You’ve done the unimaginable – you’ve written a strong female character, who seems to derive her self-worth, not from the world, but from herself and her choices. This character isn’t necessarily good, or even bad, but she’s strong, opinionated, capable, and isn’t reliant on a man.
The terror you feel in your gut? That overwhelming sense of “What have I done?” followed by the existential wailing is totally understandable. It’s a big, scary move, and you’re just a helpless (probably) dude searching to maintain this exhausting characterization for at least two episodes, maybe three. If it’s a movie, you at least need to provide this characterization until the final third of the movie when the HET white male can save the woman, but still, it’s A LOT. All that strength, and for a woman? Whoa.
I get it. It’s super hard. So here’s your guide to maintaining that strength in a ‘choose your own adventure’ breakdown!
You’ve written her capable at her job, better than anyone else, and determined to be the best. Sometimes she doesn’t even have to try to be the best. She’s just that good. Her brain works in mysterious, capable ways. All the smarts in one woman? How do you maintain it?
Show the time, effort, and energy it took her to get to this point. She is not a rock in the ocean, isolated from all that surrounds her. Her lady parts have not stopped her from being human while she finds success. She can be tough in a determined sort of way. She can be good at her job without being an ice queen. She can be a mother without being the sole caretaker. Relax, yeah? Imagine that she’s a man but more likely to be told her opinion, then write that.
Introduce a man who doesn’t have any of her education, experience, or talent, and have him solve the same issues. Many men are used to being mediocre and still getting promoted, I get it, but you have the power to show her above the cut. Don’t ruin it by suggesting a dude can miraculously do her job. You’ve just played yourself and ruined your character for the rest of time. If she’s a housewife, could you not have her entire world be boiled down to conversations with her husband? Housewives do a lot of things, including supporting your shows. Try not to have a capable woman be only ever the ice queen. This is not the ‘90s. We know more about writing now.
Whew, that was scary! One down! You got this!
You’ve decided to make your character a woman of color. Look at you being all gutsy! Here you are choosing to incur the wrath of racists who throw hissy fits on Twitter. But you don’t want to hire actual women of color to write for her. That would totes take the place of white people! What do you do?
Close your eyes and think real hard about a human being. Imagine this human being feels a complex range of emotions. Image they then have to deal with people constantly telling them they’re less. Imagine imperfect people struggling to be the best – or worst, if you’re writing a villain – of people. (If you’re really stuck on this, there, there. But also, watch Pitch on Fox for an example of balance.)
Stereotypes, in all their iterations. Now, you probably haven’t considered what those stereotypes are, because hiring those WOC was way inconvenient. So I’m going to give you a few examples to bookmark in those scary moments when you teeter on the edge.
Here are a few examples. If you have a black woman in your show – avoid characterization that only includes her being tough and overly strong. If she’s an ice queen try your very best to show that’s not the end of her story. Show that she has to be that way because the rest of the world wants to feed her a wild pack of ravaging hyenas on pretty much a daily basis. If you dedicate 30 seconds per episode, you may very well end up (probably unintentionally) writing a complex character full of contradictions, weirdness, hope, strength, etc. Congrats! You did it!
If you have an Asian woman, do your best not to write her as the best friend, smart foil, or tiger mom. This may be tricky, as all the shows you’ve ever watched do this, but I promise that there are more aspects of Asian women. And seeing how 60% of the world’s population is Asian, you have no excuse.
For the love of everything holy, if you write another Arab woman as complicit in terrorism or a victim of a terrorist I will pop up out of an interdimensional rift and slap you with flip flop. Seriously. To quote Titus from Kimmy Schmidt: “What white nonsense is this?” Don’t do it.
Basically, if you follow the dos, you will succeed in avoiding the don’ts. Now, this may be hard for you, too, but if women of color come to you and say, “hey, this writing is problematic because…” and explain why it’s offensive, then I want you to stop the knee-jerk reaction of flipping them off before they get halfway done. Take a deep breath. There you go. In and out. Big, deep breaths. Good! Now, I want you to remember that they FUCKING KNOW BETTER. If you value your characters, and not being an asshole, maybe listen to them before you start going off on how you, a white person, understand women of color better than anyone.
You can’t write a female as the main character. That would be uncool. It happens! (90% of the time). But you have a secondary female character. She’s smart, helps out, is funny, and brightens screens all around the world.
Continue to write her as funny, of course, but also as possessing a full range of emotions, such as fear, pain, anger, hope, arousal, and uncertainty. If you don’t have a lot of time to tell her story, take those 30 seconds per episode I mentioned before and add some characterization that has nothing to do with the men in her life. Eventually, you’ll build that dynamic character. I believe in you.
Relegate her to cheering on the male lead as the extent of her plot. Have no details about her life, her emotions, or relationships with others, platonic and not. Have her dialogue include only pep talks and putting all emotional weight of an episode on her. Crying is cool. We should all do it, as often as we need to feel better, but there comes a point where every single person, but especially women, know they have to set aside the tears and get shit done. Crying sucks when that’s all you’ve been doing. Also, men cry, too. Try to remember that’s important.
You want your female character to have sex. Women aren’t virginal and you’re super hip to a world of the sexually liberated woman. You read the Feminine Mystique, man. You get it.
Show women in same-sex encounters without trying to turn it into some male-gaze porno, where it’s more about your sexual fantasies than the relationship between the characters. This might surprise you, but women in same-sex relationships have emotions for their partner, have romance. It’s not about turning you on. Try not to freak out. Show women as wanting it. Show them as sluts, as prudes, as in charge, as letting others take charge. Show it all! Just stop with the gratuitous shots that, again, only serve to make you horny. You can show sex as funny, awkward, fun, weird, amazing, and a union between two people, but show it respectfully. Just imagine that the woman has more to her than her body, or her need to sexually please a man, and you’re halfway there!
As I wrote in a previous article, rape is not your plaything. It is not your tool for shocking viewers. It is a real issue, with real consequences. If you don’t intend to show the emotional fallout, the recovery, and teach a real goddamn lesson, you are doing it wrong. You have failed millions of people. Approach the topic educated and with respect.
Another thing to avoid is the common tropes in regards to race. Black women are not more sexually active, Latina women aren’t perpetually pregnant, Asian women aren’t the prudes of the world, and white women aren’t the virginal victims with that halo around their heads. Just…you know, try not to be a garbage human.
You have one woman. She’s surrounded by men. This is the way of the world. It’s not like there’s more women in the United States than men. But we get it, a show isn’t nearly as interesting if there aren’t swinging dicks every five feet. Who will tell the main character her opinion? But, what’s that? You want to write in ANOTHER woman? Have you gone MAD? Two women in the same show? Whew. Okay…Let’s try it.
Dos: Listen, if you’ve got two whole women on your show, just have them respect each other. They don’t have to like one another or be best buddies, but please for the love of everything sweet and holy, let them be respectful of each other’s abilities. Please. I will beg. I will promise only to hit you with the flip flop five times.
If you have more women than that on your show, highest of fives! Woooo. You rock. Try your darndest to remember that they are complex human begins and not clothes racks. Try super-duper hard to remember that all of them can have plots that have nothing to do with the men in their lives, all at the same time! Also, if you manage to put in a conversation that doesn’t mention a man even once, an angel descends from the heaven and does absolutely nothing, because you just wrote fucking reality.
Not all women are maternal, enjoy the wails of children, care about other people’s emotions, or know how to relate to other women. For every warm personality, there is a personality that is cold. For every maternal figure, there is a woman who thinks a binky is a weird diet fad. For every woman who likes to talk things out, there’s a woman who pokes herself with a pen to keep herself from falling asleep while you talk about your emotional recovery from your ex. I could go on, but you get my point, right? Try to think real hard about your characters before you start to write them. They don’t change because they have sex, get in a relationship, or find a new job. We all change, of course, but your character is your character. Try to remember that; try to remember their complexities. Try to remember what you wrote before. Memory matters. Also, catty women who dislike each other because they are women is weak writing. No. Stop it. Bad, writer.
In fact, try to remember the big three:
DYNAMICS, COMPLEXITY, REALISM.
We made it. Those trembling hands and sweats you’re feeling? Totally normal. You’ve just had a big day. You can try to remember these things going forward. (Or, ya know, hire a diverse writing room).
This is by no means a comprehensive list, but I have a word limit and stuff to do. Just know that you can do it. You can be better. We all can. It just takes an open mind and an understanding that stereotypes are harmful, characterization is powerful when it doesn’t rely on tropes, and good writing depends on complex characters. This world is better when diverse. It’s better when we write from a place of equality. And as writers, our power is our ability to show this equality to the world, to normalize decent thoughts and wonderful reasoning. Let’s get to it!
(I’m serious about that flip flop).