a female character. At the end, we see the female protagonist now in a romantic relationship with a male character and she is usually pregnant or has children.
Instead of taking into consideration her development and the character’s arc, a female character is defined by an “ultimate goal” of procreating and being with a man. When narratives end on this note, showing that women’s ultimate happiness is a life with a man and babies, it perpetuates a patriarchal point of view that we’ve seen repeatedly on screen. This is only one perspective within the sea of diversity our world is filled with.
- MAKE HER DYNAMIC: What is your protagonist’s arc? Where does she end up at the end of that arc? How has she changed based on the events of the narrative? What has she learned by the end? What’s different about her and her life? What are her aspirations and goals? Does she reach them by the end? How can you show that?
There really isn’t a difference between how a female character is crafted versus a male character. Writers put characters into boxes by thinking “this is a woman, so a woman does this,” which isn’t development. It’s stereotyping. There is a difference in the way a woman has experienced life versus how a man has experienced it, but that’s just one of many nuances to consider for a character.
If you’re looking for more guidance on crafting female characters, check out my article on Changing the Narrative for Women, One Screenplay at a Time, which gives insight on how writing dynamic female characters can help change the world.