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MysteryExec's advice on writing women

Forums Forums General Writing Character Workshop MysteryExec's advice on writing women

This topic contains 22 replies, has 9 voices, and was last updated by  byChrisPhillips 8 months, 3 weeks ago.

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    Shaula Evans

    @MysteryExec went on a tear yesterday some GREAT advice on writing women:

    Does all this need saying? Yes. Sadly, it does.

    Thank you, Mystery Executive. If and when I get to meet you, the Chivas is on me.

    PS If you want to write better female characters with better descriptions and better dialogue, we want to support you in that! Here’s a good place to start: Writing Women. Got more questions? Just ask. Seriously. If you want to do this right we’ll do everything we can to help you get there.

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    • This topic was modified 1 year, 5 months ago by  Shaula Evans.
    • This topic was modified 1 year, 3 months ago by  Shaula Evans.


    I’m glad this is coming straight from the top these days.


    Shaula Evans

    Folks, honestly: how do your female characters measure up to this advice from a high-level Hollywood insider? Take a moment to assess your scripts and don’t be embarrassed: we live in a society that normalizes this stuff and if you’ve internalized it, what’s important is to move forward and get it right. (No self-flagellation required.)

    You know what I love about this most of all? In future, when I’m reviewing scripts, rather than try to explain all of this, I can just link to this post. MysteryExec, you just saved me years of my life!


    Shaula Evans

    @Chris – I agree. Fantastic.



    that’s hawt.

    i wonder how many marriage proposals he’s gotten out of that…


    Jay Finklestein

    In response to what byChrisPhillips said:

    I’m glad this is coming straight from the top these days.

    Yes, if only executives had more power than writers, we’d see real change.


    Shaula Evans

    Ah, Jay. How do we ever hit our snark quotas when you’re away?

    To his credit, MysteryExec seems to be for real about this.

    And that brings me to an important point: gentlemen, do you have any idea how critical you are as allies in these conversations?

    Women talk about this stuff ALL the time (as do all the other diversity groups)–and no one notices. But when a guy takes up the cause, people pay attention. (Oh yeah, and we live in an unequal society. #newsflash) When a guy who is in a position of power in the group or industry in question makes a stand AND takes action, there’s a chance that real change will actually happen.

    The fact that people (meaning other men) fall all over themselves when a man [/member of a dominant power group] says something marginalized voices have said all along… it makes me variously sad, angry, frustrated, tired, etc. But I’m more of a pragmatist than an idealist: this is what it takes to make change happen.

    Guys (and powerholders in general), you are SO important as allies. You have the power to get other men’s attention, to make your voices heard, and to transmit ideas in ways that most of the rest of us can’t. When you choose to use your powers for good, it’s awesome.

    If you can get this stuff across to other male screenwriters: we all get better characters, better scripts, better roles, better films. We all win.

    I am DEEPLY grateful to MysteryExec for taking up this issue and sticking with it. I am also deeply grateful to the other men, industry insiders, and powerful people (of all stripes) who are willing to make change, advocate for change, and amplify the voices of others who advocate for positive change.



    Whilst I completely agree with Mystery Exec obviously, I have to take issue with the notion that’s MALE screenwriters who are the issue here, at least in the spec world.

    As I’ve said over and over, as a script editor I have seen NO correlation between bad female characters and the gender of the spec screenwriter; a male spec screenwriter is just as likely to write a “good” female character as a female spec screenwriter (and vice versa).

    Female spec writers CANNOT get complacent about female characterisation, as if they’re party to some kind of special “truth”, by virtue of being female. Writing is difficult. There are no short cuts. Ergo we must put in as much thought and care as male writers when approaching our female characters.


    Shaula Evans

    @ Bang2write: the operative term is “internalized oppression”.

    Many of us have grown up immersed in problematic pop culture representations of women to the point that we’ve internalized them: even women. Intersectionality note: the parallel writing pitfalls can be equally problematic for other diversity groups, too, for the same reasons.

    I have also known women who write this way *on purpose* so their scripts will seem “manly” because they believe it is a recipe for success. And that breaks my heart. On so many levels.




    When I first started writing, my female characters were *terrible*. I think I’m only just getting past that now. So yes, we all have our part to play…



    Shaula: Amen to that, it is a crying shame. There are some limitations to critique however; very often it’s centered about what’s “wrong” with female characters, as opposed to what’s right; also, it’s worth remembering that all is NOT rosy when it comes to male characters. Though they may be more varied in general, many male archetypes promote and exacerbate potentially harmful stereotypes and myths as well. And on top of THAT, there’s also a homogenisation of characterisation going on: we’re quite literally seeing the SAME types of characters, both male and female, of all races and backgrounds, over and over again. In short, we are in a crisis or flux and MUST figure out pronto which are the good and unusual ways and celebrate them as much as we can, so we might inspire others.


    Jay Finklestein

    In response to what Bang2write said:

    … there’s also a homogenisation of characterisation going on: we’re quite literally seeing the SAME types of characters, both male and female, of all races and backgrounds, over and over again. In short, we are in a crisis or flux and MUST figure out pronto which are the good and unusual ways and celebrate them as much as we can, so we might inspire others.

    Shaula is so going to split that into a new thread!

    Very interesting point. How much, would you say, does the ‘How To Write a Screenplay’ industry contribute to the homogeneity?



    Barbara Thomas

    That is great advice for writers.  Now we need advice for readers  so that when all these wonderful, complex, flawed (in real ways, not just adorable clumsiness) female characters are created, writers won’t get notes about making them more “likable”.



    Barbara – I don’t know about the US, but over here in the UK there are script reader courses now.

    Jay Finkelstein – I don’t know if the “how to write a screenplay” industry is to blame so much as the search for a magic bullet or formula for success … and we all are prone to that, whether we’re writers, producers or audience members. Everyone wants a dead cert. But there’s no such thing. There is only ONE way of unlocking a great story and that’s via great characters. End of, as far as I’m concerned. And I think it’s getting better, slowly but surely. But it’ll get worse before it gets better. What we have to remember is to keep the faith and support all our fave filmmakers and writers at grass roots level and see them rise through the ranks that way – they don’t just come out of nowhere.



    As Screenwriters, our job is to create compelling characters that people will want to see on the screen. Screenwriting books aren’t the problem because they often emphasize that characters need proper introductions.

    A solid description speaks to the character and the story.

    Here’s a description for Dr.Jocelyn Watts in Prometheus written by Jon Spaihts.

    This is DR. JOCELYN WATTS, 32, a precocious scholar of many disciplines. A scientist accustomed to field work.

    It doesn’t say much. However, notice it makes no statement about her fashion sense or her looks. It’s all business, which is just how Dr. Watts is played in the movie.

    Here’s another good one from Bourne Supremacy describing Pamela Landy written by Tony Gilroy and Brian Helgeland:

    PAMELA LANDY is 46. A Senior C.I.A. Counterintelligence Officer. Hovering over the communications console.

    Again, all business, just like you would expect for someone at the top of a government agency.

    On the other hand, sometimes a story talks about the looks of the characters because of the nature of the story.

    Here is the description for Vivian in Pretty Woman by Jonathan Lawton and Stephen Metcalfe:

    VIVIAN turns and stares at herself in a grainy, cracked bedroom mirror. She is twenty years old and a prostitute. Make-up applied to give her a hard, older look doesn’t quite succeed. She’d be innocently beautiful without it. She is wearing tiny shorts, a tight tube top, thigh high boots. She stares at herself, not really liking what she sees. A moment. She signs, turns off the light and walks out of the bedroom.

    And here’s a similar one for Notting Hill by Richard Curtis:

    It is Anna Scott, the biggest movie star in the world -- here -- in his shop. The most divine, subtle, beautiful woman on earth. When she speaks she is very self-assured and self-contained.

    All work because the descriptions are directly related to the character and the story the writers were trying to tell.

    So at the end of the day, it’s the writer’s duty to create descriptions that fit the framework of the story and to give us compelling characters that play out in story.

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