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No, Your Female Characters Don’t Just Need More Dialogue

Wanted: More Dialogue

More dialogue is something screenwriters always seem to want – chains and chains of it, in fact. I’ve written many, many times that too much dialogue is a HUGE problem in the spec pile.

Yet it would appear film researchers and commentators ALSO want more dialogue … especially when it comes to female characters. So, you don’t have to go far online to discover studies and articles galore about how male characters talk more than female characters generally. You may have seen this pic (below) doing the rounds of Facebook recently, which backs this assertion up:

Male as default = more dialogue

To be honest, it’s unsurprising to me that most of these Oscar-winning movies have males speaking more … Nearly every single one features a male protagonist and in most cases, a male antagonist too. As they are the main characters, the secondaries revolve AROUND them – that’s how screenwriting works.

(Of course, the eagle-eyed amongst you will see 2003 is missing … when Chicago won all the awards, which has multiple female leads and characters (and presumably, more dialogue for them!, so it doesn’t fit the agenda being pushed here. Also, let’s not forget THIS year’s Best Picture was The Shape of Water – in which our lead is mute, though to be fair this study pre-dates it).

Even Secondary Males Talk More?

However, it would appear male characters may talk more than female characters generally, even when the story has a female lead.

Some would say that it’s a ‘surprising irony’ that women don’t talk as much as men in Disney Princess Films, for example. After all, Disney is one of the few that kept the home fires burning for female leads over the last twenty five years. When everyone else was concentrating on male leads (especially in the nineties), this canon put women front and centre, including WoC leads.

This leads one of the Disney princess researchers, Carmen Fought to ask: “Are these movies really so great for little girls to watch? When you start to look at this stuff, you have to question that a little bit.”

(It should be noted at this point that apparently the research did not necessarily include songs as dialogue. Some say it did; others say it didn’t and I wasn’t able to get a definitive answer from the articles via Google. I’m inclined to think the former – probably 95% of Disney Princess movies are musicals and the protagonist gets the most songs as a general rule. This would surely skew the dialogue issue in the lead’s favour? But anyway.)

The Problem of Dialogue

Of course, there is a significant issue in measuring dialogue as being indicative of ‘good characterisation’, whether the character is male or female. The reason?

Well, as I always say on this blog – dialogue is the least important element of any screenplay! Now, whether you personally agree with that idea or not, screenwriters will know these screenwriting adages inside out, because they would have heard them many times:

Characters are not what they SAY, but what they DO.

In other words, great characterisation is a result of the characters’ ACTIONS in the story, not how many lines they speak … And a huge proportion of what characters DO relates to their role function.

Katniss Everdeen

Let’s put one of the most celebrated modern heroines under the microscope, Katniss Everdeen. (Whether you liked her or The Hunger Games personally is immaterial; as a character her cultural significance is HUGE, as she became an icon very quickly, especially amongst young girls).

As we can see from the graph below, Katniss has the most lines of dialogue in the movie. This again is unsurprising, because she is the protagonist. But then we can see the male secondaries in the movie (apart from Effie Trinket) also have a very large number of lines:

But again, this is unsurprising. Peeta might have the second number of lines, but he is the love interest, an important role function in YA properties. Haymitch is a mentor – again, another important role function, not only in YA, but in stories in which an underdog will rise. He will have a large number of lines, since it is through his support Katniss will be victorious. Frankly the only surprise here is that President Snow – the antagonist – comes so far down the list.

Sure, Peeta could have been a girl and Katniss could have been gay or bisexual. Haymitch could have been a female mentor. Certainly, these characterisation twists could be something new writers could explore when thinking about diversity. But overall, they speak a lot as supporting characters, not BECAUSE they are male.

Let’s not forget either how the male characters in The Hunger Games come out in force FOR Katniss (or AGAINST her, if they’re on President Snow’s side). Check out the quotes in the picture above. This is because secondary characters HELP or HINDER the protagonist in his or her goal. They are ‘Team Protag’ or ‘Team Antag’ – that’s their literally their job in the story, otherwise they are worthless.

The Good

The Disney Princess researchers do make one good point about male characters being the default too often:

“My best guess is that it’s carelessness, because we’re so trained to think that male is the norm,” says Karen Eisenhauer, a graduate student at North Carolina State. “So when you want to add a shopkeeper, that shopkeeper is a man. Or you add a guard, that guard is a man. I think that’s just really ingrained in our culture.”

The fact that peripheral characters – such as shopkeepers, guards and even crowd scenes – are too often all male is something I cover in my book, Writing Diverse Characters For Fiction, TV and Film. What’s more, Bang2write has ALWAYS encouraged screenwriters to think – of any character, in any role function – does ‘he’ have to be:

  • male?
  • white?
  • heterosexual?
  • able-bodied?

This is not to ‘tick boxes’ or fit an agenda, though – but because the ‘norm’ is boring. With this in mind then, writers should be thinking about VARIETY, because too often it defaults to male.

Just Add Women?

The above is not to say movies with white, heterosexual or able-bodied males are automatically boring. That would be absurd. There have been some brilliant movies featuring these characters. But does it need to be them EVERY TIME? Again: diversity = MORE VARIETY!).

But this does not mean you ‘just add women’ either. Many modern films, such as American Sniper and Everest have introduced female characters who simply exist seemingly to satisfy some kind of ‘woman quota’. In these movies, the female characters exist solely at the end of the phone, crying and wailing, as the male characters do the REAL STORY STUFF.

These ‘reactress’ characters feel wooden and inauthentic. Eeeugh! No, thanks. Personally, I’d rather have no female characters in a movie at all that drop some in for the sake of it, or satisfy the likes of the Twitterati.

The ‘Bad’ …

Since the Disney Princess research, there have been plenty more musings about dialogue and female characters online.

Check out, for example, The Problem With All The Badass Little Girls Taking Over Hollywood Movies, from Bustle. According to the writer, whilst Laura from Logan and Nova from War For The Planet Of The Apes were ‘great characters’, they should talk more, then they would be even BETTER.

These little girls are indeed badass. Laura is a mini-Wolverine, where it’s hinted she is even stronger than her ‘father’ Logan by virtue of being female. She is angsty, silent and moody, avoiding talk like Logan, but more intelligently; a Latina, she pretends she cannot speak English for a huge proportion of the film. She also saves Logan more than once in the film.

Nova is not physical, like Laura, but no less badass. Her affliction is never fully explained, but we know it is some kind of virus that is robbing humans of their ability to speak. Caesar and his friends must navigate this changing land, with Nova as their guide and insight into what is happening. It is suggested that Nova may no longer be truly ‘human’, but more animal-like, so in comparison the apes are becoming ‘more human than human’. This is backed up by the warring humans, who are mostly portrayed as vicious beasts (especially peripherals and crowd scenes of soldiers).

As secondary characters, both Laura and Nova teach the male lead something important not only about themselves, but what is happening inside the story world, all without being the dreaded ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’; neither do they become damsels in distress. It should also be noted both of these characters are catalysts for the downfall of the antagonist in each movie.

The Ugly

However, I think what is most telling about counting dialogue is that male leads are always exempt from commentators’ criticisms. I can’t remember a single time I’ve seen a study or a Twitterati complaining that male Lone Wolf  characters should talk more!

After all, in real terms, Logan is supposed to be as moody and silent as Laura. Whilst he speaks more historically across the franchise, this is because he is nearly always the lead in X Men movies (even when they are more ensemble pieces), as he is a fan favourite. Should we see a movie in which Laura is the protagonist (and I suspect we will), then I predict she will be still be considered silent and moody like her ‘father’, but will also speak more than she did in Logan. It is common sense and related to her role function.

Male lone wolf characters are more likely to win awards too. In his portrayal of Hugh Glass in The Revenant, Leonardo DiCaprio spends a significant portion of the movie alone. Glass also had his throat ripped by that bear, so it makes little sense for him to speak a lot, even when he is with people.

But ultimately, what we were interested in was not what Hugh Glass SAID anyway, but his  epic journey of revenge – because characters are what they DO. So, whilst some people may have called The Revenant a crap movie and said that DiCaprio did not ‘deserve’ his Oscar (someone always does about the winner, after all), I don’t recall anyone saying he shouldn’t have got it because DiCaprio didn’t have ‘enough’ lines!!!

Good Characterisation Does Not Mean More Dialogue

Look, this blog has always been vocal (arf) about writing great female characterisation, but counting lines of dialogue will NOT deliver this. Sure, it can be a good thing to think about if writers have never considered gender parity before, BUT it doesn’t solve story problems beyond this … We would be far better off considering role function, especially when it comes to female leads and also female-dominated storyworlds.

After all, we don’t worry about male characters have ‘enough’ lines …Instead we want them as active characters  and we reward the writers for it. This is why we celebrate moody, silent lone wolf types like Logan, or depictions of iconic figures like Hugh Glass, as portrayed by DiCaprio.

My advice?

Don’t worry about how many lines your female character has to satisfy some research study or commentator online. Characters are what they DO, not what they SAY. Instead:

  • Write more female leads (protagonist AND antagonist)
  • Think about having more female secondaries
  • Think about having more female peripherals
  • Think about female-dominated storyworlds
  • Make your leads ACTIVE
  • Make your characters DIVERSE as a whole

Good Luck!

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12 thoughts on “No, Your Female Characters Don’t Just Need More Dialogue”

  1. This is a little off-topic, but I wondered what you thought about the trope of female characters, particularly young girls, being mute or near-mute in movies? You mention The Shape Of Water, Logan, and War For The Planet Of The Apes, but there’s also The Nines, A Quiet Place, and probably many more I can’t remember right now.

    I can see a practical reason for this with very young actors – they’re often more convincing reacting or using sign language than they are speaking dialogue – but it’s almost always girls. Why, I wonder…?

    1. This deserves a post of its own TBH (and guess what I am working on right now!), but I suspect it mostly has to do with the ‘warrior mom’ trope daying back to Ripley and Newt. Protecting little girls from monsters (real or figurative) is a THING that has entered the cultural subconscious. This is why my own mute character Pete in my novella SKYJACK is both a male and a teenager.

  2. A factor in all this is simply that word/lines can be counted. Even then, as you say, do you count the songs in a musical? But, in this sort of debate, there is a value in using something countable, because it blocks a common male criticism. There’s a sort of very vocal man who will shout and rave about biased opinions.

    There are a lot of shenanigans involving numbers. They’re not a perfect measure, and in formal surveys there are all sorts of potential problems in the phrasing of questions and the selection of respondents that can distort the numbers. Knowing that does incline me to caution. But you’re obviously aware of that. And you are looking past the numbers and at what they mean.

    I’ve learned something I didn’t know about screenplays, though on reflection it’s rather obvious. Excessive dialogue gets in the way of using the camera. (“Lawrence of Arabia” comes to mind.) And that does show a weakness of counting words. It’s not just what the characters do and say, it’s how the camera is used.

    A hypothetical: the original “Blade Runner” had the Deckard voice-over. Of course that upped the male word-count, though it’s not been ever close to a numeric balance. And all the significant women in the film are replicants anyway. But it’s possible to imagine the voice-over being spoken by Rachael. Not a good idea, it gives away so much, but possible. What does that do to the word counts? And what does it really change?

    I rather expect some scripts, some directors, will be manipulating word-count. There are claims about algorithmic assessment of written text, but I am dubious. They may only be good at picking extremes. In terms of the old D&D alignment system, nobody can be Neutral, but films don’t seem to be even close to that.

    I hope my writing is better. This article will help, it sets out things I shall think about, formalises some of my gut feelings. Is it a bad thing that some of my women almost seem to have been written as men with different names and pronouns. Maybe it depends what my men are like.

    And the world is changing. In “Zero Hour” and “Airplane” the passenger ex-military pilot who saves the day has to be a man. Now we know that isn’t true any more.

  3. I think it was in a William Goldman book where he pointed out the number of lead actors who asked if they could drop a line from the script and just give a look, or a move… because it strengthened their character. The author then said he started putting extraneous lines in scripts, for the producers who need things saying out loud, hoping the actors & director would drop them later.

  4. Your argument makes sense.

    But there is this psychological principle for which I don’t have a technical term. The idea is that belief follows action moreso than actions follow beliefs. For example if you want someone to go to church, convincing them that there is a god is harder than the opposite. Get them to go to church and they are more likely to believe in god or embrace the religion.

    Not a perfect solution but as a practical aim I think telling people to give more (and better) lines to their female characters would have a positive impact. The process that one has to go through to do that … a lot of it would be the same energy required to give female characters more “character,” a stronger perspective and more agency.

    I 100% agree that usually dialogue is least important part of Scene. But do many writers use dialogue as their first attempt to find their beats.

    Good writers would eventually cut back on gratuitous dialogue but it would I believe result in characters who are more complex and better-defined.

    Good stuff!

    1. A well argued point, Jim – and it’s possible. But having spent a gazillion years in the script reading trenches, buried in the spec pile where writers think dialogue is the be-all and end-all for good characterisation anyway, I doubt it. Talented writers are surely more likely to look to structure and character to help them build theirs. But I’d be very happy to be proved wrong!

  5. “I’d rather have no female characters in a movie at all that drop some in for the sake of it, or satisfy the likes of the Twitterati.”

    If a story calls for female characters, they’ll let you know.

  6. I love Disney Princesses. It’s a shame Esmeralda isn’t a Princess and therefore doesn’t get as much publicity. She’s really cool.

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