Script whisperer Pilar Alessandra shares how to write a female lead who will put audiences in seats.
Of late, we’ve seen massive studio franchises produce female-driven films to huge box office success (Wonder Woman and Star Wars: Rogue One come to mind), and yet the scarcity of female protagonists in cinema remains significant. Studios continue to favor male leads and pass on those that feature women. If you're a screenwriter, the time is ripe to ask yourself “what can I do to address the under-representation and under-development of female characters?”
In her masterclass on female character development at IFP, screenwriting guru and author of The Coffee Break Screenwriter, Pilar Alessandra, elucidated the frequently uncomfortable reasons why Hollywood seems disinterested in diversifying its star power—and how to address them.
Neglecting these factors can create an unrealistic or unlikable character that your audience can’t imagine existing in reality, and thus can't sympathize with.
If you want to write a female-driven script that sells, take a look at some of Alessandra’s tricks of the trade.
1. Know what makes a real strong female lead
Having started her career off as a Senior Story Analyst at DreamWorks SKG and now working as a consultant for screenwriters, Alessandra reads a ton of scripts (at least two a day), many of which feature a female lead who either lacks substance or is utterly uninteresting. She identified two tendencies that screenwriters frequently fall into that result in an uncompelling leading lady: the screenplay has either fallen victim to the laziness of Hollywood by recycling tried and true female archetypes (e.g. The cop, lawyer or doctor) or, in an effort to avoid these studio go-tos, the screenwriter avoids female stereotypes or the reality of the female experience altogether, rendering their character one dimensional and unrealistic.
Some of the most common female leads we see on screen today are the “boss ladies” of the world, usually a doctor, lawyer or cop, or alternatively, strippers, nannies, and maids for whom we feel great sympathy because they’re grappling with a challenging past. Needless to say, this leaves a large portion of the female population massively under-represented. On the other hand, screenwriters that try to ignore female stereotypes often lose sight of the everyday obstacles women are faced with simply because of their gender. Neglecting these factors can create an unrealistic or unlikable character that your audience can’t imagine existing in reality, and thus can't sympathize with.
If you’re confused, Alessandra recommends turning to her leading lady litmus test. A strong female lead:
- Moves the story
- Makes her own decisions
- Has skills and flaws
- Is interesting to watch and relatable to both genders
- Appears in more than one scene
However antithetical your female character may be to Hollywood archetypes, she can’t escape being perceived as a female.
2. Twist stereotypes to your advantage
Character development is all about adding layers to what is inherently there to begin with or, in other words, what is immediately recognizable at surface level. Gender exists for your female protagonist as soon as she begins to interact with her world, both on and off screen. However antithetical your female character may be to Hollywood archetypes, she can’t escape being perceived as a female. Don’t forget that the audience is bringing its own set of assumptions about and experiences with women to the table and that your female protagonist will ultimately be interpreted through a lens that is organized, at least to some degree around what is considered “inherently female.”
Screenwriters tend to address negative female stereotypes by developing a character that embodies its opposite, so as not to run the risk of being labeled “emotional” or “bitchy”. Rather than ignore these stereotypes, use them as an opportunity to challenge the assumptions associated with them. More often than not, embedded within a stereotype is an actual skill set that gets mislabeled as a negative or undesirable trait, simply because a woman embodies it. For example, if you take two employees, one male and one female, but both equally passionate about their job and assertive in their actions, the female employee runs the risk of being labeled overly emotional rather than passionate, or abrasive rather than assertive. By taking a negative female stereotype and turning it into a crucial skill, you challenge the assumptions of your audience and have the makings of a more interesting, strong female character.
"You could take the most hackneyed, archetypically female story, and still come up with something fresh."
3. Create a new reality for your characters
If one way to challenge assumptions is to reframe stereotypical personality traits into positive skills, another way is by throwing out the assumptions entirely. Under these circumstances, you could take the most hackneyed, archetypically female story, and still come up with something fresh.
Take for example, a pregnant teenager movie and consider the assumptions that are made about the female lead and supporting characters, which might include her parents, classmates, and the baby daddy. In the script reality of, say, an after-school special designed to drive home the idea that teenagers, under no circumstances, should be getting pregnant, the characters might look something like this:
- Pregnant teen is undereducated, promiscuous, irresponsible, and scared
- The child’s father is absent, abusive, and uncaring
- Her parents, if even in the picture, shame her and are unsupportive
- Her classmate, the high school cheerleader, bullies and embarrasses her
Then consider Juno, a film that follows the usual trappings of a “girl gets pregnant, gives her baby to the right mother” type story, but with an entirely new script reality for the characters.
- This pregnant teenager, Juno, is super articulate, unashamed, and filled with a sense of wonder about her pregnancy
- This high school cheerleader is not a bully, but Juno’s best friend and is there to help support her through the pregnancy
- The child’s father is Juno’s boyfriend—he is not a womanizer, abusive or uncaring; he was actually seduced by Juno and is gentle and there to help
- Juno’s parents, rather than being angry or absent, were resigned and amused
An overhauling of assumptions can turn something as dated and limiting as the teen-pregnancy drama into something revelatory and empowering.
Ask yourself “what would a guy do?” and then elevate that masculine activity in a way that remains true to your female lead.
4. Keep your character active to avoid being written off as "soft"
One of the biggest criticisms for female-driven projects, says Alessandra, centers on activity. Screenwriters frequently create rich, layered female characters, but then utilize her skills and flaws to move the story in a passive, rather than active way. Frequently, producers will write a screenplay off as “soft” if the female protagonist is enlisting everyone else’s help to achieve her goals. As students (all but two of whom were female) at the IFP workshop went around the room sharing their loglines, Alessandra pointed out how nearly all of these loglines had undermined their protagonists by having them think, feel, plan or delegate their way through conflict. Here is an example of the same logline framed both passively and actively:
“Soft” Logline: in order to get information, she manipulates a key character into sharing the information
“Active” Logline: in order to get information, she breaks into the office and steals files from computer
Alessandra recommends asking yourself “what would a guy do?” and then elevating that masculine activity in a way that remains true to your female lead. Take, for example, a standard scenario common to the female experience, that we consistently see manhandled on screen: sexual harassment, the outcome of which usually involves winning over a someone’s heart. Now apply the “what would a guy do?” suggestion to the same scenario and watch the stakes change: In the pilot episode of ABC’s Agent Carter, a grotesque diner patron sexually harasses a waitress while female lead Peggy Carter looks on. Instead of enlisting the help of others to protect her friend, Carter ensures the slime ball never sets foot in the diner again by threatening him with a fork to his brachial artery. What’s at stake here is friendship and female solidarity, not romance.
This scene, tale as old as time, has pulled its conflict from the everyday obstacles a woman faces—but it usually finds its resolution in some dashing man coming to the rescue using his brawn. In this case, it's the leading lady; Carter has put herself out on the limb for the sake of her friend, and the what she gets in return is friendship. Rather than change your character’s approach to the dilemma into something more “feminine,” recycle the tired actions usually relegated to male leads in Hollywood features for your heroine.
Alessandra noted that the most interesting characters we see on screen these days are those that utilize both types of action: the cerebral and collaborative, as well as the active and independent. If you look at the more popular male superheroes, they tend to be thinking and feeling and planning and delegating as much as they are kicking down doors as a means to achieve their goals.
The more popular male superheroes tend to be thinking and feeling and planning and delegating as much as they are kicking down doors.
5. Use traditionally “female” settings or situations to create original scenes and set-pieces
Asking yourself “What would a guy do?” doesn’t have to be the end all be all answer to creating a more active, strong female character. Alessandra recommends taking advantage of traditionally female settings or scenarios, such as a kitchen or a bridal fitting, but using it to create activity in an interesting, genre-worthy way. Most unexpectedly, an example of such a set piece came from Quentin Tarantino’s film, Kill Bill Vol. 1 when Venita Green (Vivica A. Fox) and The Bride (Uma Thurman) use plates, furniture, and lamps as weapons in a showdown that takes place in Green’s living room. Presumably, the retired assassin is now a stay-at-home mom, and when confronted by The Bride in her own living room, out of necessity, lamps act like lead pipes and butcher knives as Samurai swords.
What are your best tips for writing a strong female lead? What pitfalls do you think most writers tend to fall into? Let us know in the comments.