Writing the Female Character

Over the past year or so, I’ve been going through some old stories that I wrote during middle and high school.Leia-princess-leia-organa-solo-skywalker-34233178-288-288

Often I did not write stories with girls. In the beginning, it was because they were icky. I wrote stories about guy friends hanging out and getting into hijinks or I copied what I saw in video games or on TV. On the rare occasion that I did write a story with a girl, they were a plot device, a trickster trying to lead my heroes down the wrong path.

Later on, I strayed away from females characters because of a fear of mine. I’m a man. What if I can’t write girls right? Is there some quality to them that might be beyond my grasp?

To further elaborate on this, I’d like to bring up J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. She’s a female writer writing from the perspective of a male character. For the first several books, Harry felt like a guy I could know. But in Harry Potter and the Halfblood Prince, there was this moment when Harry’s character first became infatuated with Ron’s sister, Ginny.

“It was as though something large and scaly erupted into life in Harry’s stomach, clawing at his insides….”

The entire description ripped me out of Harry Potter’s vibrant world. I saw the author’s words on page and felt a little revolted at this description of the teenage male’s sexual urges. I cringed every time I came across any descriptions of Harry’s urges. It wasn’t authentic to the experience.

I didn’t want female readers to have that kind of disconnect with anything that I wrote.

To help me get over my fear, I paid attention to the portrayal of women in movies and television shows. I also paid attention to what characters women said felt real to them. One name that popped up a lot as I did some of my preliminary research was Joss Whedon. he is praised for his female characters, however I deliberately made an effort to not watch anything by him. I focused more on what the average writer was putting on the screen for us all to see.

In two back-to-back sports movies that I watched (Miracle/Warrior), the wife of the coach/athlete filled the same role. She was there to support her husband when he failed and she was there to stand as an obstacle to his goals. She was there to remind the audience that the main character had a family to go back to. The wives in these movies were background noise. They weren’t fully realized people. The men were the main attraction.

So after viewing those movies, I thought about television shows or movies where a woman wasn’t in the background and was my favorite character. This was an entertaining and somewhat difficult exercise.

In my first draft of the list, my favorite female characters were all villains.

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Katy Bates in Misery and

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Estelle Louise Fletcher in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I’m a sucker for great villains.

Next I made a list with women who weren’t so evil. I came up with Lindsey from Freaks and Geeks, Jessica Chastain in The Help, Naomie Harris in 28 Days Later. These were characters that I could sympathize with. As I did these exercises, I came to the realization that I had been a complete idiot in the way I went about writing the other gender. I treated them as if women had this alien quality that put them out of my reach. I overthought this process, much like I do everything else.

The female lens is obviously not the same as the male one. Women have different expectations in life than men. Those expectations have an impact on the molding of their personality.

A few months ago,  I had drafted out a story about a romance between a king and a queen for a screenwriting class. I knew I could write the king so I focused entirely on the queen and what went through her head. I spent twice as much time building her life experiences and her reactions to them. This was a detriment to the other characters.

I handed twenty pages of script in to my professor. This was the intro for a feature length that I’m still working on now. I used the queen for five or six pages. My professor e-mailed me back and urged me to use the queen more because she was by far my strongest character. He was a male professor so his opinion didn’t put me at ease. I needed more assurance that this character would not lead to a disconnect with female characters.

So I came up with an elaborate plot. I had a friend who’s a self-proclaimed feminist. She read lots of books so she knew her way around a story. So I asked her for help with my character. I told her I had no idea where I was going with my queen character. This was a lie. I had already come up with her personality. I gave her the scenario and asked her how she thought a female character in the middle ages would act when given the same scenario. And as it turns out, she described a character nearly identical to my own. I hope that I’m on the right track.

I think to write the authentic female voice, you have to abolish the idea of a strong female character.The term is taken too literally. I’ve seen so much media with kick ass one-dimensional female characters. Their hook is that these girls can get down and dirty just like any guy. You want your female character to come off as human and vulnerable as your male characters, not infinitely perfect in everyway.

Too many writers see their female characters as serving a purpose toward the story rather than allowing those female characters to organically influence the events. This is why we see so many bland subplot romances. The writer knows they want the hero to have a girl and get her in the end. The woman is not given much room to grow. She ends up as a contrast to the main character’s personality in order to maximize conflict and make the relationship seem impossible. After the pair hit it off, they have a misunderstanding over something trivial and then she forgives him. The woman is there to be earned. An issue that I see too often is that the girl is made into the goal rather than the actual relationship.

I don’t hold the opinion that all female characters should be positive role models. During the time that I spent reading feminist blogs on female representation, I’d see a lot of complaints on negative portrayal of women. There are some horrible women out there. You can’t focus solely on the negative, but you can’t ignore that either. Some of my favorite characters are the scum of the earth and that’s why I love them.

Everything I’ve said could be completely wrong. I’m still working out the kinks in my writing theories. I hope to make what was my biggest weakness as a writer (other than starting and not finishing things), into my greatest strength.

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The “Bad” Finale

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Criticism can be a meaningless gesture. There are no perfect creations out there. There are flaws in the design of even the most intricately crafted man-made works. Flaws do not make a creation worthless. Being the guy who nitpicks everything is a good way to have people ignore what you have to say. I’m guilty of being that guy more than I’d like to admit. I didn’t go into this wanting to hate it. I wanted to be awed and inspired to work harder. I’d like to take this time to point out a few flaws in Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad finale.

The Breaking Bad finale has been critically acclaimed, some have even touted it the most satisfying series finale of all time. AMC is happy due to the huge ratings increase towards the end. Bryan Cranston is satisfied. Vince Gilligan feels he and the crew did the best job they could with “Felina”.

So then how does one begin to suggest the idea that it wasn’t good? What is the criteria? I can only say that it didn’t resonate with me.

When the credits rolled, I shook my head. Where was the awe? The show ended far too neat. Walter White scratched and clawed his way through five seasons of opposition. His survival was due to his cunning and luck. But in the finale, Walt easily takes care of all his problems. The finale is Wal crossing off a checklist of things that he needs to do before he dies. He wants closure on Grey Matter. He gets it. He wants closure with Skylar. He gets it. He wants to see Walt Jr one last time. He sees him. He wants to kill Jack and his gang. He easily accomplishes this. They even let him park his car right where his machine gun can blow them all away. The only hiccup came when Jesse refused to kill him. Walt died shortly after that.

I was astounded to find that I was very alone in this criticism of the finale. All the reviews I read praised the show for ending so neatly. Many declared it to be one of the best television finales of all time. The closest I found to negative criticism was an article where a reviewer suggested the writers went easy on people who supported Walt. The finale went too easy on its audience.

It was so safe. That finale was written by someone who sat back for weeks and watched every controversial television series finale made. The Breaking Bad finale was a nice gift-wrapped box of closure. I didn’t want that. I wanted Walter’s plans to go horribly wrong like they did in “Ozymandias”. I wanted to see more pain and suffering. I know that sounds bad. I didn’t want blood, I wanted an ending fitting for Breaking Bad. I’d like to compare this episode to the previous season’s finale, “Face-off”. I was out of my seat. That final shot with the Lily of the Valley plant. Oh man. That’s the awe I wanted from this finale.

“Felina” doesn’t hit as hard as other episodes because it focuses more on the fates of characters that we barely know; The Grey Matter couple, Uncle Jack and goons, and Lydia. We don’t know them as well as Skylar, Marie, and Walt Jr. None of them are formidable foes for Walt. He’s smarter than all of them. I don’t care too much about him getting the best of them. This may not be a fault with the storytelling. They had only eight episodes to take us from Hank on a toilet to the death of Walt. Maybe with more time, these characters could have went in other places.

On a more personal note, Skylar and Jesse both escaping with their lives didn’t sit right with me. For as much as you can blame Walt for his ego-driven power trip, these two share a lot of the blame. They could have stopped Walt so many times. Especially Skylar.

I know that she is a “victim” for a majority of the show, but as it goes on, she becomes just as bad as Walt. How can she tell Walt not to hand himself over to the police so he can protect the family? It was at this moment that I thought Skylar’s fate was sealed. She would either die and rot in jail for Walt’s crimes. I would have preferred the latter. We never got a callback to Ted Beneke in the end either. Could we not see him testifying against her? Instead she is handed a get out of jail free card from Walt as he confesses to doing everything for himself.

That revelation is a very odd one. We’ve seen Walt sacrifice so much for his family. He was willing to go to jail for them to spare Hank. He is also selfish. I wonder why Gilligan included that line. Are we supposed to take that as the final word on Walt’s actions? It was all for himself? Or are we to believe that he didn’t want his final meeting with Skylar to end in a fight? Did he lie here to go out on peaceful terms with his wife?

Jesse living is a loose end. He has a criminal record and he’s a known accomplice of Heisenberg’s. He has to reconnect with Brock at some point in the future. The police have to be looking for him too. Was he caught after speeding off screaming like a mad man? Does he have any money left? There’s no Saul to connect Jesse with the vacuum man. How does he get to where he wants to? And I found him nigh insufferable in the second half of the final season. I don’t quite get his arc.

He’s a fuck up who gets deeper into crime than he expected. Rather than leave as the violence escalates, he chooses to stay. Then he’s given a final chance to leave, he chooses to get revenge. This results in the death of many people. He is then allowed to escape and move on to better things as Gilligan put it in his “Felina” script. Was I supposed to feel sorry for him?

The flash forwards earlier in the season hurt this finale. They bottle-necked the potential of the ending. Gilligan had to do cover all his tracks and ensure that all plot points did not contradict those scenes. There’s a scene in the finale of Walter leaving a watch behind. It’s included only because the watch would have created a continuity issue. I wish we didn’t get those flash forwards. They were fun for speculating over, but they damaged the show. This same problem occurred three seasons earlier with the teddy bear flash forwards. Again, fun to speculate over, but not the best direction for the show to have gone.

The most puzzling part of the finale for me was the end of Walt’s character arc. Let’s take a look at his final moment.

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His final expression is one of faint satisfaction.

So in the end, Walt got to feel alive. He doesn’t regret the wreckage left behind by his ego-storm. So he was right. He was right in refusing the money of Grey Matter back in season one. A disgraced unhappy high school teacher managed to end his life completely satisfied. He took a death sentence and conjured up the best years of his life. If he settled and took a payout, he may have died amongst his friends and family, but he would have been unhappy. If he regretted all that he did in the end, I could understand the intention of the story.

Be wary of doing what feels best for you, it will not end well.

But here it does end well for Walter White. He dies next to his most beloved creation. Is Breaking Bad a cautionary tale of what it takes to achieve real happiness?

I still applaud everyone who worked on this show. It was a grand adventure even the end left something to be desired.

Other than the hair stylist. How many bald people were on this show? I hope that person never work on a television show again.