“Strong Female Characters”

14 Aug

That is a phrase most writers hate. There are a myriad of reasons for this, but I will attempt to break it down to the basics.

Charlie Rose: “Jacob, how is it that you write such strong female characters?”

Moi: “Well, Charlie, I write strong characters. Some of them just happen to be female. Some of them happen to be black or gay or lactose intolerant, three things I also am not.”

It’s a dick answer to a dick question about people without dicks.

Joss Whedon has one of the more snarkier answers to “So, why do you write these strong female characters?”

“Because you’re still asking me that question.”

But to simply dismiss the question as insulting or banal is a mistake. The reason some writers are lauded for writing strong female characters is not because they do, but because many others do not. This is not an indictment of the writers, but of the way Hollywood tends to operate. Hollywood is still an industry dominated by men. The writers are not the problem, just a symptom.

The Bechdel Test has three criteria that a movie must pass. It has to have at least one scene which contains:

1.         At least two women in it.

2.         Who talk to each other.

3.         About something besides a man.

Film critic Nathan Raban coined the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” for a stock character that “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” Basically, any character portrayed by Zooey Deschanel.

Behind my bangs is a third eye that looks right into your adorkable soul.

Behind my bangs is a third eye that looks right into your adorkable soul.

 

What both the Bechdel Test and the Manic Pixie Dream Girl have in common is oversight by a writer, though this oversight is not necessarily intentional or malicious. Many writers believe that they are creating wonderfully three-dimensional characters. Instead, they are limited from doing just that by unforeseen blind spots. These are not restricted to writers; everyone thinks they know more than they actually do. 

***

There is a common conceit that goes something like this: write what you know. Most writers will state that this is either rank bullshit or vague enough to mean that we can all write about vampires because at some point we gave/got a hickey. (The kids still do that, right?)

I see the phrase as meaning two things. One is simply “write what you know,” meaning – do your research. Know your facts. If you are going to write about, oh, let’s say the operation of a submarine, it may behoove you to actually know a bit about how a submarine actually works. Not too much, but just enough so that Cracked doesn’t get on you about it. Heck, the idea that when someone is arrested he has the right to “one phone call” is pure Hollywood invention, one, however, which many people actually believe to be true. (Trust me, it takes a long time to get to that phone. A very, very long time.)

The phrase also means: “write what you Know,” with a capital K. This is not knowledge of facts and figures, of the operations of U-boats and police stations. This is the understanding of people, of how we operate, what makes us tick. It’s Writers Empathy, the curious emotional bond a creator has with his creation.

While this empathetic bond starts with observation, writers can’t merely let the empathy simply flow towards us. We can’t be passive about it. We have to actively explore another character. The major problem with the “write what you Know” philosophy is that most writers believe that they do actually know something, when in fact they have no idea what they’re talking/writing about. Hence, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She is not necessarily a poorly written character, but she is one that rarely can exist independent of the mind of the writer. The male writer may be a progressive feminist at heart, but unconsciously he still desires a certain type of woman and creates that ideal in his fictions. (Ahoy, Aaron Sorkin.)  

Many very good writers do not realize when a character is poorly written. In Breaking Bad, the main character’s wife is easily the least likeable character on the show, even though she is not the murderous drug kingpin. Instead, she is an overbearing, nagging, household tyrant. She falls into a stock character type: the Harpy. After five seasons, there has been little movement past this stereotype. (I plan on writing about Breaking Bad either next week or the week after, and I will explore why this use of two-dimensional characters may actually work to the benefit of the show.)

We have to ask ourselves whether these characters hold up outside the imagination of the writer. If I write a character but only see her from the point-of-view of someone else, does she actually exist? Does this character, from her point-of-view, make any sense? Are her motivations based on what this person – if she happened to actually exist within this particular situation – would do? Or, is it merely my fantasy as a writer that she would act a certain way?

I think of this as the Sorkin Test. Does a character act a certain way because this is how she should act, or because this is what the writer wants her to do? Basically, if I were her, would I kiss that dude right now, or am I kissing that dude because that dude (writer’s proxy) wants me to kiss him?

This could be construed as a very narrow interpretation of “write what you Know.” Obviously, I, a liberal, Jewish, agnostic, artistic, straight, male, northern, lactose tolerant, white, American, moderately cynical individual do not have a lot in common with Annabel, a Hispanic, art-bashing, conservative, bisexual, optimistic, dairy hating, female, Jesus-prayin’ Pentecostal from Texaracana. To write her character, the most important thing for me to understand is that all those aspects of her personality are just as dear to her as being an artsy-fartsy, pseudo-intellectual elitist are to me. I cannot be cynical or mean-spirited about her because she is not cynical or mean-spirited about herself.

While I have to understand and accept those aspects of Annabel that are foreign to me, I also have to find the commonalities between her and me as the writer. No matter how different a character may be from what I know of life, there are still certain elements in her that are not foreign to me. Most everyone has loved, hated, been angry, sad, jealous, resentful, hopeful, dejected, hungry, horny, tired, envious, spiteful, caring, etc. I may not know anything about Annabel from Texarcana, who believes in Jesus, listens to Creed, and drinks Zima, but as long as she’s had her heartbroken, I can probably write about her.

But if I as the writer can’t empathize with a character, there is no way an audience will.

***

Last week, The Daily Show, in another bit that proves it’s better than most legitimate news sources asked two groups – one black, one white – about the state of racism in the country today. Watch below.   

I know that my answers would probably have been closer to the answers in the white group than the black group. That is not to say that either myself or any member of that group is somehow racist or even racially insensitive. We just don’t understand it from the other point of view. When asked about the controversial New York police tactic of Stop-and-Frisk, many people who are not subject to it – basically not black or Hispanic – claim that if it deters crime people should be okay giving up a little freedom. Those subject to Stop-and-Frisk think differently, for obvious reasons.

Much of how we perceive the world is determined by our own individual experiences. If you are part of a group that’s been marginalized, you will probably see the world in a harsher light than if you came from a posh gated community. And many who come from the confines of comfort do not understand the plight of the less fortunate. At least that’s what the trailer for Elysium seems to say.

Just like the idea of writing what one knows can be sabotaged by unknown blind spots, so our views of others are clouded by our own experiences and our own preconceptions. Getting people, understanding them, just like writing great characters, does not – and should not – come easily. Most of us experience empathy and compassion in a passive manner, we let them come to us rather than seek them out on our own. We are afraid that the status quo that we believe in, the vacuum-packed banalities – freedom, hope, America, God, family, tradition, honor, intelligence, art, love, etc. – are not as ideal as we have been made to believe. We do not want to look at the side of the tracks where the grass is less green. We don’t want to see through other people’s eyes because by doing so our fragile worldview may crack, if not crumble all together.  

We lack not the ability to see life from other people’s points-of view, but the willingness to do so. By succumbing to our own lazy contentment we accept the world as a two-star romantic comedy written by a lonely and pathetic man who thinks that a woman likes him if she says hi to him in the elevator.

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