A Deep Dive Into The Making of A Strong Female Character
by Mandi Harrison
When we went to the Austin Film Festival last fall, one of the panels that we absolutely wanted to see was one called The Quagmire of The Female Character with Lindsay Doran. Lindsay is a former studio executive and film producer, working on movies from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to Sense & Sensibility. We had seen her the previous year, doing a panel called The Psychology of Storytelling, which was one of our favorite panels. Lindsay is well-knowledgeable and extremely curious- once she wonders about something, she sets out to learn more. She’s like a scientist of human behavior,always wanting to test theories. We were very excited to see her again and she did not disappoint.
Lindsey started off by talking about how with the #MeToo movement and a more deliberate attempt for representation, the majority of female roles she was seeing were “strong female characters” aka women that were acting like men. Tough, non-feminine, bad-asses with something to prove and/or someone to save. Lindsay asked the question- wasn't it actually doing a disservice to women to only portray them as being tough?
There are a variety of male roles, and not one of them would be considered weak. There are many types of women in your actual life- many of whom you would consider to be strong women. Why does a woman have to denounce emotion and vulnerability to be considered strong?
During our research on developing character, we stumbled upon Writing The Romantic Comedy by Billy Mernit, which we still use today. He talks about four things that make a great character: Purpose, Empathy, Credibility, and Complexity. The character he uses as an example in the book is Michael Dorsey, Dustin Hoffman’s character in Tootsie.
Purpose: a specific goal, an over-riding want, a burning desire. Michael’s desire was to be a working actor.
Empathy: This can be a tough one. It’s often confused with sympathy. Empathy is experiencing the same feeling- can you feel their pain? Michael worked for years and never gave up on his dream of acting. That is relateable.
Credibility: Are they believable? Authentic? In the opening Tootsie, we see Michael running lines, teaching an acting class, going on auditions, applying stage makeup. He is believable and credible as a talented actor; he’s put the work in, his big break must be coming.
Complexity: More than one side to the story; the inner conflict that fueling outer conflicts. This is the quality that fuels the strength of the character. Later in that same opening scene, we see Michael rehearsing a play and he begins to argue with the director’s instructions. He quits the play and storms out. His own opinions are keeping him from gaining success as an actor- there’s the complexity!
When you look at these qualities and then look at what are considered some of the best Strong Female Characters®, you start to realize that they all have these characteristics. This is what makes them compelling to watch- not the fact that they are bad-ass. Ellen Ripley (Alien), Sarah Connor (Terminator), Clarice Starling (The Silence of The Lambs) and Diana Prince (Wonder Woman)- these women have purpose, they are empathetic, they are credible and they are complex. This is what make them stronger female characters- not their stoicism or actual strength.
Part of a female character’s complexity comes from her internal struggle (who she wants to be/ her want) vs. the external (who the world/ people in her life are making her be/do). Women are often expected to behave and react in certain ways and any action against that is conflict. Family is an obstacle, career is an obstacle, love is an obstacle. The choices the character makes from these obstacles builds conflict and adds to their complexity and credibility.
There is another thing that unfortunately is a factor with female characters- the “likability” factor. Which is something that ALL women have to deal with. Talk about being relatable! “But is she… likable?” Every time a studio exec (usually some old white dude) utters those words, somewhere in the world, a feminist’s eyes roll to the back of their head. Likable- what does that word even mean? It’s never used to describe a male character, and yet it’s the make-or-break quality for female characters. You don’t have to like a character in order to feel empathy for them. Michael Corleone in The Godfather, Walter White in Breaking Bad, Hannibal Lector in The Silence of The Lambs- these men aren’t necessarily likable, but you can empathize with them and understand their choices. Why can’t it be the same for women?
Having to worry about whether a character is likable should not be a part of the writing process. There are too many other factors to consider. This leads to watered-down roles, the story suffers and in the end, the people who were complaining just complain more. The finished product gets bad reviews, doesn’t make money, and execs feel justified in not green-lighting more projects, saying that there just isn’t an audience. That is far beyond the truth. Female driven movies, with strong female characters, have and will make money. Movies like Wonder Woman, Girls Trip, Spy, Bridesmaids all prove this fact. Women make up 51% of the population and 52% of the moviegoers. That sounds like an audience to me.
Back in Austin, after Lindsey finished speaking, she opened the floor up to the audience for their observations and experiences. The most interesting observations where from the male filmmakers- whether they were just now seeing the double standards or have been working against it all along. They talked about notes that they got from producers and possible investors and distributors. They wondered what could be done?
The solution seems simple- include more women in the creative process. Hire female producers to develop projects, to provide authenticity. Hire female directors, to show a different viewpoint. Hire female writers or co-writers, to create the character. Hire female cinematographers, to show the female characters as people, not as objects of lust. I’m not saying that every crew role should be filled by a women; there just needs to be more. There are numerous male writers and directors who write and develop strong females- J.J. Abrams, David O. Russell, Paul Feig, Todd Haynes, Ryan Murphy and others who know that having fully complex female characters only makes your story stronger. Actresses tired of fighting over weak roles have started their own production companies, finding and developing their own projects. A conscience effort has to be made, but more complex roles are being developed. Strong women- may we know them, may we write them.
Here are some of our favorite strong female characters:
Cleo (Roma) A housekeeper cares for a family in turmoil in a country in turmoil, while going through her own pain. She is beautiful, subtle and heart wrenching. This was one of the best performances in years.
Dorothea Fields (20th Century Women) This was honestly the first character I thought about when I started writing this. Dorothea is an older, single mother creates a family in order to help her teenage son grow into a good man. She is beautifully flawed and wise, but so unsure of her own ability to raise a grown man on her own.
Tiffany/ Rosalyn/ Joy (Silver Linings Playbook/ American Hustle/ Joy) David O. Russell writes spectacular female characters, and some of his best are for Jennifer Lawrence. These three characters come from from different backgrounds, but they all have drive- they know who they are and want they want and nothing gets in their way.
Dr. Louise Banks (Arrival) I loved this movie and Amy Adams in this movie so much that I’m still bitter she wasn’t nominated for an Oscar. This is a perfect example of how strength can be quiet, and how nothing is stronger than a mother’s love.
Jasmine Francis ( Blue Jasmine) Jasmine is a modern retelling of Blanche DuBois- a woman who depends on the kindness of strangers. Complex character paired with Cate Blanchett equals perfection. Jasmine’s complexities have complexities, and that makes her so compelling to watch. Jasmine shows that you can not like a character and still feel for them, understand their choices.