In all of my scripts so far, my lead characters inevitably have all started as an ethnically ambiguous male in his mid twenties. You could attribute that to the fact that I am indeed, a 25 year old male and that I write from my own point of view.
But maybe, just maybe, the real explanation is that I tend to write the kind of lead characters I grew up watching in countless movies and TV episodes. Usually a white guy in his twenties. If the character is a teenager, he’s played by an actor in his twenties, and if the character or actor are in their thirties, they still look like they’re in their twenties.
I was born and bred in Guatemala so being white is the one thing I don’t share with the ‘Hollywood Hero’. Going through my past scripts I realized that my leads usually do stick to the two parameters that I match (male in his twenties), but the ethnicity is usually left unspecified, which is lame… very lame.
Keep in mind, I didn’t do this consciously. I just wrote whatever I felt like writing, which is what artists are supposed to do. Except, that what I felt like writing’ is awfully biased by the media I’ve been consuming for the last quarter of a century.
I know several women that have done amazing things and whose stories and character are way more interesting than that of those women in tight, shiny, black suits that seem to be the standard female action hero now. Not that I have a problem with Scarlett Johanson in black leather, but it’s extremely limiting to only write the type of characters that I’ve seen before. And if everyone is doing that, it means that we’re going to end up with the same boring characters over and over.
Here are the two obstacles I went through. Fortunately, they weren’t hard to overcome once I figured them out, and I even found that I became a better writer because of it.
We need something that sells
When I started writing, I thought that if the movies I saw had a certain type of hero, it must be for a good reason. It’s easy to rationalize using young white men as leads. There’s the never ending pressure to make something that ‘sells’ and most movies out there that were sold at some point, do have white (though that’s changing a bit) and hot young men and women. Usually the men ‘save’ the women in one way or another, because nobody wants to see a tomboy!… unless it’s for comical relief, in which case tomboys are interchangeable for a stock flamboyant gay guy.
Here’s the definition of the Me-Push-Pull-You from Roger Ebert’s Glossary of Terms for the Cinema:
Me-Push-Pull-You: Literal translation or the body language in many Hollywood action pictures, in which, as the hero and heroine flee from danger, the man takes the woman’s hand and pulls her along meekly behind him. This convention is so strong that it is seen even in films where it makes no sense, such as “Sheena,” in which a jungle-woman who has ruled the savage beasts since infancy is pulled along by a TV anchorman fresh off the plane.
So how did I overcome this obstacle?
Simple observation. If you’re afraid of writing a female, black or any other unusual lead, I got good news. If the movie is good, it doesn’t matter if the main characters are men or women, or even Na’vis! Gone with the wind is the box office record holder when you adjust for inflation. It’s lead by a woman and it was made in 1939! Also, say what you want about James Cameron, but he writes strong women (Terminator, Titanic) and he knows how to make a few bucks at the box office.
Simply don’t worry about it. If you want to write female characters just write them as real as you can. Don’t fall for the trap of writing a damsel in distress or a Lara Croft. Not that there’s something wrong with those characters, but if that’s the only way you see women, you have bigger problems than your writing.
It’s all in your mind
Then there’s the fact that we’ve already been influenced by the hundreds and hundreds of movies and TV episodes we’ve seen. This was the toughest obstacle for me because it’s so deeply ingrained in the subconscious that it makes hundreds of tiny decisions without us even realizing.
When I started developing Bionique, I broke the story, mapped all the characters, the plot, etc. Everything looked great so I started writing the actual script.
One day something brought my attention to the subject of women in the industry. I don’t remember exactly what it was, it could’ve been Jane Espenson on a writer’s podcast or a tweet by Felicia Day (along with Tina Fey, three of my favorite women writers, ahem, I mean, three of my favorite writers period. They just happen to be women). Whatever it was, it made me curious about the balance of my show’s characters, which I never thought about before.
Both my parents work in education and human rights back in Guatemala. Though not as bad as other places, the culture there is still a little behind the US in terms of equality. My parents have seen lots and lots of cases of unfair, abusive and sometimes downright criminal treatment directed mostly at our indigenous population and towards women. Since my parents always made me and my siblings aware of these iniquities I thought it would translate to me being pretty fair and equal with my characters. This is what came up when I went through my script and did the math:
- All my characters except one were ‘race ambiguous’ but had white last names.
- 6 out of the 8 characters were men. The other two were hot girls in their early twenties and weren’t the most important characters.
- 12 out of the 15 total characters were men.
- 6 out of the 8 most important characters were in their early to mid twenties. The other two were guys in their mid forties.
What?! My show’s characters were not balanced at all! Especially the men/women ratio.
After realizing I was a character sexist and racist I decided to fix it right there and then. If my subconscious wasn’t gonna do it as I wrote, I was gonna have to do it consciously after the fact. I was able to put some characters through a sex reassignment surgery and others through the reverse of whatever surgeries Michael Jackson had.
This whole process made me realize something that I think made me a better writer. There are several characters that could easily be a man or a woman without changing the plot at all, I just wrote them as men out of habit on the first pass. But sometimes just changing their gender or ethnicity gave them an extra dimension that they didn’t have before. It made me relate differently to them. It’s hard to explain, but it made the show feel richer and more real.
Currently, I’m writing my next movie, an action sci-fi film about a Physicist who loses his family and finds the chance of reuniting with them by creating a portal to an alternate universe where they’re still alive. The characters were more balanced this time but I still wrote the lead as a guy without thinking about it.
A few days ago, I helped a friend of mine with her acting reel. I rewrote a scene from the movie so she could act the lead role which made me conscious about the subject again. Would the movie be better if the main character was a woman? The more I thought about it the more it made sense. At least for this particular movie, I think it’ll make the character more relatable. Women do have a different bond with their children than men, and I think it’d be really interesting to explore that bond in this movie.
As producers of media we have a great power, and like Spider-Man’s uncle Ben said: ‘With great power, comes great responsibility’. It might seem like writing characters more equally won’t make much of a difference, but it makes a huge difference for of those who have been underrepresented. Not to mention, that it’ll make you a better writer as well.
I’m not saying that all your lead characters have to be women, black, old, etc. But picking your characters’ gender and ethnicity consciously instead of using the first ones that pop in your head from your social conditioning will ultimately make your script deeper and richer.
Currently I’m seeking funds for Bionique through Kickstarter. We have some awesome rewards like visits to the set, flights on the water jetpack and the chance of getting killed in the show !
Check it out by clicking here. Tweet it or share it on Facebook, or even better, pledge and get an awesome reward!