Many thanks to Ben, who’s allowed me to indulge my John August fantasy once again:
“When writing the female characters’ dialogue in my script, I had this nagging feeling that maybe a woman wouldn’t actually phrase it that way. Call me paranoid but I was wondering, have you ever noticed a similar thing yourself, or read it in scripts before? Men writing female characters who aren’t feminine enough, and vice versa. And if so, do you have any tips or techniques to detect and combat this situation?”
Ben makes an interesting point here: can men write women characters authentically and vice versa? Well in my experience, the answer is a resounding YES – of course they can. But is it more difficult for a man to write a woman than a woman to write a man? Well that’s an intriguing idea, so I thought I would explore it further based on my reading experience.
I read for considerably less women than men; I also read many scripts “blind” in that I have no idea who has written them – but for the sake of the argument, I would hazard I read for one woman for every five men. Now this can only ever be a generalisation, but one thing I have noticed over the years is women are often very strong on dialogue. Perhaps this is because women *generally* talk more than men and*can* have that handy attribute of talking to one person, whilst actually eavesdropping on another. Or maybe it just so happens I’ve read a lot of scripts by women who can write good dialogue and it’s a coincidence? Or maybe men are more receptive to feedback or seek it earlier?? Who knows. This isn’t a battle of the sexes post (for a change – arf).
So, whilst I’ve read a lot of good dialogue by women then, I have noticed one thing in which women and men unite on – and that’s in misrepresentation of the genders. It doesn’t even have to be the opposite sex either; it can be their own. Here is a list of characters where the dialogue has not rung *true* for me:
The Good Wife. A lot of scripts have women in the “background” and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Lantana for example has a brilliant character in the background, Nick’s wife (I can’t even remember her name!) who asserts he can’t be guilty because “he told me”. Her plaintive statement sums up their relationship to a tee, even in the face of almost certain destruction with him looking at a life sentence. Yet similar characters in specs often have women in the background as decoration: they will engage the (male) protagonist in banal conversation and generally cater to his every whim, often I’ve noticed, calling him “Baby” at every opportunity. It’s not just men who write this character either – women do too. Peripheral characters deserve killer lines like those in Lantana too – else why are they orbiting your protagonist? You might as well get rid.
The Emotional Group of Male Friends. Sorry, but nothing is going to change my mind on this – I simply do not believe groups of male friends or siblings talk about their emotions in microscopic detail like females are prone to, especially when it comes to their relationships or break ups. My husband’s brother got divorced a few years ago; he’d been married since he was practically a teenager and was obviously gutted. He came to stay with us whilst his Ex sorted her stuff to leave and the conversation between my spouse and his brother went something like this:
HUSBAND: You alright, then?
BROTHER: I’m okay.
HUSBAND: You need anything?
BROTHER : No.
And that was it. They played Playstation for about twelve hours, drank beer, ordered pizza – and I left them alone. Just them being together was enough. Now, they are particularly “old school” and part of a set of triplets to boot, so seem able to “sense” what the other needs (despite saying they can’t), but even so – do men really go over every detail with their friends? I’m unconvinced. You might know or be a male who does exactly this – but end of the day, a script is not reality, it’s a representation of reality.
The Casanova Female. Women should enjoy sex, of course they should – and I certainly don’t hold with the notion that a woman who sleeps around is a slut when a man who does the same is a stud. However, it is worth remembering that *generally speaking* women and men view sex in different ways. A man who gets lucky with a stranger will regard it as just that – a bonus. A woman may hope for something more. So the woman in scripts who simply hops from bed to bed randomly and tells everyone how she is “so free” just doesn’t do it for me, for the reason I have never met a woman in real life who does this who has not been compensating for something missing or screwed up in her life. I also hate the Escort girl who insists all women are whores anyway, so she might as well make men pay for it. Grrr.
The Buffy Effect. I can’t deny Joss Whedon’s genius, but as far as his dialogue goes, it’s very slick and cool – too cool: it leaves me cold, in fact. But it’s okay, he’s created his own niche of uber-cool karate-kicking girlies and vamps in leather, nice – and if it “fits” and you can pull it off, please do. But Buffy-style dialogue in a gritty kitchen sink drama? Please, no.
The Psychologist. I’m particularly guilty of this one, it’s easy to stick in a psychologist because it “breaks open” characters but it is an expositional cheat. It’s hard sometimes to think of a way to “bring out” the motivations of a difficult character – and sometimes a psychologist IS needed: in my thriller RUN, the lead has serious mental health problems, so if she *didn’t* see a shrink that would raise questions in itself. So I had to find a way of incorporating the psychologist without actually making her expositional; I did this by giving her a particular story function that acts as the turning point that takes us into the resolution. It’s quite shocking and is often cited as one of the stand out moments by readers, so it *can* work – but you have to really work round the potential desire to cheat. It took four months and five rewrites to come up with that moment (ouch).
The Understanding Parent (male or female – can be either). There are parents in scripts doing the rounds who have the patience of angels, even in the face of extreme catastrophe. What’s more they talk down to their kids to such an extreme I’m left in no doubt the writer has not spent much time around kids. End of the day, Parents talk to Kids like they talk to *anyone*; in fact, sometimes they talk to them WORSE – they snap or blame more easily. They may not mean to, but pressures of the situation may mean they say something they shouldn’t. So in a war, you can bet your bottom dollar Parents will not be at their best. One of the best representations of a Parent in crisis was in my opinion was WAR OF THE WORLDS:
ROBBIE: Were they terrorists? Al Quaeda?
RAY (agitated) No… No… These guys: they were from someplace else.
ROBBIE: What, like Europe?
RAY: NO ROBBIE! NOT FROM EUROPE!
The Precocious Child (male or female – though usually female). You might know a bright child with an extremely large vocabulary; I know two – mine. That doesn’t however mean they are able to converse at the standard of an adult. They still have child thought patterns. They are unable to hold on to information for long; even important stuff. They will forget stuff – even three seconds after you have told them. They will sulk and throw tantrums. They will do stuff they shouldn’t. In short, even a precocious child behaves the same as a child: NOT a mini adult. Save the precocious stuff for when they talk back to your other characters.
Any you recognise there in your own scripts or movies you’ve seen?
NEXT: Tips & Techniques for Solving Dialogue Issues
I think you are spot on about how men discuss feelings…
When myself or another of the friends in our group are going through a bad time (mainly because an evil woman has just dumped one of us), then the troops assemble quite quickly – we use the un-pc phrase “mong watch”, and then all go to the pub or for a dance, making sure to watch over the “mong” who has been dumped.
No feelings are talked about at all until drunkenness kicks in, and then anything that is discussed can be quickly forgotten about by morning.
Writing this here makes me wonder that if we didn’t use words like “mong”, then we would be able to maintain longer lasting relationships.
Excellent post, Lucy! I think you’ve identified all the prevalent stereotypes – I’m definitely guilty of a few but am always on the lookout for stuff like this and I get really annoyed when I catch myself doing it. I think what’s depressing is that some of the directors/producers I’ve worked with have actually requested stereotypes that are on this list.
Paul – having seen and eavesdropped on many of your species over the years, I’m inclined to agree ; )
Chris – I hear your pain. I’m reminded of a conversation that went like this once:
Producer: I think we can cut back on the wife character.
Producer: Let’s just give her one big moment, yeah? A memorable one?
Producer: So I was thinking… He could come in and RAPE HER. Yeah?
Me: I’ll get my coat.
What a good film Lantana is.
At first I totally agreed but now I’m not so sure especially with The Emotional Group of Male Friends and The Casanova Female.
I don’t only go to the cinema to see my own experiences reflected back at me (e.g. like in Enchanted) but to see different types of characters from the usual, which might be emotional male friends (if I didn’t know them) or Casanova females (if I wasn’t very grateful that I’ve known them). 😉
I agree with you Robin – if those characters have a particular function story-wise, there isn’t a reason in the world the Casanova female or Emo Group of Male Friends can’t work. But in the scripts I read, often these characters are there for no reason in the story – the writer sticks this dialogue in for effect and that doesn’t work for me. Also, I see them so often they don’t really break the boundaries – like you, I want to see something different from the “usual”.
From my own experiences I at least partially disagree with The Emotional Group of Male Friends. While I’ve never seen emotions discussed as a group, it happens commonly in one-on-one situations. I’ve talked numerous mates through break-ups, cross-examined my best mate on his feelings before giving his marriage my blessing (I was best man) and poured my heart out to several different mates after my last love went tits-up. Having said that, I still agree completely with your general point about working hard to avoid clichéd and stereotypical characters.
I have adopted a habit recently. It involves swapping the gender of characters in the very last draft. It can become interesting. Yes, it often effects the wording and sometimes the plot. But it does prevent cliche.
Excellent discussion. I’m writing my first script and this will help me take a more objective look at my dialogue during my latest rewrite.
Speaking of emotional males … one of my favorite movies is Adaptation. I love the stream-of-consciousness voiceovers by the neurotic male screenwriter who makes me (a very emotional woman who cries and sweats a lot) look quite secure and well-balanced by comparison :0)
The Charlie Kaufman character in that movie drives my husband bananas. Even after I told him Kaufman is a real guy (and probably really like that to some extent), he still wanted to backhand some sense into him. Great conflict created within the moviegoer!