Skip to main content

WHY SPEC SCRIPTS FAIL: Female Part Over/Under Written or Over Exposed – Part 3

Script contributor Stewart Farquar examines why the old "formula" of female characters is dwindling at the box office, how female characters are making a mark in independent and mini-series productions and why now is the time for scribes to treat female characters as people.

When we examine the state of the recent “tentpole products” produced for the big screen, it is obvious that many of them are tanking. Barry Dillar’s prophecy quoted at the beginning of Part 2 of this series is coming true faster than the studios would like to admit.

Given the offerings from Netflix and its ilk, the old “formula” of more of the same, but different, will no longer work. I admit a possible exception is the Fast and Furious franchise with a total box office from all releases world-wide as of 6/27/2021 of $6.29 billion or an average of $6.99 million per film.

Susan Krauss Whitbourne Ph.D. states:

“That research shows that when we see others being harmed, our brains react in similar ways as if we were being harmed. The areas of the brain involved in this reaction extend beyond the amygdala to regions of the cortex involved in analyzing and interpreting the behavior of others, the so-called "theory of mind.”

The cathartic release to a small segment of the population may account for this glorified demolition derby’s success. The catharsis helps them get through their own emergencies.

Vitriolic escapism has its place. But, do we need a constant diet of sex, violence and destruction (SVDs)?

Though, in the recent Fast and Furious films both Charlize Theron and Helen Mirren are strong female character actors who are on board to lend credibility, credence and star power to the franchise, and the money doesn’t hurt. Unfortunately, when adjusted for inflation over the 20-year release of each “chapter”, the box office for each film has declined.

Careful analysis of the overall direction for films is more to the “small screen” via self-contained miniseries with well-defined characters (Downton Abby) and with an occasional breakout to a full season product or film. The 2020-2021 pandemic has accelerated this migration.

Downton Abbey, PBS.

Downton Abbey, PBS.

The recent “success” of films such as Marvel’s comic book character Shang-Chi, which has overinflated the 4–day Labor Day weekend topped Fast and Furious 9, only goes to reinforce the psychologist’s evaluation regarding the release of pent-up anger and frustration couched in empathy when we see others harmed.

Although the product format and design for film is in a state of constant transition until the various audience segments are fully identified, the underlying character writing requirements remain the same. Unless the behemoth studies do a fast regroup and catch up, the “small screen” wins by default.

This is where scribes can excel, if they have the correct mindset and tools.


A female character is fundamentally no different than a male character in motivation, objective or approach. Both have a goal they are going after. Both are working for success from a unique point of view and may use a diverse variety of tools, skills and logic to achieve “victory”. Their method to achieve that goal is psychologically different, as will be shown later. In many cases, what the majority of female characters lack in physical strength is compensated for by mental ability and stamina.

Independent studios and production companies are formed with a single focus – namely to create a viable and entertaining product that will both cover its costs and turn a profit. Think The Blair Witch Project that cost $60,000 to produce and returned $240 million. The sequel tanked.

More to the point, when unrelated entities buy large studios, the corporate interest goes from quality uplifting movies to recycling the same story-line until it is milked dry. The unfortunate by-product is the decline in ethics, artistic integrity and uplifting entertainment. There are few, if any, All About Eve or The Color Purple scripts being produced. Corporations follow the money at a substantial social cost.

The Color Purple, Warner Bros.

The Color Purple, Warner Bros.

This recycling means that there is a dearth of strong quality female characters for the big screen, unless they are crafted to be a female copycat. Machismo prevails. Be it machismo converted to a female actor or machismo a la John Wick female actors lose.

La Femme Nikita, Luc Besson’s 1990 thriller set an unfortunate template that exists 31 years later. It’s mirrored by way too many of its successors and a new version The Protégé (script by Richard Wenk). In this latest ‘version” there is no cultural or creative awareness to get out of the female character rut. This knock-off fails because it is neither escapism nor a meaningful character study.

What is the solution to this quandary?

First, it is imperative that all scribes overcome their historic stereotypical gender and cultural bias of victim blaming and shaming, bimbo damsel in distress or ego-boosting love interest character or physical attribute descriptions for female characters body parts either in costume or description. This is a strong argument recently brought to light by the #MeToo movement.

The time is long overdue to treat female characters as people.

In the historic male-dominated movie business we are now experiencing a climate changing warming effect on the previously glacial change in meaningful female participation.

Let’s examine how any scribe can evolve from writing the tired stereotypical or cliché female characters and graduate to presenting characters, be they male or female, with a personality and a past.

It’s obvious that certain stories are by necessity gender-specific. However, except for biologically specific abilities, many of the previous gender boundaries are evaporating – defined more by a character’s actions related to, rather than attributed to, a profession or occupation. Female characters drive a plot when their action is more evident than a display of their physical attributes.

In her article How to Create Strong Female Characters, Valerie Kalfrin deftly describes how Black Panther and Tomb Raider female comic book action characters drive the plot rather than just allow it to happen around them. She also discusses how a classic female character’s action in their recent film versions drives the plot. I do think, however, writers in today’s environment can do better.

In order to change Dr. Martha Lauzen’s quote in Part 1 and create strong female characters, the Snidely Whiplash damsel-in-distress, or the Proverbs description of a nagging wife, or the eye candy bimbo to prop the ego of the male lead all have to go. In their place consider these female character attributes.

A) First and foremost, consider that your female characters are whole people in the sense that they have a distinct personality in both action and thought. They exhibit their ups and downs, their good and bad sides, their funny and serious behavior. Depending on the story and genre, different personality traits will be exhibited at various times in the script. One excellent way to create such a character is to mix individual traits of people you know into your character’s persona and behavior. This is the way you can create from the foundation of a whole person,

B) A combination skill set that demonstrates early she’s a person who is either physically, mentally, or spiritually tough or, depending on the story, all three. Think Katherine Hepburn in Rooster Cogburn who proves that she has definite fighting skills and who gives as good as she gets. Or, the five strong women of the 2019 film version of Little Women where the original story was written by a woman, adapted to the screen by a woman and directed by a woman. In each of the film characters an example of real responses from a real person. Both films are worth viewing.

C) STEREOTYPES ARE OUT. I have lost count of the number of “buxom blondes” or “ruggedly handsome” character descriptions I have seen in the over 10,000 scripts I have evaluated. Some from credited writers who should know better. (BIG HINT: Don’t copy the sloppy writing style of some credited writers. They have a track record, you don’t.)

[What Makes a "Strong" Female Character?]

I understand that a script about the Catholic Cathar slaughter and other religious or non-religious atrocities will, for the most part, be male-dominated and macho-driven. BUT there were strong female characters in history even during those times and earlier. If they were not strong by station, they used guile, charisma, and skill to get their way.

A study of history uncovers many strong female characters before the historical whitewash of the Common Era (CE). For example, Cynane (c. 358 – 323 BCE) who slew an Illyrian queen and masterminded the slaughter of her army; Queen ZENOBIA (240 – 275 BCE) the queen in the middle east who took on Rome; Joan of Arc (~1412 – 1431 CE), the peasant girl who took on the English and was burned at the stake on trumped up charges at ~19. Then there is the Onna-Bugeisha (female samurai), Nakano Takeko (1847 - 1868 CE) who fought and died at 21 during the Battle of Aizu in the Boshin War, but not without taking six male samurais with her.

Joan of Arc (1948), RKO Radio Pictures.

Joan of Arc (1948), RKO Radio Pictures.

None of these women in history are examples of female typecasts or warrior stereotypes. There are, no doubt, many others who did not escape the victor’s whitewash of history. To create a well-rounded and convincing character it is important that you not only read scripts, but as many books on a variety of subjects as you can. This is one way, in addition to observation, that you can amalgamize multiple characteristics and skill sets of as many real people into your characters.

D) Well-rounded female characters don’t spend all their screen time discussing men, the latest fashion, or household/office chores. Draw from your own relationships and explore the variety of topics that fill your mind during the day. Write your female character with the same or similar thoughts and concerns along with whatever the task at hand might be. Think Helen Mirren in Red. An accomplished assassin with another enemy assassin as a lover. A strong character with “baggage” and a challenge. She shared how she shot her lover to save him.

[Women Are People, Too: 6 Ways to Write Better Female Characters]

E) A note on language. More women are occupying roles in areas previously considered a male bastion. Take into account the recent pioneering female referees in male basketball and football games, they now have an extensive use of new words that would be unheard of 15 – 20 years ago. All this emphasizes is, that a character’s dialogue must be up to date for both the genre and the storyline time frame along with a consideration of their educational level. It must also adapt to the comprehension skills of the other characters.

A September 2013 reprint article How Women Decide originally presented in Harvard Business Review, discusses how women decide about consumer purchases differently than men do. It is well worth your research to study what senior executives at Deloitte discovered. Although not obviously related to screenwriting or story, the article will provide insight into the dynamics of gender relationships and how to prepare and to present them.

As always, I welcome your constructive comments. Thank you to the many who have reached me via my website, The Readers Company, your complimentary and enlightening comments are inspiring.

Learn more about the craft and business of screenwriting from our Script University courses!

SU script university pro promo 600