Writing Strong Female Characters

Strong female characters

Sigourney Weaver in ALIEN (1979)

Though male protagonists have disproportionately dominated the movies since the dawn of time, with each passing year, we see more and more movies featuring powerful female characters, some are even spearheading their own franchises!

Dead are the days in which studio executives would cringe at the prospect of green-lighting movies led by heroines like the seminal Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) in ALIEN. Now, times have changed, and many producers want to make those movies!

You should not be surprised if you attend a development meeting, and a producer suggests demands gender-bending your macho script. To that and other ends, the following considerations might help you:

Flip Stereotypes into Strengths

Many of the negatively-charged adjectives sometimes associated with women are a matter of perception and an opportunity for a positive character trait. Isn’t “Emotional” just another word for Empathetic? Or “Irrational” for Rogue? Thus, “Fragile” becomes sensitive, and “Bitchy” becomes Assertive. Flip those negative perceptions into strengths and use them to elevate and empower your female characters.

Know the cliches and create something different

The trials and tribulations of creating strong female characters are not new. Ergo, many screenwriters have stumbled upon similar situations and scenarios that are now cliche. The more films and TV shows you watch, the more obvious they become. But here are few that you probably have noticed for yourself:

  • A female character who’s either… a lawyer, a doctor, a cop, a stripper
  • A female character whose backstory revolves around…a breakup, a dead child, parental abuse
  • A female character who expresses herself through… eating, crying, boxing, dancing

Knowing the cliches allows you to break free from the common and be innovative. Originality is your friend!

writing strong heroines

…because it was time a female Jedi had her own franchise!
STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015)

What would a Super Hero do?

Instead of making a woman sleep with someone to get information, ask yourself: What would a Super Hero do?  Suggestion: Arm your woman to the teeth (if it’s an action flick). Let her break into the Pentagon, guns blazing, and steal the files!

Instead of making a woman agree to work through the weekend to be considered for a promotion, ask yourself: What would a Super Hero do? Suggestion: What if — through some creative problem-solving and a dash of risk-taking — she seals a very important deal and saves the company!

The point is: don’t let your perception of gender roles influence your story. At times, when the story demands it, it’s okay. But know when your creativity is being blocked by what you think is right.

Make a Good First Impression

Introducing characters on the page is often a challenge. But female characters specially have been plagued by descriptions that revolve around their looks.

Producers are catching on. And they are making fun of you behind your back! In fact, one such executive, Ross Putman, got so tired of reading the same mindless descriptions over and over again that he started tweeting them.

To preserve the anonymity of screenwriters, Mr. Putman has replaced the characters’ names with JANE, otherwise descriptions are verbatim from actual scripts:

A gorgeous woman, JANE, 23, is a little tipsy, dancing naked on her big bed, as adorable as she is sexy. *BONUS PTS FOR BEING THE 1ST LINE

– Ross Putman (@femscriptintros) February 10, 2016

Though drop-dead beautiful, JANE (40) has the appearance of someone whose confidence has been shaken. She is a raw, sexual force, impeded.

– Ross Putman (@femscriptintros) February 10, 2016

Notice how these examples are blatantly crude and sexist. And the problem is not just “political” or a “matter of opinion”. In practical terms, when your script goes out to attract prospective actresses, your word choices can be a deal-breaker.

Understand “Her” Story

When looking for inspiration to write a female-based story, consider that side female character in the “guy movie.” Be it the girlfriend, the daughter, the mother, the sister. Imagine a story from their perspectives, their obstacles, their hurdles. You can turn any of these side female characters into the protagonist of their own movies. The beauty and challenge of screenwriting is making the audience care about people. If you can understand a woman through her struggles, you are better equipped to write female characters. (The same is true if you are a woman writing male characters.)

Knowing aspects of the “female experience” can greatly improve your writing. And if you are a woman, you don’t want to overlook that. In SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, Clarice Starling has to deal with a lot of colleagues and superiors, most of who look down on her, taking her only for a “pretty face.” Arguably, the movie would have been less powerful had the writers ignored this kind of workplace sexism.

write strong female character

Sexism is just one obstacle Clarice has to overcome in the FBI
SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991)

Heighten the Conflict

What if Mom has to take the kids to school AND kill the terrorists? Don’t renegade your female character to the sidelines. Let her beat the odds and do the impossible!

The same applies to her goals.  In the film THE ASSOCIATE, Whoopi Goldberg plays an intelligent investment banker who fails to succeed in Wall Street on the account that she’s a black woman. When she’s failed to be taken seriously, she creates a fictitious white man to prove her worth.

Use the Bechdel Test

A 1985 comic strip by Alison Bechdel depicted two women talking about going to watch a movie. One of them explains her requirements for watching movies:

  1. The movie has to have at least two women in it,
  2. who talk to each other,
  3. about something besides a man

This simple rule doesn’t guarantee success, but it is useful as an additional parameter. Not that every movie needs to pass the test. (Clarice Starling doesn’t have any profound discussions with another woman in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.) But know that some people are sick and tired of two women talking about a man!

(You can see the strip here.)

Any other thoughts? Comment below.

What is ISO (Film Speed)?

ISO is one of the three camera components that control photographic exposure:

The Exposure Triangle. The balance of these elements create "normal" exposure.

The Exposure Triangle. The balance of these elements creates “normal” exposure.

ISO stands for International Standards Organization. It is a numerical value used by digital and film cameras alike to define the light sensitivity of the recording medium. This numerical value can range from 25 to several thousands (digital filmmaking continues to push the technology and make chips that are more and more sensitive).

[Read more…]

Question Spotlight: Is Filmmaking Fun? Is it worth it?

Ally sent the following question:

Hi! You should be very proud of yourself for fixing this article up (7 Basic Things All Future Film Directors Should be Doing Right Now), it’s very well done. Thank you for the tips!

I am fifteen and have an interest in this career. If all else fails, plan B is psychology. I love movies a lot and have grown to love them this past year and look deeply into them. I use it as an escape from my anxiety. I mostly love 80s and 90s movies.

Here are my questions…

1) My anxiety can get pretty bad and hold me back from trying new things and make me insecure. Would this mean that I shouldn’t go into this career?
2) I really love 80s movies, but would focusing on those movies blind me from what the general public wants today?
3) My Dad wants me to be a doctor or a lawyer while my Mom wants me to do this. Is it worth it? Is it a fun job, like do directors have fun making movies? Is it worth trying?
4) Is screenplay writing necessary? I’ve written books before on WattPad, but most of them are Fanfictions. I have a hard time coming up with my own stuff, but if I do, it’s normally based off of dreams I’ve had because I write my dreams down every morning.

I really love movies and want to be a part of the creation. I love them so much, I get depressions after watching them because I’m so sad they’re over sometimes. I make movies at home and got hired to make a commercial for a volunteer system for a contest. My Mom says I have talent, but she’s my Mom. I just really want to know if this is for me because I may only be a sophomore, but I hate not knowing what I want to do because I like having a plan. This caused a lot of my anxiety problems, which have actually been getting better. I hope they stay that way.

 

Hi Ally, thank you so much for your message. Let’s see if I can answer your questions:

1) My anxiety can get pretty bad and hold me back from trying new things and make me insecure. Would this mean that I shouldn’t go into this career?

I understand career anxiety. My wife and my brother — even me at times — feel a lot of it! I would say that most careers have to deal with some kind of anxiety. Definitely, being a lawyer or a doctor is NOT any easier in this respect. Especially if you are a director, you have to deal with a lot of pressure and deadlines, but this is true for any facet of filmmaking. From writing to editing, everyone has to deal with anxiety. If you really love movies and see yourself as a part of the process, my suggestion is that you take steps towards managing anxiety as much as you can, for this will help you regardless of the career path you take.

2) I really love 80s movies, but would focusing on those movies blind me from what the general public wants today?

You know, when I first fell in love for the movies and filmmaking, I was very focused on older classics, anything from the 1920s to 1980s. For some reason, I had the desire to know, understand, research and love the movies that came before me. At some point, however, I realized it could mean trouble for me. I’m not gonna lie to you, knowing and ENJOYING recent movies is probably mandatory because you have to know what everyone else is doing. Not only for the story in these movies, but also for the techniques being used. Also, you should know how the market works. Once you establish yourself, you can then try to make the movies you want, even if they defy common sense.

3) My Dad wants me to be a doctor or a lawyer while my Mom wants me to do this. Is it worth it? Is it a fun job, like do directors have fun making movies? Is it worth trying?

Make no mistake, there are moments of grief and struggle when everything goes to hell. The actor is late, the camera is acting up, the location manager wants you out by 5pm, a production assistant tripped on a cable and injured himself. And then, it starts raining! It happens. It can be soul-sucking at times. But the people that persevere and continue working on films do so because, at the end of the day, the joys and fun outweigh the heartache and the pains. It can be especially hard when you are starting out, and you have to climb the rungs of the industry till you find yourself in that dream job. But people still do it. So yeah, it’s worth trying!

4) Is screenplay writing necessary? I’ve written books before on WattPad, but most of them are Fanfictions. I have a hard time coming up with my own stuff, but if I do, it’s normally based off of dreams I’ve had because I write my dreams down every morning.

Screenwriting is NOT necessary. But a sense of good storytelling is. Films are narratives, and if you can’t distinguish a great story from a bad one, you’re in trouble. I definitely recommend you read books on screenwriting, but also read movie reviews and join discussions about the craft of storytelling. Ask yourself why does this work or doesn’t, and debate it with friends. You’ll see everyone has a different opinion and interpretation. Even if you don’t wanna be a screenwriter, you still need to understand screenwriting, so read screenplays. Probably start with the scripts from movies you like. Here’s a bunch of them: http://gointothestory.blcklst.com/free-script-downloads/ (Sorry these are mostly recent movies.)

As for  inspiration for coming up with your own stuff, know that it’s always a challenge. One technique that works for me is this: every time you have a movie idea, write it down. Don’t over analyze it. Sometimes the wackiest ideas are the best ones! Think of BACK TO THE FUTURE or JURASSIC PARK. In my head, they are almost laughable as concepts, but they work fantastically well on the screen because their execution is top-notch. The other side of this is is when ideas don’t feel complete or coherent. Even if they are fragments, write them down. Make that a habit! Get a notebook or a binder just for ideas. Later you will combine stuff and make two little ideas into a big one. Believe me: it happens. But first, you must. Write. It. Down!

Did I answer everything?

By the way, it’s awesome that you already started working on commercials at age 15. To answer your other question regarding what you can do at 15:

My suggestion is to continue filming as much as you can. Acquire (or borrow) a camera and start shooting. Do as many projects as you can and focus on completing them. It’s easy to, say, lose motivation after recording something. But, unless you have a good reason, you must force yourself to edit each project to completion. Learn from your mistakes. If you can’t finish a movie for whatever reason, understand what went wrong and do what you can to prevent that from happening again.

I’m not sure where you live, but some high schools have media programs that give you access to some equipment like cameras and editing suites. It’s always a good idea to look into it. If your school offers no such program, I also recommend you look into a local TV station, inquire if they have internships or courses you can take. These are usually  inexpensive (or free) if you can find a public program or institution. Be sure to ask around! Yet another option is to attend a community college in the summer. Because you are young and not really a full-time college student, you can just take whichever fun classes you want.

Thank you again, Ally! Comment below if you have any questions! Have a great day!

***

Anyone else interested in this topic, refer to this page for more tips:

7 Basic Things All Future Film Directors Should be Doing Right Now

 

Bibliography and References – Best Filmmaking Books

What follows below is a partial list of filmmaking books I have read throughout the years. Most of them were influential in helping me decide what kind of content I should include here on the Elements of Cinema. This list is by no means complete; more books will be added as I continue researching.

Important: although all of these books were part of my formation, please be advised they vary tremendously in terms of depth and detail. For instance, the book The Bare Bones Camera Course for Film and Video is an amazing read for someone who has never read a cinematography book and doesn’t know simple things like the aperture or shot sizes. In other words, this specific book is more on the basic side. Conversely, The Filmmaker’s Handbook has so much detail and information that reading the whole thing is almost impossible. It is a dense read. Before buying a book, please read the reviews carefully so you can get a grasp what kind of book it is, as well as its target audience.

The books listed here link to Amazon pages. If you make a purchase through Amazon, the Elements of Cinema may earn a small commission AT NO EXTRA COST TO YOU. It is a great way to support the site and help us help you with more content and lessons. 🙂 Thank you!

Should you want to go more in-depth on a certain topic, you can send me an email or buy some of these exceptional titles for an amazing read:

Directing

Screenwriting

Cinematography

Editing

Producing

Sound Design

Others

* Books that appear in more than one category.

Remarks

It is worth reminding you that I also went to film school, and some of the observations or insights you will find in this blog sprouted up from class lectures and discussions with classmates, not always from books.  Also, of course, a lot of the knowledge comes from the Elements of Cinema Podcast where I interview pros from the industry and pick their brains.

The list above is provided for your reference in case you want to dig deeper on a certain subject. I urge you not to study filmmaking in a vacuum, alone. Whether you want to be the writer who sits behind a desk churning pages day in and day out, or the director who coordinates several departments and personnel, it is paramount that you understand how the business and the art co-exist. Use the reading material as a spring board for your “adventures” in filmmaking, and always, whenever possible, refer to more than one source.

Logline Examples

loglineYesterday I answered a question about loglines. So today I wanted to give you some examples of loglines. Why, you ask.

Well, reading loglines is an interesting exercise because — if you don’t know how the movie unfolds — you are forced to imagine where the story might go.

Also, more importantly, observe how these long three-act feature movies  can be summarized in two sentences or less. As a writer, you will have to do the same for your story. A logline is an important “elevator pitch” if you are pressed for time.

Logline Examples from Produced Screenplays

logline-examples2THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION – Two imprisoned men bond over a number of years, finding solace and eventual redemption through acts of common decency.

RUSHMORE – A precocious private high school student whose life revolves around his school competes with its most famous and successful alumnus for the affection of a first grade teacher

THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS – A press agent, hungry to get ahead, is pushed by a ruthless columnist to do cruel and evil things, and is eventually caught in the web of lies that he has created.

BIG NIGHT  – Two very different brothers promote their struggling 1950s New Jersey Italian restaurant by inviting Louis Prima and his band to take part in a sumptuous dinner there.
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Logline, Premise, and Synopsis

A couple of days ago Fiiya submitted the following question:

Can you explain the difference between a logline, premise and synopsis?”

Sure thing, Fiiya! Thank you for your question. Here you go:

 Logline

logline premise synopsisFor the purposes of conducting business in Hollywood (selling a screenplay, pitching a TV show, negotiating distribution) a Logline is a one- or two-sentence summary of your script. If absolutely necessary, you can do three sentences, but it should be as short as possible. It is designed to concisely introduce all the important elements of your story like the main character and conflict. Here are three examples for your reference:

A man with no name and a man with a mission hunt a Mexican bandit for different reasons. – FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (Sergio Leone, 1965)

Naïve Joe Buck arrives in New York City to make his fortune as a hustler, but soon strikes up an unlikely friendship with the first scoundrel he falls prey to. – MIDNIGHT COWBOY (John Schlesinger, 1969)

A self-centered hotshot returns home for his father’s funeral and learns the family inheritance goes to an autistic brother he never knew he had. The hotshot kidnaps this older brother and drives him cross-country hoping to gain his confidence and get control of the family money. The journey reveals an unusual dimension to the brother’s autism that sparks their relationship and unlocks a dramatic childhood secret that changes everything. – RAIN MAN (Barry Levinson, 1988)

Notice how loglines do not spoil the ending. Their purpose is to hook and intrigue the viewer so they accept to read your script or watch your movie. In practical terms, think of a writer who wants to have his or her script read by an agent or producer, or a filmmaker who wants to sell the distribution rights to a studio. To convince them to read/watch it, in addition to the right connections and the ever-elusive opportunity, an amazing logline will help!
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EOC 007: Lindsay Adams and “How to become a Production Assistant in Hollywood?”

Production-Assistant-CareerHello CinemaNation!

In this episode of the Elements of Cinema Podcast, I interview Lindsay Adams, a production assistant originally from Stillwater, Oklahoma.

I have to say I love this pattern I’ve noticed from most of my guests who were not born in Los Angeles and had to move here to follow a dream. Those kind of journeys are always more exciting, and we salute Lindsay for her zeal and passion that brought her to Hollywood.

Here’s the interview:


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VIDEO ESSAY: What’s the Theme in Fargo

Hello ladies and gents, how’s everyone doing?

I spent the last two weeks working on the video essay below, and I’m so excited to be finally sharing this with you! Not only was this a lot of fun (though time-consuming), I do see tremendous benefits for you — the future filmmakers and screenwriters of the world. This is a new series and — time permitting — I hope to be able to create other video essays like this one regularly.

The topic I chose for this essay was theme. Though I’ve talked about theme before, I thought it would be insightful to pick one movie and one theme, and show how that movie surveys the theme. The film I chose for this was Fargo, and the theme was… well, watch the video, will ya?

SPOILER ALERT: This video essay spoils major plot points in Fargo


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Shot List

THE QUESTION IS:

I just finished a 6-month course on filmmaking, and I have to shoot a short film. I  have quiet a hard time coming up with a shot list, please help me on this. How can I come up with a shot? I really want to do it myself and be bold to say I did this… – Peter

 

Hi Peter, thanks for your question. I hope the following article will help out you, as well as anyone else interested in learning more about the shot list. Since not everyone may understand what you are asking, let’s take a few steps back and tackle this  from the beginning.

If you haven’t done so already, go a head and read the following material:

Now without further ado:

What is a shot list: Definition & Purpose

A shot list is a document that lists and describes the shots to be filmed during principal photography. There isn’t a set format for the shot list, but here’s one way you can do it:

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The Elements of Directing (Directing Index)

Directing may appear easy from the outside. But a film director is a highly-skilled artist who understands in-depth every aspect of film production. It is said that a film director should be the first and last person on a set. Though an exaggeration for sure, the intent behind the saying is to communicate that a director has to be completely aware of everything that is happening on their set.

The ideal film director must be creative, resourceful, charismatic, and savvy of his craft and the business. They understand the story, the camera, and the actors. They know how to delegate. They know how to express their wishes to cast and crew without stepping on anyone’s toes and without sounding bossy or arrogant.

Below are some lessons and tips for future filmmakers:

Articles and Lessons:

Blog Post:

Further Reading:

More lessons and articles coming soon! Want updates, then sign up for the Elements of Cinema newsletter or like our page on Facebook, or both!

If you wanna request a topic, drop us a comment below or send us an email.

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