Creating Better Female Characters Part 4 - Strong female characters and how to create them
After another lengthy break, it's that time again where I curate the most constructive and choice insights from the Fab 50: a collective made up of talented actresses and women in other roles within the film and TV industries.
In what is likely to be the last in the series, I wanted to drill down into what actually goes into creating strong female roles. And in this final article, I've managed to feature all fifty of the fabulous actresses and female film professionals. A tough ask, but I felt it was important that all who took part were heard. May it serve as a thank you to each and every one of the contributors without whom this series would not have been possible.
So I asked the Fab 50 these two questions:
What in your opinion makes for a strong female character?
From your perspective, how can writers ensure they create strong female characters in their stories?
Now it quickly became apparent these questions caused a stir. A number of the Fab 50 quite rightly questioned the term "strong female character".
Cristina Ryan spoke to this: ❝I think there is a misconception when the term ‘strong character’ is used. Especially when referring to a female role/lead role.❞ Tracey Birdsall added: ❝Strength isn’t defined by how many days a week we go to the gym.❞ It's as if they ❝think women are seen as only strong if they, fight, hold a weapon❞ suggests Nadia Sohawon. And as Mhairi Calvey says: ❝A strong female character means many things and often gets misinterpreted as a girl who is kick-ass.❞
And this misinterpretation is understandable. As Caroline Spence explains: ❝there have been so many women portrayed on film as pathetic or weak-willed, that when a female character kicks ass, we sit up and take notice!❞
In fact, I see many screenwriters making the same association. It's easy and obvious to associate the adjective “strong” with physical strength. It's usually its primary meaning. And despite there being multiple definitions of this word, many screenwriters I work with assume the same thing. When they think “strong female character”, they picture one who not only possesses two X chromosomes but also potent physicality.
I'm reminded of Linda Hamilton's muscular (and rather masculine) Sarah Connor in Terminator 2. Now while I would deem her a “strong female character”, it's not because of her muscles or her ability to fight. It's for other reasons, reasons which will be discussed in this article.
So on seeing these responses I knew I had to clarify. My intentions were not to discuss physical strength. Two of the Fab 50 did touch on what I was driving at, however. Sian Reese-Williams: ❝Strength in the sense of good writing and characterisation is a different thing.❞ and Suanne Braun: ❝if she’s well-crafted then that strength shines through.❞
Yes, exactly. When I say 'strong female character' I am speaking to the character's construction. I'm a story analyst and script consultant and as such part of my focus is on the development of characters. I don't care whether a character is kick-ass or gets her ass kicked, I'm ambivalent whether she is a muscular (wo)man mountain or has a willowy frame that looks like it would snap in a stiff breeze. If it fits the story, it's all gravy. I'm all about whether the character is well-written, solidly-constructed and does its job. Essentially, I mean strong as in: of good quality. So going forward I'm going to go with Suanne's word: “well-crafted”.
So, starting with the first question, allow me to rephrase:
What makes for a well-crafted female character?
The Fab 50 once again provided some wonderful responses and it quickly proved impossible to cover all ideas. Thankfully, there were some commonly-held themes and thoughts, enabling me to pare back and focus on a top five. And at the top of the list was:
Almost all of the Fab 50 made this point in their own way. Lynnaire Macdonald believes ❝a strong female character ... is one who is not one-dimensional or easily put into a 'box'.❞ Robin Shanea Williams spoke to this, stating: ❝For me, a strong female character is created with fullness and dimensionality.❞ Megan Henry concurred, believing it constituted, ❝a role that captures a multi dimensional person.❞ Emma Austin-Jones: agreed, feeling such a role had to be ❝a three-dimensional character, as nuanced as most male characters, and not confined to pre-set conventions of gender.❞
Heidi Cox felt such a character, ❝has layers as opposed to one note.❞ And Tori Butler Hart expounded that these ❝layers of a person have to be evident, that's what makes a character believable, real and compelling to watch, in my opinion.❞
But what does it mean to be layered? When we talk of a character being multi-dimensional, what are we driving at?
Laura Cayouette suggested that it meant, ❝interesting character flaws or moral struggles.❞ While Mackenzie Firgens stated, ❝If someone has conflicting emotions, actions and conflicts that's really a great test.❞ ❝Both strength and vulnerability,❞ was what Jon Mack saw as, ❝crucial to a great character.❞ Kathi Cairey explained: ❝The women we see on the screen should be like the women we see in life: sometimes strong, sometimes weak, sometimes funny, sometimes sad, sometimes quirky, sometimes demure, sometimes resilient, sometimes… you get the idea.❞
Why is this such a vital component in creating a well-crafted female character? Because, as Natalie Martins points out: ❝Women are complex ... it's our complexities that make us unique.❞ Rather embarrassing to have to state, but the fact that so many writers in the past have handled female characters as if they're somehow not human, that they're some kind of alien species, it's sadly necessary.
❝We are very complex and writers should not be deterred from writing about our complexities as a female within the storyline.❞ states Adaku Ononogbo. ❝We are multi-faceted and so should our characters be. We are emotional yet unbelievably strong, so should our characters be as well. Women, as a whole, are not one dimensional or one tone. We have ups and downs, victories and losses ... and life happens in between all of that.❞
We all know this, right? Yet it's amazing how many female roles are sub-standard, where the writer has resorted to lazy stereotypes and one-dimensional roles rather than giving them sufficient depth. All main characters regardless of gender should be layered, complex, multi-dimensional. This is the bottom line. At the end of the day, as Lauren Elyse Buckley says: ❝It is very simple and straightforward. It's about equality and diversity. If the men in the script have issues, challenges and hurdles to jump through, so should the women. If they have careers and families and backstories, so should the women.❞
The next most mentioned when suggesting what constituted a strong - sorry, well-crafted - female character was a focus on inner rather than outer strength.
According to Jane Badler ❝a strong female character is someone who has strong opinions and beliefs. Someone who is willing to fight for those beliefs. A woman who knows herself and what she needs to be happy.❞ Jennifer Claire believed,❝she's able to own who she is with confidence, get the job done and be an inspiration for other women to do the same.❞ Sarah Rose agreed, noting ❝She stands up for what she believes in with utter conviction.❞ And Linda Zollo is of the same mind: ❝Whatever the story may be, she has compassion for herself and others; she will go to many lengths to solve what is at stake. Even when she is so far down, she comes back with a deep strength from within.❞ Yet perhaps the most succinct and poetic way of communicating this inner strength came from Julie Carmen: ❝A strong female character finds a seed of resilience in the muddiest water.❞
Some believed this inner strength spoke to independence. ❝Someone who is able to make decisions independently from other characters,❞ Kate Terence suggested, adding, ❝and while it concerns her, it does not stop her if other characters do not approve of her decisions.❞ Jennifer Durrans felt ❝a woman who is independent and can stand on her own two feet and who can tackle her problems head on with very little assistance is definitely portraying a certain amount of strength.❞
Or as Isabella Tugman put it: ❝She is who she is because she chooses to be, in spite of the pressures surrounding her. She’s dynamic and authentic with virtues and flaws, and she fights to stay true to her values in the face of adversity.❞ Atlanta Johnson spoke of this inner force or will, insisting ❝their strength drives them to carry on in whatever their motivation may be.❞
And if a character is strong-willed and driven, then this means they have something they are driving towards, that they are adamant about, that they are single-mindedly focus on, which means they need to have a clear objective. Or as Natalie Buse tells it: ❝I want the character to have goals. I want the character to have an intense drive.❞ ❝Someone with goals, objectives,❞ says Francesca L. White. ❝And will pursue those to its resolution whether that's failure or success.❞ Lizzie Aaryn Stanton agrees, adding: ❝You can see what they want and what they are rooting for, and the obstacles in their way that they try to overcome at any expense.❞
Laura Cayouette went further, stating: ❝Strong people want to achieve their goals and are willing to do almost anything to do that. Even if they are criminals, they have a personal code and strong center from which they cannot be moved. They are clever and resourceful. They are willing to leap from their comfort zone and dare to fail.❞
The existence of truth was seen as key by the Fab 50. Characters that are authentically written, that are true to themselves, were the essence of a well-crafted character. Obviously, this means different things to different characters.
Megan Henry believes ❝a role representing a truthful human experience while exploring possibility is captivating.❞ Tori Butler Hart agreed. ❝Be it male or female or transgender, the strength of any character lies in their story and how it's told and betrayed. As long as it's honest and truthful, I guess that's what makes a 'strong' character, in my opinion.❞
Others went further, including Vanessa Bailey who strongly asserted: ❝Authenticity! A strong female character is one that holds up to the scrutiny of realism, whilst offering us the colour of creative storytelling. By that I mean she’s a fascinating expression of something we recognise in ourselves, or something that disturbs, scares, intrigues, delights or mystifies us. She will draw us in. Above all she needs to be interesting and surprise.❞ Mari Stracke echoed the same sentiment: ❝Authenticity, hands down. It doesn’t matter what genre you go for, a strong female character has to be authentic within that world and her own internal one. You can sell any story to me, if the character’s actions are coherent within the framework you've built.❞
For a large number of the Fab 50, a distinct journey was vital. Jon Mack spoke plainly: ❝I want to see her go on a journey.❞ ❝A journey of some sort or arc of growth❞ added Laura Cayouette. Tori Butler Hart agreed: ❝Like writing any character, the emotional arch and journey has to be clear.❞
Tracey Birdsall covered why seeing this journey is so important: ❝The most interesting strong female characters are the one’s where we watch that journey, see them gain the strength through trials and vulnerability, and root for them not because of their sexual orientation but because of what they’ve overcome.❞ Hannah Roberts continues: ❝[it's] about watching this woman going on a journey and staying so true to herself, showing her strengths and weaknesses through adversity. Watching her learn and succeed to come out even stronger is inspiring.❞
So there you have it. The objective is clear: Clock up those character air miles. Give them somewhere to go. Send them on their travels, a trip of a lifetime filled with obstacles that allow them to show who they truly are.
I loved this particular choice as it seems at odds with the idea of being strong. Yet in truth, allowing oneself to be vulnerable is a sign of strength. As Tracey Birdsall states: ❝strength is most evident when masked through vulnerability.❞ I couldn't agree more. Sian Reese-Williams was on board too: ❝A character that shows weakness or vulnerability if it's true to her.❞ One who ❝is able to be raw, vulnerable❞ added Kaili Turner.
Annamaria DeMara also spoke of ❝vulnerability in a powerful woman❞ and even gives us an example: ❝that's what makes me love Olivia Pope from Scandal. She is a strong and powerful leading White House fixer but also we see her in her personal life, confessing her love and getting hurt. We see the soft in a strong woman and what such women do to cover that up to sometimes be taken more seriously.❞
Yes, it's important to remember that there's strength in weakness - especially when we're talking about character building. The best, most complex roles have clear and story-relevant flaws. Having distinct weaknesses helps to develop drama. It's why it's often referred to as the dramatic need.
So these were the top 5 traits of a well-crafted female character, according to the Fab 50. Now you should have a clearer understanding of what actresses are looking for from a well-written role.
Now let's look at ways to achieve this. In a bid to decipher how screenwriters can create female characters with the above traits, we turn to the second of the questions:
From your perspective, how can writers ensure they create strong female characters in their stories?
BE BOLD, NOT BANAL
The most common view was to avoid the clichés. As Tracey Birdsall states, ❝stop pigeonholing into a stereotype … it weakens the script.❞ Mackenzie Firgens agreed, suggesting ❝if it seems typical it's probably not a strong character.❞
As writers, we should be making a greater effort to steer clear of the obvious if we want to create well-crafted characters, whatever the gender. And this means we need to go beyond the banal, discover new aspects and approaches. Believing a strong female role was one ❝where the writer has made bold choices in writing the characters and made them flawed and interesting,❞ Mhairi Calvey urged writers to ❝write a woman with layers [so] that creates a strong female role regardless of what the character does.❞
And when you reject the obvious stereotypes and go bigger and bolder, you end up creating roles that have more complexity. And then we hit the Fab 50's #1 aspect to a well-crafted character: multi-dimensional, multi-layered.
Or as Lisa Ronaghan puts it, ❝make sure they are fully formed. Look at their history, their desires, why are they there, why are they necessary to the scene and plot, how do they change, what do they learn, how do they impact the other characters? ❞ Pamela Perrine felt this last point was key, suggesting we look to make a female character into ❝one who makes an impact - changes a life, saves a life etc.❞
And this leads neatly into another major consideration when constructing your well-crafted female character.
One way to ensure your female character is sufficiently well-defined, layered and has the requisite authenticity is to perform your due diligence when it comes to background. This was echoed by a number of the Fab 50.
Katherine Nero starts us off: ❝There must be a sense of history – a well-developed backstory before page one. What are the formative events in their lives that may still haunt and/or shape them? What fears and weaknesses are they trying to hide and how are they exposed?❞ Tori Butler Hart adds: ❝What's their history, their likes and dislikes, what makes them tick.❞ And furthermore, Alonna Shaw says, ❝Dig into what the character is afraid of and proud of. These issues can create friction, fueling the story.❞
Indeed June Smith informs us not everything you come up with needs to make it to the page: ❝give them a good backstory for the actress to build on even if it’s not in the filmed story, so she has that in her mind when delivering her lines and can feel more where the character is coming from as she says her words.❞ Though this should come with a warning as Isabella Tugman explains: ❝Always have a good reason for your choices, and build characters starting from their inner identities rather than their physical attributes.❞
Lynnaire Macdonald gave potentially the most illustrative and instructive answer: ❝Know her. It doesn't matter what gender you identify as, if you're writing a female character you can dig deep and learn about her world. She's your character, but learn to walk her beat'. Imagine sitting down with her and asking her: "who are you?" So...who is she? She's your character and your creation, but she will 'speak' through you, and it's your duty to acknowledge what she says and who she is and flesh that out, even if a lot of what you discover doesn't make it to your final shooting script.❞
DON'T BE GENDER-SPECIFIC
The next most common answer to the question of how to create a well-crafted female character was... well... take out the word: 'female'.
As Caroline Spence succinctly puts it: ❝Write for a guy and then change the name and gender. Simple.❞ Cassandra Ebner agrees as to the simplicity: ❝Picture you are writing for a man. Done!❞ Emily Everdee concurs: ❝Just write a character who's a woman who isn't defined by the very fact that she's not a man and bingo.❞ Mari Stracke digs a little deeper: ❝I do feel that writing a great female character is not really different from writing a male one. A strong character is a strong character. It doesn’t matter what gender our hero is!❞ And Tracey Birdsall sums this point up nicely: ❝write the script with a strong human in the role and cast the actor that lives it best.❞
While some of the Fab 50 were quick to point out that there were, indeed, distinct differences between male and female characters, the general consensus did appear to be that focusing on gender was a disservice to the writing. In fact many made it clear that when it came to crafting a character, particularly a lead, there was very little difference between writing roles for men and women. And to this point, Emmerson Garfield suggested writers should ❝work in the mindset that men and women are capable of the same things, and can therefore share characteristics that make them powerful and influential.❞
As Mia Mills tells us: ❝I think writers can and will create strong female characters when they aren't as hyper-focused on gender and what to write or not write. … Don't shy away when writing and try focus on the character rather than the gender of that character.❞
Possibly the most all-encompassing answer came from Sian Reese-Williams, who asserted: ❝The writing of women needs to be approached in exactly the same way that writing for a man would be. Men are generally written just as human beings who possess all sorts of genuine, nuanced traits, almost across the board. No two male characters are ever the same are they? I think that's where we need to aim for with women too. Take the gender and the buzzwords out of it and you create interesting human beings.❞
I do think this is a serious and strong point that needs to be taken on board by all screenwriters. It's about creating strong, well-crafted characters, be they male or female. Particularly male screenwriters need to not automatically think the lead, the focus of the story, should be a man. Thankfully, I am seeing more and more writers opening their minds wider to allow for female protagonists in their stories.
OBSERVE, LISTEN, RESEARCH
Mhairi Calvey: ❝Interview and talk to women or research women who reflect the kind of roles you are writing.❞ Kaili Turner agreed, calling for us to ❝have conversations with women, get perspectives. Sometimes you have to have hard or challenging conversations and from those comes dope, informed art.❞ Julie Carmen further supported this idea: ❝Find her voice. Observe women. Listen to their intentions. Immerse in their dilemma.❞
This is common sense. The only true logical way of learning how to create viable, relatable, authentic female characters is, as Nadia Sohawon says, ❝by talking to women about their experiences.❞ Annamaria DeMara waxed lyrical on this point: ❝Listen to your mother’s stories and sisters stories, aunts, grandparents and so forth. Listen to what they are really saying, listen to the way they say it and ask questions. You will discover something that may change the way you write your next female character and you may also appreciate your friend or family member more.❞
And following on from this, Jennifer Field added: ❝Ask women to read the dialogue for you that you have written. Get their two cents on it.❞ Lizzie Aaryn Stanton agreed. ❝Get actors in to workshop. You'll be amazed how writing feeds acting, which feeds writing.❞
And as well as getting women to read, read women. As S.J. Charles advocates, ❝read scripts that have already paved the way in better female characterization, for example, Greta Gerwig.❞ Elizabeth Bower concurs: ❝Read female authors: Margaret Atwood, a bit of Brontë.❞ Kathi Cairey suggests going beyond the fictional, urging us to ❝study the women of history and really see what made them unique and interesting. Fascinating women have been around forever.❞
Essentially, if you feel you lack the instinctive nous to write authentically about women, then you need to do the required research. Read about real women, read the works of female authors, talk and be taught by the women in your lives, those women who best encapsulate the type of character you are writing about.
GIVE THEM THEIR OWN PURPOSE
This suggestion was echoed by many of the Fab 50. They all believed, as Hannah Roberts states, ❝showing she is human with her own purpose❞ is an essential requirement when developing a female role. Jon Mack backs this up, urging us to ❝remember to flesh the female characters out and don’t gloss over them or treat them like an accessory to a male character.❞ Daniele Passantino agreed, wanting to see writers ❝not using women as just a complement to the male characters.❞
This touches on the often-seen lazy handling of many female characters. Seeing them as secondary, as accessories as opposed to fully-realised characters with their own, separate and distinct goals. As Natalie Buse says, ❝Give them something to do that’s important. Give them a fleshed-out character with drive, goals, and action. Don’t make them always dependent upon the male character to make sure the action or the goal is completed.❞ Elizabeth Bower concurs, bemoaning the fact that, ❝Often, female characters are there to ask the male characters questions so that the male characters can work out their own objective.❞ She goes onto explain, ❝if your female character is asking a male character a lot of questions and has nothing to say for herself, start again.❞