Delighted to unveil the very illuminating thoughts of various industry pros I’ve managed to pin down this week! DO make sure you click on the links of their names to find out more about them. Remember, you can also find out what these Industry Pros want NEXT from female characters – direct link at the bottom of this list. Enjoy!
Over To The Experts …
1) Tony Jordan, screenwriter & showrunner. Carrie Mathison – Homeland. Complicated, fucked up, intuitive, loyal and proactive. Red – Orange is The New Black. Direct, uncompromising, funny. Alicia Florrick – The Good Wife. True modern woman, balancing work/life balance. Tough, smart, feisty, sexy.
2) Eric Heisserer, writer/director. I love Emily Blunt in Live Die Repeat (aka Edge of Tomorrow), and Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty (bonus: Claire Danes in Homeland, but Chastain is the movie equivalent). Why? Because they explore new facets of female heroes without making their womanhood a central issue.
3) Debbie Moon, screenwriter. Mako Mori from Pacific Rim: Mako, a woman of colour, is never presented as exotic or “magical”. She’s a skilled pilot, fighter, and even engineer, and if she has weaknesses to overcome, they’re no worse than the weaknesses of her white male counterpart. Lucy from Lucy: Luc Besson practically invented the “Kickass Hottie” cliche, and Lucy starts off very much in that mould, only to develop in ways you would never have expected. The emotional journeys of female characters are often limited, and I’d like to see more characters change and develop throughout a film to the degree that Lucy does … Ariadne from Inception: Christopher Nolan’s female characters are often criticised, and while I’d have liked Ariadne to have more screen time, I feel she’s one of his strongest.
4) Jean Kitson, literary agent. Scott & Bailey; the errant daughters of Last Tango in Halifax; the wounded but always brave Ellie Miller of Broadchurch; the enigmatic Stella of The Fall and my two great telly loves, Birgitte Nyborg and Saga Noren of Borgen and The Bridge respectively. They are interesting, conflicted, often wrong people and I like the way their domestic lives are part of who they are but by no means the sole definition of that.
5) Julie Gray, writing coach. Favourite character in some time was Hushpuppy in Beasts of the Southern Wild because she was a vulnerable, curious, brave little girl.
6) James Henry, screenwriter. Emma Thompson as PL Travers in Saving Mr Banks, which I didn’t expect to like and absolutely loved, although it does seem to great whacking great liberties with the truth, but there we are. Thompson’s performance was perfect, but the part as written was so good, and so refreshing to see a female character who shocked you one minute and had you rooting for her the next.
7) Chris Jones, writer/director & head of LondonSWF. I will always have a soft spot for kickass women. That traditional role reversal may now be a cliché, but it still works for me. I am really digging the older generation of actresses who seem to just keep delivering over and over. Judy Dench in Philomena, Imelda Staunton in Pride, but TV is where it’s at its best for me. The powerhouse of Gillian Anderson in The Fall cannot be ignored and I am really enjoying the vulnerability yet toughness of Olivia Colman in Broadchurch.
8) Sarah Phelps, screenwriter & showrunner. Gaby Hoffman’s character in Transparent. What a gawky, gauche, loving, hopeful, hurt, useless, brave, terrified, uncomfortable, desiring, desirous, sweet hearted, snotty, lonely, garrulous wonderful mess she is. A daughter, a sister, finding out who she is. who everyone else is. finding out if it’s possible to fit and whether she even wants to. I love her. Lindsay Denton (Keeley Hawes) In Line of Duty 2. Drab, spiky, terrifying, obsessive, she just kept you guessing and you couldn’t take your eyes off her.
9) Julian Friedmann, literary agent. Meryl Streep as the witch in Into the Woods (even though didn’t like the film). She was seriously magnificent (rose to the part). Jane in the Theory of Everything because she grounded us in that world. In both cases the characters were compelling people rather than female characters. I think that is what I liked.
10) Steve Ince, video games writer & chair of the WGGB games division. I love Ygritte from Game of Thrones – no-nonsense, strong, fierce, but willing to love and be loved. I think all the female characters in Call the Midwife are great … Saga from The Bridge is fantastic and can’t wait for more. The character is so different and so well played. aloof and disconnected but clever and efficient … I also like Laure Berthaud from Spiral and Katrine from Borgen. Both different but both part of a team that depends on them. DS Ellie Miller in Broadchurch is superb. The way her disappointment, anger, frustration and love all collided during the investigation was so much better than the Hardy character.
11) Katie McCullough, Festival Formula. I realise it’s not recent, but I’ve just started rewatching Battlestar Galactica and I always punch the air when I see Laura Roslyn on the screen. Her story arc is not without its complications, but it has the texture to constantly show her well drawn out character. Her position in politics, the battle to be heard amongst men, and the passion of a school teacher who re-teaches humanity the morals of faith and trust. Plus she drives a hard bargain and takes no shit. Essentially she’s the best kind of business woman because she knows what she wants when she walks into the fucking room, but also has the humility to admit her faults.
12) Vanessa Bailey, actress, writer & producer. I’m going to be slightly naughty and answer this the wrong way round. One of my favourite actresses is the sublime Tilda Swinton, I think she makes amazing choices about the characters she plays, so many of my favourite characters are the ones brought to life by her. In films such as We Need To Talk About Kevin and Only Lovers Left Alive she plays women who are fascinating, fresh, dry, intelligent, layered, disturbing and who drive the story. Vera Drake is another great example. Whatever your ethics fall on the subject matter, the role is a delight in that it takes an “everyday” woman and shows that she is, actually, extraordinary.
13) Ellen Gallagher, Media Dept Associate. Both Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy’s characters in THE HEAT were presented as an odd couple just trying to fight crime without the need to constantly remind us that they’re female. Their personality clashes weren’t gender dependent and thus were all the funnier and more realistic. I recognised elements of both of them in myself, and laughed all the harder for that since it’s pretty rare that I can honestly relate to a woman onscreen since I’m not a model/mother/nude poster image.
14) Barbara Machin, screenwriter & showrunner. I loved loved Nurse Jackie: for the internal anarchy, the depth of credible complexity, the fun and the darkness and that spinning wedding ring. Megan in Mad Men for her unexpected grit and depth and quiet vivid qualitie … She was an unexpected colour and a slow burn / I liked that. Sarah Lancashire’s Sergeant Cathy in Happy Valley: brutally, amazingly, contradictory, REAL (Sally Wainwright you are saluted).
15) Gail Hackston, writer/director. I’m all for complex, rather than strong. For TV Stella Gibson – The Fall; Catherine Cawood – Happy Valley; the entire ensemble of Girls, I still think parts of Sex and the City stand up (although the entire quest of I need a man kind of does my head in). For Film – I think Obvious Child is well observed. There are a lot of new female-centric stories coming out in the next 6 months or so I’m looking forward to seeing.
16) JK Amalou, writer/director. My choice: Maya in Zero Dark Thirty. Her determination bordering on obsession in her quest to find Bin Laden is memorable. Shades of John Wayne in The Searchers here. Moreover, not only she never uses her gender to achieve her goal. In fact, she does better: she transcends her gender. She’s a character who is never defined by her gender. On another level, she also sacrifices everything (including her personal life) for ten long years. Great heroine as she breaks every cliché of the female character. Stoic, astute, dignified, professional young woman with a strong sense of duty. An unsung heroine in one of the most important challenges of our times: terrorism.
17) Sally Abbott, screenwriter. I have a simple test for which characters really resonate with me and who I love. It’s the characters I go around pretending to be after I’ve watched them. I wasn’t really aware of this til my husband pointed this out last night. So, for me, my favourites are: Sarah Lund (The Killing); Saga Noren (The Bridge); Arya Stark (Game of Thrones); Hit Girl (in Kick Ass 1, forget Kick Ass 2 that was a travesty); Michonne (The Walking Dead); much as I love Alicia Florrick – it’s Kalinda Sharma (The Good Wife) who does it for me; and virtually the entire cast of Orange is the New Black ... But the character I adore and revere above all others, who in my opinion the best female character EVER created, is Lisabeth Salander (from the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy in all her incarnations: the book, plus Noomi Rapace & Rooney Mara), a PHENOMENAL character. All of these characters have something in common. They’re kick ass, morally ambiguous even though they have their own strong internal moral compass (often outside the norm of what we perceive to be “good”), they break the rules, they don’t want to be liked (and we bloody love them for it) and they’re not an extension of a male character. They’re prickly, independent, defensive, do the wrong thing, often do the right thing, fiercely intelligent and don’t give shit about what they look like.
18) Yvonne Grace, script consultant. Gillian in Last Tango In Halifax because she is flawed, pissed off most of the time, has a sense of humour, gets down and dirty with men and tractors and still manages to talk the most sense of all her messed up family. Plus Catherine, the beleaguered cop in Happy Valley: she gets it wrong – a lot – and loses her temper and isn’t “the best” Granny, friend or Sister. But she’s a hard working trier, that is all any of us can be.
19) Martin Gooch, writer/director. I liked Maleficent , but not because it was Angelina Jolie, but because it was the story of the wicked witch … I really like Nebraska and the old Lady (June Squibb) in that – just giving an actor a decent role to be free to do something interesting! I think The current Dr Who assistant (Jenna Coleman) is very good, especially as I think Peter Capaldi (a good actor) is a bad Dr Who. The Search for Simon, was brilliant – with 4 female lead roles. And one won an award for best supporting actress. I wrote it, ’cause I thought it was crap there were so few roles for my female actor friends, so I wrote it for them!
20) Gabriella Apicella, Director Euroscript & Co-founder, Underwire Festival. Sherry in Sherrybaby – a character that is not just a mum, or a recovering addict, or sexually independent woman, or a nursery teacher, or an abuse survivor; someone who is not just vulnerable, or aggressive, or tender, or ambitious, but all of these things, with consistency and authenticity. Donna in Obvious Child – a funny, realistic, flawed, goofy woman making a decision to have an abortion without it defining her: not so rare in reality, VERY rare on film … Lady Eastlake in Effie Gray – played and written by Emma Thompson: a feminist in independent period drama: what’s not to love!
21) Pilar Alessandra, script consultant. TV seems to be stepping up these days! I’m obsessed with Claire Underwood from House of Cards. She’s in a constant battle between her raw emotions and her driving ambition. I also love the warmth and persistence of Deputy Molly Solverson on the TV version of Fargo (inspired by the ground-breaking pregnant cop Marge Gunderson from the movie). And the title character in Nurse Jackie is so fascinating to watch and try to understand. She’s caring and capable and an absolute liar.
22) Tony Lee, screenwriter and comic book writer. Katniss Everdeen – The Hunger Games is a massive seller, and deservingly so. Katniss is a normal person in a fantastical situation. She’s not Rambo, she has flaws. But she learns from her mistakes and moves on. See also Hermionie Granger in Harry Potter. Merida from Brave is the opposite of most Disney heroines, I would claim her as a strong female character … TV: how about Joan Watson in Elementary? A woman who changes her whole life, and who not only handles Sherlock Holmes, but by season 3 is a respected equal of his? … Leona Lansing in The Newsroom, who goes to bat for a news show she doesn’t even like? Joan Holloway or Peggy Olson in Mad Men? Felicity Smoak in Arrow, the only character so far NOT to have fallen into the ‘teach me to fight’ routine? The list goes on.
23) Andrew Ellard, writer & script editor. On TV I’ve come to like Clara on Doctor Who a lot: the shift from generic companion created by her ‘mystery’ to a layered person has been huge … On film, y’know, when Marvel do them – Black Widow, Jane Foster, Darcy, Pepper, Gamora – they come out well, I think. Sometimes you see more than one really well-defined female characters insomething like American Hustle or Birdman and you’re impressed … until you realise you’re really noticing is the lack elsewhere. Oh, and throw in The Heat. That’s a fantastic pairing; gorgeously well-defined and constantly funny.
24) Stephen Gallagher, screenwriter & showrunner. Homeland’s Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) rocks. Beyond the wigs and lingerie I see really interesting stuff happening with Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) in The Americans. I marvel at Tatiana Maslany’s virtuosity in Orphan Black but the standaout characters are the prim and dangerous suburban soccer mom Alison and Ukranian killer clone Helena, who has more than a touch of Frankenstein’s creature in her. I’ll throw in Rachel Brooks (Erica Tazel) in Justified. She’s a regular supporting character of the kind that often gets taken for granted, but occasionally gets her moment to shine.
25) Frances Teehan, Oldcastle Books. My top two are Gillian Anderson (Stella) in The Fall and Keeley Hawes in Line of Duty.
26) Michelle Goode, script consultant & writer. I’ve LOVED how REAL female characters in TV are. Sally Wainwright (Last Tango In Halifax; Happy Valley) does this SO well … I LOVED how a key character in American Horror Story has Down’s Syndrome (and how she absolutely rocked the roles she played, which were not defined by her disability) and how characters such as Game of Thrones‘ Daenerys rose to power with compassion, determination and intellect. In film, I LOVED that Annie was played by a black girl in the remake. I LOVED how female warriors like Katniss had depth and edginess, plus I LOVED that Rosamund Pike’s character Amy in Gone Girl was complex, unreliable and was as equally powerful in her presence as the male lead.
27) Rhianna Pratchett, video games writer. Orange is the New Black felt like a gamechanger to me. So many stories of flawed, yet immensely interesting women. I pretty much loved all of them. And the ending to season 2? Air punchingly wonderful. Now that is the way to do television. I also really enjoyed Orphan Black (Tatiana Maslany did a brilliant job) and the character of Carrie in Homeland. When it comes to female characters it definitely feels like television is more progressive than film at the moment.
28) Adrian Mead, writer/director. Loved Patricia Arquette in US show Medium: a psychic, wife and mum, struggling with all the roles equally. Also, Glen Close as the lawyer in Damages: strong, brilliant and ruthless.
29) Ashley Pharoah, screenwriter & showrunner. Piper Chapman in Orange Is The New Black. She’s bright, funny, sexy, scared, brave … Just a wonderfully complex and believable character.
30) Shawna Benson, Writers’ Room Assistant. I love the female characters on The 100 — all of them. Showrunner Jason Rothenberg and all of the writers from both seasons have put in an incredible amount of time and effort making these women as real, dynamic and 3-dimensional as any male character. They aren’t all the same, as so many women characters on other shows have been, and they aren’t all stereotypes, another pitfall of shows … Abbie Mills on Sleepy Hollow and her sister Jenny — revelations as strong females who still are able to show fragility and flaws. Scandal’s Olivia Pope, with all of her complexity — a genuinely savvy woman, who still falls into romantic traps with which women are so familiar. She illustrates why very smart women still can make very dumb decisions, but it doesn’t make them less smart … just complicated. I think it’s significant that all of these women are black, and that fierce, determined and smart black women are now increasingly portrayed on television.
31) Steve La Rue, Development Exec. Reese Witherspoon As Cheryl in Wild … So flawed but relatable. An adaptation of a great book about a real woman’s imperfect journey to save herself from grief. Also, Julianne Moore In Still Alice … Even privileged Upper Eastsiders get Alzheimer’s …. Another adaptation of a real woman’s personal story and a great opportunity for discussing end-of-life care and rights.
32) Linda Aronson, screenwriter and consultant/teacher. I liked Bletchley Circle,VEEP, Mad Men, Getting On. I like series that depict interesting and non clichéd female characters. I particularly like characters who are flawed and not ‘worthy’ … I am tired of irked wives, single-parent women cops, earnest barristers/solicitors/medicos bringing bucket loads of Female Sensitivity to a bloke’s job. Soooo boring.
33) Ian Craig Walker, Screenwriter. Elle in Legally Blonde: The opposite of what we expect. It would have been easy to paint Elle as the spoilt princess and/or blonde airhead, but she is genuine, warm and and has a firm head on her shoulders … Kat in 10 Things I Hate About You: a teenage girl who wasn’t afraid to step on some toes while being true to herself. Not to mention extremely funny. She’s witty, clever, inspirational and still got the hot dude. Rather than rebel, Kat simply believed in her own abilities and potential … Juno MacGuff in Juno. A study in contrasts: a snark-filled and cocksure young woman in search of an identity. Equal parts sass, smarts, flawed and pregnant.
What can we learn from this list?
First off, notice how many people go straight to TV! Note also how the experts reference both US *and* UK TV, none of this “oh one is better than the other” BS that divides so many new writers. Also, pay attention to their reasons: if you’re a film buff like me, work out what we can take for features BUT also recognise the differences between the two mediums too. In addition, check out how many replications there are in the lists, despite my asking each Industry Pro individually!! Wow.
It’s also important to note what words crop up again and again when describing those characters (ie. “flawed” being top of the list!!), plus what genres (ie. sci fi) and which writers are at the top of their game. We must recognise those creatives celebrated by their peers (ie. Sally Wainwright) do not get there by accident. So even if you’re not keen on a particular medium, genre, work or writer, it’s still worth your time watching and dissecting, so you can work out what it is that genre or writer is doing RIGHT.
Also check out how there are references to very specific concepts, or different ways of looking at the same concept, but twisting it, “the same … but different”. NO ONE wants stories that have already been told in the same way, yet the spec pile is full of these! Ask yourself: how can we make a new spin on pre-sold concepts, or create characters we haven’t seen loads of times before???
Next on female characters:
Discover what these guys want NEXT from female characters … Can you afford to miss out? I don’t think so! CHECK OUT THE NEXT POST, HERE.