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BEHIND THE LINES WITH DR: Writing Female Characters - She Said; She Said.

Doug Richardson explains the complexities, and sometimes harsh realities, of writing female characters for Hollywood.

Doug Richardson’s first produced feature was the sequel to Die Hard, Die Harder.Visit Doug’s site for more Hollywood war stories and information on his popular novels. Follow Doug on Twitter @byDougRich.

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There’s a producer who began tweeting under the name @femscriptintros. His or her posts consist of the descriptive introductions of lead female characters in the random screenplays he was reading. It’s gone viral. As I write this he-slash-she’s – so far – up to thirty-two amusingly different – yet horribly the same – twitter entries. When read out of context, most come off as misogynist male fantasies. It creates quite a picture. Yet a snapshot or two doesn’t exactly tell the whole story. As a man who’s written his share of women characters, I thought I might shed some light.

BEHIND THE LINES WITH DR: Writing Female Characters - She Said; She Said by Doug RIchardson | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

I will circle back to the viral tweets in a bit and mount a defense for some of those awful sounding descriptions – or most – of them. But first I’d like to examine a bit from my own point of view.

For starters, I’m male. Married. Heterosexual. A person of faith. Father of a seventeen-year-old-girl. I firmly believe the sexes are equal but different. I could go on and on in micro-qualifiers. But my point is that no matter how much I might want or think I need to pretend otherwise I’m going to write through my own prismatic lens. That’s what makes me, well, me, and hopefully worth reading, be it blog, novel, or screenplay. My unique perspective and the way I spin it is how I make a living.

But is it only my perspective that matters? In the movie world, after I press send on the email to deliver the most recent draft of my latest screenplay, the game turns collaborative in a digital eye blink. From that point on, the quantifiers (agents, managers, buyers, actors, etc.) bring their own unique points of view to the project. And when it comes to female characters – ergo the women in the movie or TV tale – the results can be shocking.

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Now. I’m a dude. I’ve copped to that. And the women characters I invent are a cocktail of what best serves the story (in my word-jockey’s opinion) as well as what I know of women from the life I’ve lived. That can be both external and internal. Though considering I believe women are equal to but different than men, there’s only so deep I can slip into my lady-character’s psyche. I do my best. I try to be fair and real while at the same time compose a femme I want to watch and listen to assuming I’ll get lucky enough to have the picture or show produced, cast, and directed as well as I imagined. Actors bring their own interpretations. Directors and producers will have their say, not to mention decisions made by an editor with multiple takes and angles and attitudes to choose from to build the character as they see her.

Like I said, a lot goes into the character soup after I’ve had my say. Nonetheless, it is borne on my page before anybody else gets to add his own psychological two cents.

I’m also a fan of getting the opposite sex’s input. When seeking out notes, any woman making comment on my female characters’ behavior gets an extra sensitive ear. Not for the sake of politically correctness. But for verisimilitude. Last thing I want from a reader or eventual viewer is for anybody to trip over the narrative because something quacks.

Example. I’ve co-written only twice in my career. The second time, it was with my director friend Lexi Alexander. I’d told her a rather structurally complicated romantic thriller that she’d begun to obsess over. I was busy working on other projects and hadn’t the time to write it. Lexi’s idea was that she take a few whacks at the story, with me looking over her shoulder to micromanage things so she’d get the beats just right. Then when I had the time, I’d take over the scripting duties with Lexi as director looking over my shoulder until we were both across the finish line. The plan all along was for me to keep my name as the only writer. Lexi was ghost writing for convenience and efficiency sake – as well as the opportunity to attach herself as the movie’s director.

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Yet as I began my pass of the script, it became oh-so-clear that my femme-fatale-turns-sympathetic heroine character had an altogether more potent voice than I had ever imagined. She was alive and kicking character ass to a degree that I couldn’t honestly say I was the sole author despite my procedural omnipresence. I began to insist that Lexi and I share writing credit. Something most would think ludicrous. I mean, how hard is it to say sure, thanks. But one of the reasons I adore Lexi is that she is honest to a fault. She’d agreed to ghost and, in her handshake opinion, that was that. It took some convincing, but I won out. Her feminine voice had evolved into a huge part of the screenplay. It was only right that we share.

Other writers might have thought or felt differently. But again, this is about writing and living through my prism.

Now, as promised, back to those viral, tweet-worthy descriptions of female characters that might come off to some as misogynist. Let’s be real. As author of such descriptors, I acknowledge the blame-slash-credit lands with me. Yet allow me to add this. I cannot describe how many times I’ve received notes from both producers and studio execs (male and female) imploring me to “sex up” the captions introducing female characters while “manning up” the way the male characters are introduced. The reasons for which are simple: to beseech the vanity of movie stars who want-slash-need to view themselves as having cinematic sex appeal. It gets even funnier. I’ve had managers and agents of movie actors feed me actual adjectives to use in character descriptions in hopes of hooking their own client on the material. I’m talking from words like “slinky” to hyphenated labels as in “whip-smart.” This allows the screenplay to act as a reflection from which the celestial thespians can gaze upon themselves. And to be fairer still, I’ve had some reps ask to remove all character descriptions except the age (though perhaps I might want to dial the digits back some five to ten years).

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. I expect further illumination on the subject.

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