Use this 8 Steps Questionnaire to Make Sure You Have a Strong and Useful Female Character
I’m going to cut to the chase here: it is not easy to write complex female characters, even for female storytellers. Some storytellers do it wonderfully (think Courtney Hunt‘s Frozen River or Allan Cubitt‘s The Fall), but the majority of us (storytellers of both genders) does it very poorly.
Why? Because it is hard to manifest that which has been blocked and banned very early on.
As much as I think it’s essential to refer to the Bechdel Test and keep being vocal about how crucial it is to have active female characters in stories, I also believe we should acknowledge that it takes a lot of extra work to do so. (If it was easy, chances are there would be more interesting female characters around).
As an audience, I get crazy when I watch a story where women are reduced to being pretty (and annoying/needy/whinny/bitter/joykiller) plants.
As a storyteller, I am often catching myself falling in those ugly traps because, as crazy as it sounds, it is easier for me to project myself in the shoes of a 60 year-old white male having a life crisis and libido problem than in a 40 year-old active woman. I am not proud of it, but that’s the battle I’ve been facing lately.
And that’s also why when I watch Destin Cretton‘s Short Term 12 or Jenji Kohan‘s Orange Is the New Black my heart goes wild: because it feels so good to watch great stories that have epic female characters, and my heart knows this is the top level quality I should aim at as a storyteller, nothing less.
So, what to do to? The good news is that Tasha Robinson from The Dissolve, wrote an excellent article where she came up with an 8 steps check-list to make sure that your female character doesn’t only have a well-defined backstory, but that she also has a reason to be in the story:
The 8 Steps Questionnaire to Make Sure Your Female Character Is Not a Recycled Plant In Your Story
“So here’s a quick questionnaire for filmmakers who’ve created a female character who isn’t a dishrag, a harpy, a McGuffin to be passed around, or a sex toy. Congratulations, you have a Strong Female Character. That’s a great start! But now what? Screenwriters, producers, directors, consider this:
- After being introduced, does your Strong Female Character then fail to do anything fundamentally significant to the outcome of the plot? Anything at all?
- If she does accomplish something plot-significant, is it primarily getting raped, beaten, or killed to motivate a male hero? Or deciding to have sex with/not have sex with/agreeing to date/deciding to break up with a male hero? Or nagging a male hero into growing up, or nagging him to stop being so heroic? Basically, does she only exist to service the male hero’s needs, development, or motivations?
- Could your Strong Female Character be seamlessly replaced with a floor lamp with some useful information written on it to help a male hero?
- Is a fundamental point of your plot that your Strong Female Character is the strongest, smartest, meanest, toughest, or most experienced character in the story—until the protagonist arrives?
- …or worse, does he enter the story as a bumbling fuck-up, but spend the whole movie rapidly evolving past her, while she stays entirely static, and even cheers him on? Does your Strong Female Character exist primarily so the protagonist can impress her?
- It’s nice if she’s hyper-cool, but does she only start off that way so a male hero will look even cooler by comparison when he rescues or surpasses her?
- Is she so strong and capable that she’s never needed rescuing before now, but once the plot kicks into gear, she’s suddenly captured or threatened by the villain, and needs the hero’s intervention? Is breaking down her pride a fundamental part of the story?
- Does she disappear entirely for the second half/third act of the film, for any reason other than because she’s doing something significant to the plot (besides being a hostage, or dying)?
If you can honestly answer “no” to every one of these questions, you might actually have a Strong Female Character worthy of the name. Congratulations!”
It doesn’t cost much to make sure your character survives the questionnaire, but it will certainly make for a better story. And yes, this is only the tip of the storytelling iceberg, as races’ representation (in both gender) is still far behind and there are still countless stories that wait to be told.
So, “one step at a time” yes, but first let’s make sure we are walking!
[thanks to The Black Board]