Friday, September 20, 2013

Female characters are not just pieces of sushi

My fundraising drive is over, and although I still have a few scripts in my queue, I'm almost done giving notes for charity. Thanks to the contributions from so many writers, I was able to raise $2,570 for Angel City Pit Bulls, for which I am extremely grateful. I will do this again next year for sure.

I have given notes on a total of 31 scripts so far for 29 writers, and I think I have five left. If you are one of those five, fear not. I'm behind, but I should finish up next week.

Of those 29 writers, 26 of them were great about receiving their notes, which were from 4-6 pages in paragraph form and a bit blunt. I let everybody know I was going to be harsh because I am NOT a professional script reader and this is for charity, not my livelihood.

Writing really nice, polite notes takes time. It's much easier to just write down all the issues that jump out as I see them, and occasionally comment if something is really working and I want to see more of it. I always found something good to comment on, but I tended to get a little impatient and sarcastic whenever I saw the same problem crop up over and over. I thought people were gonna be all mad about that.

Instead, most writers laughed at my pointing out their consistent issues. Many of them said thank you and that I gave them lots to think about. Some followed up with questions, which I answered as best I could. Two writers enjoyed my notes so much they came back for more, which pleased me greatly.

One felt disappointed. I don't think I gave her exactly what she was looking for, which I regret, but what can you do? Two did not take kindly to my tone and argued the notes almost line by line.

So it was an interesting experience, and I learned a few things. Some of these scripts were quite good. One was so well written that I resorted to pointing out typos just so the writer would get something out of me. Some were terrible. Like, really really terrible. But not a single one was without promise.

There was one thing I noticed over and over that started as a mild annoyance, but was so common that I now consider it a full blown pet peeve:


 What does that mean, you may ask? Well, I am here to help, so I will demonstrate.

[scrippet]BOB ANDREWS, 42, is an old soul. His facial hair is peppered with white, and he stopped grooming it long ago. His cowboy boots never come off in public, and he only pulls a cigarette out of his mouth when he needs to make a point. Right now, he's making a good one.[/scrippet]

So the above is an example of the kind of description I commonly see for male characters. Vivid, detailed - maybe a bit TOO detailed - but interesting and filled with character.

In the same script, this is the kind of description I would frequently see for the female lead:

[scrippet]VIVIAN JAMES, 22, is stunningly beautiful.[/scrippet]

In other words, the male character gets all kinds of nifty details. The female character gets some version of good looking. Sometimes writers will say "gorgeous" or "pretty" and sometimes they'll even mention her hair color. They very rarely mention anything else about her.

This didn't happen one or two or three times. If I had to guess, out of 31 scripts I think I saw this happen about 20 times. And it wasn't just restricted to male writers; female writers did it too.

I'm not saying you can't describe your female lead as attractive. But look at the description of Bob Andrews again. You're picturing Josh Brolin, aren't you? Now look at Vivian's description. Who do you picture?  Victoria's Secret model? Megan Fox? Mila Kunis? Zoe Saldana? A fairy princess? Your little sister?

She's empty. With Bob up there - I never even mentioned how good he looks. If he's the lead and he fits the description, the casting agent will find you a good looking dude. And Vivian - if she's the female lead, the casting director will find you a good looking woman. So what else do we need to know? Is she all business? Is she a fashion plate? Is she wide-eyed and innocent? Does she have bad posture? Scary muscles? Is she lactating? Wobbling on her high heels? There are so many more interesting things you can do to give us a picture of this girl other than to tell us she looks good.

I know most of these writers did not do this on purpose, but it drives me batty nonetheless.

So I want everyone to go to your current script and check. How often do your female characters get introduced by nothing more than their looks? Remove the words "gorgeous" "pretty" "beautiful" and "stunning" from your intros unless her looks are actually plot relevant. Like, if your lead is a super model or a sex robot, or if she uses her looks to get what she wants, then it's okay. But if not, try to yank out that word. Instead, think of what else you can say about her. How can we picture her in our minds as more than just a pretty face?

Do it, or I will come after you with my angry sarcasm.


  1. Even worse is when female characters are referred to as hot/sexy. It's not enough for her to be attractive-- she must also be desirable.

  2. I keep all my character intros brief. Here is the lead protag from my recent spec:

    FELICIA RUGAL (35) flips open a cell phone. Her pant suit matches her expression: All business.

    And another woman:

    MELINDA (20s), Felicia’s overly eager assistant.

    Here's the first male:

    MAX (8), Felicia’s intelligent yet snarky son.

    I like to use actions and dialogue to paint the picture of my characters. Why front load a bunch of unnecessary details? Who am I to say "She's beautiful, but doesn't know it. She's the girl next door" then they cast someone completely different than what I had in my mind? Doesn't make sense to begin with.

    My biggest pet peeve is: Katniss - Hunger Games. Jennifer Lawrence is not at all what I (or anyone, c'mon) pictured for Katniss. In the screenplay you could write "beautiful, with an edge. Rich olive skin and jet black hair" which is what they would have if they followed the book, then BAM! Jennifer Lawrence is Katniss. She is white, cute - NO EDGE, brown hair. NOT Katniss... so what was the point of that description?

    From your example above, 60 pages in, what will you remember about Bob from that specific description? Uh... grey beard and something about cigarettes? A screenplay ain't a novel. If you paint him throughout the story, the image sticks much better.

    Sorry for rambling.

  3. I wish I could look at anything in life the way the cat looks at that sushi, I wish something, anything, would inspire so much awe in me as it does that puss, , aren't those the truly beautiful ones, the one's who are capable of feeling such wonder

  4. I save time by just inserting the actresses's name.
    Int: coffee shop
    In comes super hot Jennifer (think Rooney Mara.). Did I mention she's hot?

  5. And how! I saw something recently about a female exec going batty about this on Twitter, so it's something I've been hitting hard in any of the feedback I give. Makes me feel good about my current script. The three main female characters in my current spec:

    RAGEN (30) has a cheeseburger dripping down her wrists. At 5'2", 280 lbs, you might say she's eaten a few too many. But if you told her that, you'd be eating your next cheeseburger through a straw.

    MICHELE, a wild-eyed Betty Crocker in her 50's.


    CINDI, a Dolly Parton-type whose boobs, hair, and makeup can all be seen from outer space.

    Pick one detail and exploit it. \\!


Please leave a name, even if it's a fake name. And try not to be an asshole.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.