We all have out preferences and personal favourites, but the key to writing a truly great female character craft-wise lies in her complexity.

Wanted: Female Leads

‘Strong female characters’ … Remember when *every* producer, script lead, prodco, scheme, competition, agent and his/her dog wanted one of these? It wasn’t all that long ago.

Sadly, it became clear very quickly it was yet another reductive label. After all, what ‘strong female character’ invariably meant was …

  • As long as she’s hot
  • And she kicks ass (literally or metaphorically, preferably both)
  • Whilst she wears very little clothes
  • Especially whilst she makes out with the mediocre lead male as his ‘prize’ for his super-hard journey
  • (Psssst – she’s super emotionally-literate and helps said male lead with his own emotions)
  • Oh or maybe she’s a wife or girlfriend (WAG) who cries on the phone.

Awww. So strong. Erm NO!

Not ‘Strong’, SIDELINED

Those ‘strong female characters’ were not strong, but SIDELINED. It’s no accident most of those female characters I outline above were secondaries. They literally had less screen-time, so writers gave them fewer layers. But even some female protagonists became sidelined in their own stories, simply because their male secondaries were more complex than them.

We know better now. ‘Strong’ is just one of many elements a female character (in any role function) can be. Here are some …

  • Brave
  • Skilled
  • Clever
  • Accomplished
  • Resourceful
  • Goal-orientated
  • Hot-headed
  • Reflective
  • Pragmatic
  • Witty

But also …

  • Ruthless
  • Anxious
  • Selfish
  • Sneaky
  • Oblivious
  • Superior
  • Desperate
  • Anxious
  • Cowardly
  • Psychopathic

They can be in any combo, in any role function. (Those listed above are just for starters, there’s plenty more where those came from!!).

Best of all, we are seeing more female characters in lead roles, protagonist AND antagonist as well as secondary. Because why the hell not? Audiences want COMPLEXITY, ie. NUANCE and LAYERS. Dependent on the genres and types of story we are engaging with, we are getting this. Writers have picked up the mantle and began writing more complex, nuanced chrs … who just so happen to be female.

You are better off not writing a female character AT ALL than shoe-horning one in like the ‘crying WAG’

‘Why do you write strong male characters?‘ Said No One EVER

Every time someone tries to call forth the BS notion of the ‘strong female character’, I always wonder why no one asks the same of writers’ MALE characters.

Oh that’s right – because there’s waaaaaaaay more variety to male characterisation as standard. Sure, many of them are broad strokes; lots are literally strong, which is obviously fine too. But those male characters are hardly ever defined by that strength. They are brave, clever, resourceful, witty or whatever else I just listed AS WELL. Male characters have histories and problems of their own.

You see, defining female characters by ONE single attributeThat was the problem!

Newsflash: It Ain’t 2009 Anymore

Thankfully, the kickass hotties and the Crying WAGs have more or less died out in 2019. These may include hot women who can indeed kick ass, but they are much MORE than that … Just as WAGs don’t have to be facilitators of male emotion.

Sure, we have ‘a long way to go’ as everyone likes to posit. We need to push for more representation for female characters who are not white, straight or able-bodied for sure. (As great as the progress has been for gender, it is no accident so much of the diversity has been for white women. It is the same-old, same-old on that score. BUT we gotta keep the faith and pushing forwards).

But if you are in the market for a complex female character, you are in MUCH better shape to find a great one overall than you were a decade ago.

Not ‘Strong’, COMPLEX

So, it’s time to call bullshit on ‘strong female characters’. As writers, we need to keep writing COMPLEX female characters. Not hiding behind those reductive labels, or writing BS ‘thinkpieces’ on what’s wrong with screenwriting today, or keep pretending it’s still 2009 and we are some kind of righteous angels. Instead it’s time to …

Get to work people.

Good Luck!

Take Your Writing To The NEXT LEVEL!

We will be putting our characterisation (including our female characters) under the microscope in  the next B2W course, Advanced Fundamentals of Screenwriting at Ealing Studios, London (Oct 19th-20th, 2019). Over two days, we will going through our scripts, outlines, treatments and pitches with a fine tooth comb & you will learn tricks to elevate your writing to the next level. JOIN US!!!

CLICK HERE for full details of the course (or on the pic on the left). We expect it to sell out , so act now to avoid disappointment. See you there!!!

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3 Responses to It’s Time To Call Bullshit On ‘Strong Female Characters’

  1. Melissa Milich says:

    EXCELLENT article! I was wandering around in confusion-land trying to create the so-called “strong female character” and Hollywood’s “portrayals” added to the confusion. Thank you for calling it like it is..i.e. your prescient statement “I always wonder why no one asks the same of writers’ MALE characters.” THANK YOU for such great guidance and insight.

  2. Paul French says:

    I have been writing strong female leads on and off for a few decades a few have been optioned and perhaps it is because a producer saw the lead as also “hot”. I am currently preparing to write a script about Mother Jones when she was in her 60’s for an older actress you. The was a time when she was the most feared woman in America by government and business and the best friend to those who needed her help.

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