5 Story Lessons from Bold, Layered Women

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

Hollywood continues to struggle with representing stories from the many different perspectives found in our ever-changing world. Fortunately, the recent box office slate has offered narratives through the eyes of one of the most historically underrepresented voices in film – women.

Women of varying ages, ethnicities, and occupations are being seen on screens around the world, which is cause to celebrate. Of even greater significance is that these women are multidimensional and written with layers of complexity. Here are five story lessons we can take from the sophisticated women currently fronting films in theaters.

1. AUTHENTIC CHALLENGES ARE NEVER ABOUT A SINGLE ISSUE

Hidden Figures

Based on the true experiences of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, this story goes beyond the challenges of three women overcoming racial prejudice, which is certainly significant in their journeys. Aside from dealing with the issues that surround the color of their skin, these characters also wrestle with the challenges of being women in the workplace, the struggles of keeping up with the latest technologies, balancing home and work lives, the nuances of romantic relationships, even time management. Combining so many realistic difficulties throughout the paths of these women makes the characters feel real, true, and human. We watch them intently, hoping to gain insights into the similar issues we face.

2. INTERESTING OCCUPATIONS SUPPORT INTERESTING STORIES

Arrival

Amy Adams’ portrayal of Dr. Louise Banks has garnered attention from audiences and critics alike. The genre of Science Fiction has long blazed the trail of placing women in roles traditionally held by men. Sigourney Weaver broke down doors with Alien in 1979 that women are still walking through today. Banks is a linguistics professor in the story, a fascinating occupation that uniquely qualifies her to interpret the language of the visiting aliens. When writers build an interesting character with an interesting occupation, interesting stories are usually not far behind.

3. GOOD BACKSTORY MOTIVATES CHARACTERS

Rogue One

Rogue One’s Sergeant Jyn Erso (Eadu) is a highly skilled soldier in the Rebel Alliance. But before we learn anything about her present dilemmas, we learn about why she is motivated to do what she does, the events that made her who she is, and what ghosts haunt her. Learning about the single event that shaped her life as a little girl tells us a great deal about what we can expect her character to do throughout the rest of the story. We also know what drives her and what she is fighting for. Understanding a character’s motivation helps audiences relate and root for her.

4. PEOPLE ARE OFTEN, BUT NOT ALWAYS, WHAT WE NEED

Moana

The filmmakers of Moana explicitly state in the script that our protagonist is not a princess. Disney has previously received criticism about female characters always needing romantic involvement with a male character to complete their journey, usually in the form of a prince. Moana breaks that mold. Much of the narrative revolves around the discovery that she does not actually need the strong male character, Maui, in order to accomplish her goal. We do see Moana need people in her life — from her grandmother, for example — but romance is not essential for making her a fully realized person. A sophisticated lesson for a sophisticated woman.

5. PERFECTION IS NOT REQUIRED OR DESIRED

20th Century Women

20th Century Women tells the story of three womenDorthea, Julie, and Abbie – at different stages of life. It may be the most nuanced portrayal of the journey of women to hit screens in some time. All of the women are far from perfect. We see them make mistakes. We see them experience regret. We see them accept their failures. This does not weaken the women as characters. It actually makes them stronger, because they feel more authentic – more like the women we encounter in our day-to-day lives. Audiences want to imagine what they could be when they encounter a story. However, the also insist on seeing who they are.

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John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S.  Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.

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