Have you ever watched a film and been disappointed by the lack of strong female leads? Are you looking for the key to creating a successful female character? Birds Eye View’s Louise Forbes spoke to Helen Jacey about her new book ‘The Woman in the Story’, the first screenwriter’s guide to creating female characters.
Birds Eye View: Why do you think it’s taken so long for someone to write a book that helps screenwriters to create female characters?
Helen Jacey: Perhaps because screenwriting guides are quite a recent phenomenon, and have mainly been written by men! The best guides, however well intentioned, don’t touch gender – and how to create female characters in particular – because it somehow detracts from their claim to teaching universal story principles; but when you start using the word ‘universal’ you have to ask if you’re including the ways women make sense of the world through story, not only through characters but also through those characters’ journeys. Additionally, given the almost parallel explosion of female characters on the big and small screens since the ‘90s, writers were probably lulled into a false sense of security, thinking that we didn’t really need a book on female characters because they were already there on screen. Take Samantha in Sex and the City ejaculating in her lesbian lover’s face! You might think that doesn’t leave many stones unturned in the territory of female representation; however because women’s lives are still in flux (no matter where in the world you live), female representation is still evolving. That’s why I had to write this book; I wanted writers – men and women alike – to think of all the ways they were reflecting women in their work, consciously or not.
BEV: There’s clearly a gender gap not only within filmmakers but in terms of characters within films too. Do you feel this stems from not enough female filmmakers or not enough strong female characters, or a bit of both?
HJ: Probably a bit of both. I’m going out on a limb here but until our culture genuinely encourages equal division of parenting then women are going to be disadvantaged as filmmakers and decision makers. Women have to make hard choices if they want to have long and successful careers as filmmakers, and the support structures have to be there. The decision-making processes of the top level hierarchy in the film industry – which is male dominated – is also a factor in the range of female characters available. The highest grossing genres are still typically action, thriller and horror, where male heroes are over-represented. TV has stronger female characters than many feature films simply because the producers know the audience (with a big percentage being female) is hungry for them. Even in TV, however – and this is another generalization – I’m often astonished how fantastic secondary female characters can be, but it is rare they would lead a series. Take the female characters of House. They are great, authentic, and entertaining. Kalinda in the Good Wife is another – she really should have her own series. But the female characters of Mad Men are frankly disappointing. And of those leading series, how many are young and beautiful still?
BEV: Do you think a female lead is hard to get right? If so, is this part of the problem?
HJ: I think a female lead is hard to get right because ‘femininity’ – which to me is a gender role and not a ‘natural’ aspect of being female – is a very subjective thing. In the story development process, you’re always going to get everyone’s conscious and unconscious values on what a woman can do, can be, and what kind of audience she and her story might attract. With a female character, there are still more taboos and what I call ‘acceptable clichés’.
BEV: Do you think a screenwriter’s own gender bears any influence on the characters they create?
HJ: A woman writer is going to have more direct experience of ‘being a woman’ and how that shapes her individual perception of the world. But writers are naturally empathetic beings and we bring that empathy to all our characters and their lives. If a writer is conscious about gender and the impact of gender expectations on their own identity as a writer, and the identities of their characters, they can create authentic characters of either sex.
BEV: Can you tell us a little bit more about the Writing the Heroine’s Story seminar?
HJ: With pleasure! It’s a two day intensive workshop for writers to explore the creation of female characters in depth. Writers come from everywhere – I’ve had participants from literally all over the world. I focus on female lead characters because we need more female driven stories across all genres and for all media. For many writers it’s the first time they’ve been able to specifically focus on many issues which have been bothering them, but which they can’t find any answers to in other courses and books. I share a lot of ‘gender-conscious’ principles, there are a lot of exercises to help participants really get to grips with their current female characters, we watch a lot of clips, and there’s a lot of laughter and discussion.
BEV: And finally, which female film character do you most admire and why?
HJ: That’s an impossible question! So many, for so many different reasons… One that springs to mind is Jackie Brown, created by Quentin Tarantino. She’s a black woman in her forties, pragmatic, ingenious, brave, straight talking, realistic. And she’s not defined by men, children or relationships with significant others; and leads a gripping story. How rare is that? And I bet she’s fun to hang out with, too.
For more information on Helen and her book, The Woman in the Story, visit www.helenjacey.com.