NOW LET’S TALK A LITTLE BIT ABOUT WRITING “STRONG” FEMALE/POC CHARACTERS
Wow, has it really been over six months since I wrote something in this space? I hadn’t even realized. Apparently, neither had you, since not a damn person mentioned it to me. I’m aloof and you don’t give a shit, so I’ll now write thousands of words into a vacuum. The Internet!
We badly need to discuss what it means to write “strong” characters that are female or POC [or LGBTQ or disabled or basically the rest of humanity (and beyond!), but let’s hold our focus here for now] that aren’t straight white dudes. Because some of you are just getting it the all fuck wrong, and it’s leading to some REALLY shitty writing and some even worse ideas about what our entertainment should be.
“But Geoff,” you might be inclined to ask if you can’t or won’t just take a couple minutes to read what I’m about to spend my time writing,”aren’t YOU just a straight white dude? What could you possibly have to add to this discussion that would even matter?” Great question! And here’s the simple answer: I’m a writer, and though I have many weaknesses in that regard, I’m pretty fucking good with character. And while I’m not personally inclined to tell women or POC or anyone who’s not me how to feel, process or write about their personal/unique experiences, I can, in fact, be of help in understanding what DOESN’T work when constructing a character and a philosophy that MAY help you avoid some pitfalls of crap writing.
First of all, let me link to a piece of comically bad writing. Bite the bullet here for a minute and read just this very first section about all that’s wrong with KINGSMAN: http://www.pajiba.com/seriously_random_lists/5-perfectly-enjoyable-movies-almost-ruined-by-wtf-elements.php#.VmHG9VcxquU.twitter
On the surface it might seem ridiculous to do a breakdown of what can be learned from a person who wrote a wrongheaded takedown piece about a movie she hadn’t seen. But what I’m getting at is this: it’s *exactly* this kind of empty-headedness that underscores the problem we have with writing nonwhite and non-male characters. And that problem is this: we don’t understand what “strong” means when it comes to these characters in screenplays.
Look, if you didn’t like KINGSMAN, that’s fine; it also doesn’t remotely matter for the purposes of this dissection. I loved it; that doesn’t matter either. This isn’t a discussion about reviewing the movie critically. Hell, it’s not even about the Pajiba article linked above. But we are going to use it to illustrate a point. Because in this piece, the author claimed the following:
“So the secretly old-moneyed white kid gets to become a good guy because of nepotism, and the self-made minority billionaire who wants to end global warming and employs a handicapped woman of color is the bad guy?”
In case you haven’t seen KINGSMAN, here are the four characters the author is talking about:
–Eggsy: A teenager who’s gotten into some legal trouble for some slightly-more-than-petty crimes and is recruited by a secret spy agency; played by a white British actor.
–Gazelle: The athletic and deadly right-hand henchwoman of the main villain; played by an Algerian-French actress.
–Valentine: A mulitbillionaire entrepreneur and the main villain; played by a Black American actor.
And if you still haven’t seen KINGSMAN, continue at your own peril because I’m going to discuss specific details and the end of the movie. If you do have to skip, here’s a non-spoiler summary: pretty much everything the writer said about the movie in that sentence is wrong.
First of all, Eggsy isn’t “secretly old-moneyed” or “old-moneyed” in any way in any sense of the word. When we meet him, he’s a toddler, and his secret spy father has just been killed on a mission. It looks like he’s growing up in a pleasant enough middle-class setting, but it’s just him and his mom in a small apartment. Fast forward to his teenage existence: he’s poor as shit and living under the dilapidated roof provided by his tortured mother at the hands of his physically abusive gangster stepfather. He’s committing petty crimes, and eventually he commits a felony by stealing a police car and crashing it. The first time he sees any money at all is when he’s recruited into The Kingsmen, the secret organization his father was a part of. But it’s not, at any point, HIS money…though he does have access to the gadgets it provides in the course of doing his job. And the only reason he’s getting a shot at said job is because his father’s former coworker/friend feels this might be Eggsy’s last shot at turning his life around, and it might be this guy’s last shot to pay Eggsy’s father back for saving his life. Which isn’t quite “nepotism”.
Second, Gazelle kicks all kinds of ass and is basically the reason that Valentine gets to implement his plan at all. She’s his bodyguard, enforcer, strategist and assassin. Oh, she’s also a double-amputee who has blades for legs. Like, actual blades that split people in actual half. So we’re talking about a brilliant woman who has not only overcome adversity and has elite talent in myriad skills but is also ultimately the key to a global takeover AND she gets all of the best action beats in the whole movie.
Third…yeah, Valentine is a minority billionaire who wants to end global warming. And he wants to end it by killing pretty much everyone in the world except himself and his rich white millionaire/billionaire, entertainment and politician friends. That’s why he’s the villain. He gives everyone in the world free phones with secret SIM cards in them that cause them to brutally murder each other. He’s not some fucking Al Gore-ish peacerider who’s trying to save humanity. He’s actually (almost, because his plan ultimately fails) history’s most prolific mass-murderer.
So what’s the point of me explaining all of this? Well, the smaller point is: don’t try to analytically write about a movie you haven’t fucking seen. And DEFINITELY don’t try to be the smarmy savior of all nonwhites and females in the course of being uninformed. Goddamn, I hate my fellow Liberals sometimes.
(I’d also like to take a moment here to tell you that everyone – LITERALLY everyone – who bought into Valentine’s scheme and came along for the ride is depicted as a complete bastard and ends up getting their head blown to smithereens in one hilariously satisfying sequence. The vast majority of these people are, as mentioned before, white.)
But the much, much, much bigger point here is this: THE BLACK GUY AND THE DISABLED WOMAN ARE THE MOST INTERESTING AND COMPLEX CHARACTERS IN THE MOVIE. And THAT’S what we should strive for when we write minority characters: complexity and interest. That’s what the “strong” in “strong characters” means.
Valentine – aside from being entertaining and often very funny – is a layered guy. I’m not sure that we learn anything about his life pre-billions, but it is made pretty clear that he built himself up and developed a real concern for the rest of the world. There’s a scene where he explains that he became VERY worried about the environment in general and climate change specifically. Despite all his money and influence and connections, however, no one seemed to give a damn, and no progress was ever made to reverse course. And it’s intimated that *this* is where he went from mogul to supervillain – he realized that humans are a virus, and climate change was the Earth’s way of expelling us. And he simply figured that he’s going to speed up the process.
So this isn’t just a faceless Bond antagonist who’s a challenge just because Roger Moore needed a challenge. This is a character with purpose and depth and a point of view that you can appreciate, if not wholly support. THOSE ARE QUALITIES OF A STRONG CHARACTER. And yes, there is a separate discussion to be had about Hollywood’s historical problem with villains who are also POC, but I challenge you to watch this movie and explain to me how Valentine is an example of such. In fact, I challenge you to convince me that he’s not the exact opposite of this problem.
But what I’m getting down to is this: we’re missing the message about writing stronger female and POC characters if we’re going to start knocking people for writing strong female and POC characters. And it’s not just in writing ABOUT film that this has become depressingly apparent – it’s happening in screenwriting too.
A lot of writers – especially well-intentioned white writers who simply want to do their small part to help the film industry creep towards inclusion and equality – get confused with the concept of “strong” characters. They hear the word but incorrectly believe it to mean “perfect” or “better than everyone else”. And that’s EXACTLY the place from whence we end up with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl and the Super Cool Girlfriendwife and the Magical Negro.
These writers think that when actresses lament the lack of strong roles for women, they’re asking for roles in which women are infallible heroes who do everything right and save the day and teach the menfolk a valuable lesson. When in actuality they’re asking for better than the Cardboard Cutout Lady relegated to Nagging Wife or Crazy Bitch or Golddigger. They’re asking for roles that exist in age brackets other than Precocious Child, Hot Young Love Interest and Quippy Grandmother.
These writers think that when actors and actresses lament the lack of strong roles for POC, they’re asking for roles in which they’re inordinately wise for no reason or seen as incapable of prejudice or malice. When in actuality they’re asking for better than to be The Diversity Hire relegated to First Horror Movie Death or The Token Sixth Friend or Gang Member or A Rich Person’s Clever Gardener. They’re asking for roles that allow them to portray interesting individuals that aren’t necessarily in service of their white counterparts.
Then these writers go and write scripts thinking that they have to be Racial and Gender Harmony’s White Knight, and we end up with scripts that are full of stock, one-dimensional characters with no personality and a shallow story that’s a boring testament to vanilla regression. And these scripts fucking suuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck. They’re trite and try-hard and everyone can see the put-on angst in every line: “I am so desperate to solve all the inequality in the world and here is how I’m going to prove that.”
Stop. Stop that. Fucking stop. Do not do that.
So how do we solve this problem? Well, part of this answer is simple, and it’s a whole ‘nother conversation, but it boils down to this: we need to include in the production process and produce more creative works from women and POC. They’re going to work from their point of view and they’re going to create the worlds they’ve experienced and populate them with the characters they know. And it’s fucking embarrassing not only that it still needs to be said, but that it’s almost 2016 and we’re still doing a shit job of it.
But what if you’re not a woman or a POC?
Look, I don’t have all the answers here, but I am damn sure of two things you can start doing right now that will help to combat the eventuality of having zero diversity or “diversity” that only exists in the academic sense and is insulting.
1) Avoid writing women and POC as though they’re fragile antiques that need to be protected at all costs. These characters – LIKE ALL CHARACTERS, FOR CHRIST’S SAKE – deserve to be written with respect and in the pursuit of the truth of the story you’re trying to tell. They don’t need to be (and almost always shouldn’t be) perfect or infallible. They absolutely need to be dynamic and intriguing and you need to write them in such a way that the audience understands who they are, where they’re coming from and why they’re doing what they do. They need to be relatable or, at the very least, worth grasping psychologically.
As a writer, you should already be constantly thinking about subverting convention and expectation in your scripts, or you’re going to write boring, cookie-cutter, unoriginal worthlessness anyway. But REALLY apply that to your characters, and constantly be auditing your own motivations for where you take them. This doesn’t have to be a complicated thing. It only really has to be a measure of awareness that you’re not giving a character the short shrift nor are you overcompensating for them.
And it all comes down to what we talked about before: depth and complexity – the emotional, psychological and practical facets and actions that make up the people (and sometimes non-people) who populate your stories. Treat ALL of your characters – protagonist or antagonist, major, minor and micro – like they’re living, breathing beings who have hopes and fears and histories and futures and whole lifetimes of experiences. You do that and no matter who you’re writing, your chances of committing horrible or even casual acts of racism or misogyny drop to near zero.
2) Go into the script you’re writing now or a script that you’ve written before and ask yourself: what if I made half of these characters either a woman or a POC? If I simply changed a couple of small details and didn’t just assume they were white or a guy, does it make my script appreciably different?
The answer, you’ll find FAR more often than not, is “no”. And if that’s the case with your script, the question then becomes…why the fuck not? What’s it going to hurt to change things up?
It might seem like a pointless thing, but trust me, it’s not. Your script is designed to paint a picture for the reader that they can play out in their head, right? Why not give them an excuse to see the universe you’re working in as a diverse and varied one? Obviously, this isn’t going to work with every single script; you can’t write BIG LOVE with a swath of minorities, and if you’re writing an Einstein biopic, you’re not going to portray him as a Latino woman. But for the everyday story that’s not leaning on that kind of specificity, you have the option to build your world however you like. So take the opportunity to paint us a picture that’s less…monochromatic. And has some vaginas on it.
Might seem meaningless in comparison, but it’s not. It’s purposeful and considered and could lead to purposeful consideration on down the line from producers and agents and casting directors if and when your movie actually gets made.
As per usual, what I’m asking you to do is just think. There’s a comfortable middle ground here between not giving a shit about anyone different from you and giving so many shits that you try to delete injustice from the entertainment industry. The latter is impossible and the former is just lazy.
But take this seriously. There’s a reason there’s a dearth of strong minority characters in popular media, and there’s a way to help from your end, in a small but real way, if you’re not a goddamned idiot about it.