How to Write a Better Female Protagonist

Danny Manus of No Bull Script Consulting recently wrote a great article for Script Magazine about the lack of strong, well-rounded, likeable female characters on the silver screen these days. I highly recommend reading the full article, but here are a few of the highlights:

Recently, at the Final Draft Screenwriting Awards, the infamous Nancy Meyers labeled 2013 as the Year of the Shrew. That with few exceptions, most of the lead female characters in films last year were basically shrew-like bitches that no one could like and advised that writers “should write women you want to know, instead of run away from.”

The more I thought about it, the more I realized – she’s not wrong. Look at most of the 2013 movies featuring major female roles or female protagonists; Blue Jasmine, August: Osage County, American Hustle, Her, Saving Mr. Banks, Mama, Identity Thief, Spring Breakers, Admission, Frances Ha, Bling Ring, Stoker, Carrie

Were some of them complex characters? Sure. Did some of these characters lead to amazing performances? Absolutely. But are any of them characters that you want to see much MORE of or feel like women you’d want to know? Not really. The “girl next door” role of the 90s seems to have been replaced with “the bitch banging on the door” role of the 2010s.

Even the films where women did shine and were likable and strong, in only Philomena12 Years a Slave and Hunger Games Catching Fire did the lead female character have a motivation, backstory and emotional gravitas that grounded the film. Sure, The Heat and Gravity had strong female roles (both played by everyone’s favorite movie star Sandra Bullock), but they weren’t exactly deep character studies.

Manus goes on to outline the 15 female character archetypes: 

If you were to do a character study of most scripts and films, you might find that there are about 15 archetypal female characters repeated over and over. I’m not saying you should avoid these archetypes – it’s almost impossible to – but you should be aware of them to know if you’re writing an original character. The 15 archetypes, in no particular order, are:

  1. The Alpha Bitch/Queen Bee – Mean Girls, Easy A, Bring It On, Clueless, Heathers, Grease, Young Adult, Legally Blonde
  2. The Damsel in Distress – Wizard of Oz, King Kong, James Bond Films, Sleeping Beauty, Spiderman, Princess Bride, Halloween, Scream, The Bodyguard, Kiss the Girls, Sleeping with the Enemy, Enough
  3. The Boss or Woman in a Man’s World – Broadcast News, Fargo, The Paper, Erin Brockovich, The Proposal, Silence of the Lambs, Working Girl, Devil Wears Prada, The Contender
  4. The Unflinching Warrior Bad-Ass – Alien(s), Terminator(s), Kill Bill, Salt, Joan of Arc, Resident Evil(s), Kick-Ass, Star Wars, Brave
  5. The Rape Victim – The Accused, Girl w/the Dragon Tattoo, Teeth, The Brave One, IrreversibleHounddog,Monster, Dogtooth
  6. The Obsessive or Vengeful Psycho – Misery, Basic Instinct, Fatal Attraction, Single White Female, Kill Bill, Mommie Dearest, All About Eve, Monster, Natural Born Killers, Carrie, The Crush, Eye for an Eye, First Wives Club
  7. The Spinster – The African Queen, Marvin’s Room, Baby Boom, Julia & Julia
  8. The Quirky Misfit – Juno, Amelie, Garden State, Breakfast Club, Ghost World, Annie Hall, Secretary, 500 Days of Summer, Eternal Sunshine of Spotless Mind, Beetlejuice
  9. The Girl Next Door – Almostevery role Meg Ryan, Sandra Bullock, Reese Witherspoon, Doris Day, Katie Holmes or Emma Stone have ever played
  10. The Hopeless Romantic – Titanic, Bridget Jones Diary, The Notebook, Romeo & Juliet, Sleepless In Seattle, Amelie, When Harry Met Sally, Shakespeare in Love
  11. The New Girl in Town/Ingénue/Virgin – Mean Girls, Boogie Nights, Grease, Funny Girl, Lost in Translation, Black Swan, most female characters in animated films and Musicals
  12. The Martyr – August Osage County, Silkwood, Norma Rae,Rocky, First Wives Club, Philomena
  13. The Reluctant or Unlikely Mother – Raising Helen, Baby Boom, Knocked Up, Mama, Adventures in Babysitting, Life as We Know It, She’s Having A Baby, Baby Mama
  14. The Best Friend – My Best Friend’s Wedding, 27 Dresses, any role played by Judy Greer, Joan Cusack, Rosie O’Donnell, Ginnifer Goodwin, Ari Graynor, Katheryn Winnick, etc.
  15. The Seductress/Femme Fatale – Lolita, Cleopatra,The Graduate, Basic Instinct, Last Seduction, To Die For, Jawbreaker, Mini’s First Time, Thirteen, Jennifer’s Body, The Paperboy, The Professional, Fish Called Wanda, Double Indemnity, Foxy Brown, Nikita, Catwoman, American Pie

Manus points out that male writers tend to most overuse the rape victim and clumsy sweetheart archetypes, whereas female writers tend to overuse the obsessed with work and desperate for love tropes.

Manus adds:

Again, the aforementioned archetypes exist for a reason – they work. It’s your job to bring them to life in new ways. Go deeper with your characters and explore WHY your characters are those archetypes and write their dialogue as genuinely as possible. Best way to do this, especially for male writers, is to observe and LISTEN to women and how they speak (without seeming like a creepy stalker). Try to get into their head instead of just viewing them through your own eyes. This isn’t just advice for writing another gender, but any type of character that might not come naturally to you.

Realize that no matter what type of archetype you might be writing, that women aren’t that ONE type at all times. It’s by blending the archetypes in interesting ways that you create new types of characters. Show range in your characters, and in your writing, as long as the blend connects well with your plot.

Read the full article at Script Magazine.

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