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Introduce your female characters boldy, not badly

Updated: Sep 16, 2021

Emma Raducanu, 18, tennis player walks out onto the court for the final of the US Open.

Emma Raducanu, 18, brunette, sporting a bright red top and blue tennis skirt, bounces onto the court for the final of the US Open. If you take a closer look at her, you'll see there is a steely, almost possessed, look in her eyes. She has come to win.

Character descriptions matter. The introduction of a female character matters. What the writer lets us into matters.

After reading numerous scripts, I believe writers could be more committed and meticulous when introducing their female characters. Too often it feels like a writer throws a couple of adjectives into the air, before running away screaming 'If you really want to know about her, keep reading. Leave me alone!'

This is a shame because character intros are a golden opportunity to help the reader onto the same page as the writer. All those hours writers spend devising characters, perfecting dialogue, and battling mental demons, and the moment they get a chance to introduce their characters they duck out. Settle for something half-arsed, non-committal, vague... a description that doesn't really single their character out from any other woman in the same age bracket.

Yes, it is scary and difficult, to reduce complicated characters down to a few physical and personality traits, but it is worth the effort to get right. I can tell you as a script reader, that a couple of words such as 'neglected wife' or 'bitter sibling' or 'never content' – go a very long way in making sure I get the tone of your main character immediately.

Writers are often advised to show don't tell, but whilst this should be applied to the dialogue, I think character intros can operate outside this rule. If you have a clever way of bringing your character to life – tell tell tell!

I am sure there are contradictory rules written by mostly white men about what a character description should include, but the white man I agree with is Alaska screenwriter Scott Myers. He says we need to 'dispense with this nonsense about a rule restricting what you can write when introducing a character.' Tell them Scott.

Instead of being fearful about what we can say in a character's description, I think we should go for it. This is an opportunity to create energy, intrigue and an understanding between writer and reader.

A good example of this is the description of Lisbeth in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo:

Lisbeth Salander walks in: A small, pale, anorexic-looking waif in her early 20’s. Short black-dyed hair — pierced eyelid — tattoo of a wasp on her neck; probably several more under her black leather jacket — black t-shirt, black jeans, black Caterpillar boots … This isn’t punk fashion. This is someone saying, Stay the fuck away from me.

Would this description hold anyone back from reading more of this script – because say, it's too long? Of course not. It's a great intro into the world of a fascinating character.

The blank page is where we hold all the cards. I think we should be committing to our characters from the start with bold, interesting and clear descriptions of who they are – or at least who they start off being.

One of the most well-known and frustrating crimes against female characters is when male writers (well mostly male writers) use only physical traits to describe them. Men tend to be brave, or strong, maybe even shy – women are blond, tall, dressed in a skirt etc. So whilst I have just pooh-poohed rules, one piece of simple guidance is to have personal and physical descriptions for both your female and male characters. There you go - I've fixed the problem in a jiffy - and you get that one for free. And another top tip here - women don't always have to be beautiful. (seriously)

Their vibe

Aline Brosh-McKenna (writer of The Devil Wears Prada and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) advises writers to think about a character's vibe when introducing characters. What type of vibe do they have – relaxed, uptight, determined, nervous, cool, tired – these are all effective words that reveal character instantly. McKenna also suggests writers use this prompt when writing a character introduction: “She's the kind of person who...”

So let's have a go. “She is the kind of person who...”

… Would kick a puppy if she knew no-one was watching.

… Believes she can always judge a book by its cover.

… Is happy to disappear into a crowd, but always ends up standing out in one.

I don't know about you, but I am already interested in finding out more about these female characters. Characters that don't even exist yet. Words used in the right way, at the right time, are immensely powerful. Words make us interested. Words can start the brain whirring and the imagination flowing. Yes your imagination, but just as importantly, those of the people who are reading.

So when it comes to introducing your female and male characters, do something my former flatmate told me to do when I'd stand awkwardly in the kitchen waiting for her to guess what I wanted: 'Use your words!' People aren't psychic, help them.

Hopefully, the momentum of a well introduced character will stick with you through all the tough times that are to come. Start the way you wish to carry on, with intriguing and believable female characters that nobody with an imagination, and a budget, could possibly ignore.

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