The two most important aspects of screenwriting have always been story and character. Obviously you need a great story, one that not only grabs the audience’s attention but is able to keep that attention. To have a believable, moving story arc that is not cliché and predictable. But just as important as the story is the characters that inhabit said story. If you don’t care about the characters, you aren’t going to care about the story. The characters have to be fully developed, complex people, and they need the ability to change, because if your characters are the same at the end of the movie as they are at the beginning of the movie, you did something wrong as a writer.
I’ve always felt that screenwriters don’t get enough credit for their talent, and deserve as much recognition as the director. Of course, like virtually every other position in the film industry, screenwriters are an overwhelming male-dominated group, although the rise of independent film has given more and more women the opportunities to bring their stories to the screen. In the past year alone women have made wonderful films like Winter’s Bone, It’s Complicated, and Cold Souls. Still, it’s mostly men who mostly make movies about men.
Which is certainly not the same as saying that all of these men write one-dimensional female characters who serve as sex symbols as damsels in distress. For all of the movies like Transformers and Road Trip, and even the embarrassing romantic comedies that so often get dissected on sites like this, there are male writers who create fascinating and complicated female characters that are just as capable, or just as treacherous, as the men they share the screen with. As a strong proponent of giving artists credit for the good they do, I’d like to expound upon five male writers who have created some of the most memorable female characters in recent years.
- Charlie Kaufman: I would be tempted to start every list involving the words “great screenwriters” with Charlie Kaufman, and with good reason. He has written some of the best movies of the last decade, including Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Synecdoche, New York. Kaufman’s movies are clearly about men, the issues men face, and the fear that they deal with on a daily basis. But what makes his screenplays so incredible are the women who surround those men. Kaufman’s protagonists tend to be terrified of women, finding the women in their lives unpredictable, aggressive and intimidating. These women are never “types” or clichés. Clementine, the love interest in Eternal Sunshine, is one of the most fascinating characters on screen of any gender, and it is Kaufman’s incredible talent at creating realistic women that make his films so memorable.
- Noah Baumbach: What makes Noah Baumbach such an excellent writer is that he isn’t concerned with whether or not the audience likes the characters. Margot, the protagonist of Margot at the Wedding, is perhaps the most unlikable main characters in movie history. Baumbach is brutally honest, and while his characters can be horrible to each other, they are also fascinating. Their biting wit and shameless cruelty is at times difficult to watch, but impossible to tear your eyes away from. That said, he has also written incredibly sympathetic characters, including Florence, Roger Greenberg’s love interest in this year’s Greenberg.
- Quentin Tarantino: Who would have guessed that the man who rose to fame with Reservoir Dogs would make a name for himself writing some of the most badass women on the silver screen? Tarantino’s women are fearless and peerless, kicking all kinds of butt and never backing down from a challenge, but also surprisingly complex. I didn’t think that he could top The Bride in Kill Bill, but then he did last year with Shoshanna, one of the protagonists of Inglourious Basterds. Bent on revenge, Shoshanna is an almost terrifying figure, never second guessing herself in her plan to take down the Nazi party on her own.
- Mike Leigh: Easily jumping from comedy to drama, Leigh is one of the few male filmmakers working today who writes mostly scripts with female protagonists. His stories tend to be very simple and low-concept, but what makes them so beautiful are the incredibly real people that populate the world of his stories. The two best examples of this are Vera Drake, about a woman who provides backdoor abortions in 1950s London, and Happy Go Lucky, about an eternally ebullient woman living in modern day London. Both of the protagonists of his story are incredibly sympathetic, realistic women that instantly take root in the hearts of the viewer.
- Todd Haynes: Drawing on his experience as a homosexual, Haynes tends to write scripts about people who are repressed and held back from their true desires. Not surprisingly, two of his best scripts are about women living in the suburbs, stifled by the lives they feel trapped in. Far from Heaven is set in the 1950s, and Safe is set in the modern day, but both are about miserable women who try to find happiness by breaking the boundaries of society. Haynes’ attention to detail in creating these female characters make his artistic, almost-surreal films seem so real.
Sadly, these men are the exception, and none of them work within the studio system, choosing to work with independent studios that allow them more creative freedom. But there are great writers, working in Hollywood, who just need a push in the right direction. I have no doubt there are some writers who, if they put some effort into it, could create awesome female characters. Below is a list of five writers whom I love, but who I wish would focus a little more on the women they write.
- Edgar Wright: Wright is one of the funniest filmmakers today, and I love his films Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. But sadly, the women in these films are peripheral characters at best. To be fair, both of these films are about the relationships between men, especially Hot Fuzz, and the male protagonists are incredibly complex, in addition to being very funny. I’m sure he could do just as well with female characters, although his upcoming Scott Pilgrim vs. The World does not look like a step in the right direction.
- Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor: To be fair, these guys don’t write any good characters. Neveldine and Taylor are responsible for some of the most awesome action sequences in recent years in films like Crank and Gamer, and there films are much more about the action than the story or characters. But even by low standards, the women characters in their film are embarrassing. The love interests in the film are used purely as props and sex symbols, and the protagonist of Crank essentially rapes his girlfriend in the middle of Chinatown. Not exactly progressive.
- Akiva Goldsman: What happened to this guy? I loved Practical Magic growing up, but lately his female characters have been less and less interesting and more and more one-dimensional. A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man are both about complex male characters overcoming incredible odds. And both characters have wives who are unwavering in their support and stand teary-eyed off to the side. It’s just lazy writing, and I know Goldsman can do better.
- Aaron Sorkin: It pains me to put Sorkin on this list, because he can and does write great women. C.J. Craig on The West Wing is one of my favorite TV characters of all time. But in his films, the female characters are few and far between. Charlie Wilson’s War had lots of eye candy but very few interesting women, and those were in small roles. The Social Network seems like more of the same, as I’ve seen more female butts than female faces in the trailers.
- Christopher Nolan: This is a case where it’s clear Nolan isn’t intentionally trying to discriminate against women in his films, he just doesn’t think about it. From his perspective, it doesn’t really matter that there’s only one important female character in his Batman films, because the story he’s telling isn’t about women, it’s about manly men doing manly stuff and dealing with the consequences of it. In most of his films, the women are almost exclusively defined by their relationships to men, not because Nolan hates women, but because he’s writing stories about men and he doesn’t really think about it. But it does matter, and it would make such a difference if the man who made some of the most popular films in the world could develop more interesting women who are of greater significance to the stories he’s telling. Is that too much to ask?