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What if this character was a woman? Making important writing choices


Sigourney Weaver as Lt. Ellen Ripley -
a character originally conceived of as a man

“Write what you know” is a frequently repeated, important early lesson for novice writers. On the face of it, it seems like basic common sense; you can’t write about what you don’t know. You can’t write something that feels true, if you don’t know the truth of it yourself.

On a deeper level, it really means – write what you understand, write what you feel. Don’t just write about your life (that’s an easy trap to fall into and very difficult to make work as a young writer), but write about your experience through characters you create. Characters who are part you, part other people you know and part creation/reaction/relation to the world.

I wrote a short play once (it never really worked as a short; it might be a full length one day) about three people penning a speech for the commander of the first manned mission to Mars. The three characters were the White House Communications Director, a Media Consultant for NASA and a Pulitzer Prize Winner. At this point in time, I am none of those things.

But the story of Lords of the World (which I later wrote a full-length feature film treatment for) was about communication and being able to articulate things that are bigger than yourself. Sure, it was partly my attempt to homage Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, The American President), but it was at its core about discussion and argument and passion for the written word. These things I know about. These things I can articulate.

One of the characters was from the Middle East and one of the characters was a woman. Am I also neither of those things, but as a writer, you learn to put yourself into other people’s shoes. I have read a lot about Middle East politics and culture in the last decade. And most of my closest friends are women. And one of the most important decisions I make when writing is how far away from myself I make my characters.

What if this character wants to murder her parents? What changes if this character is middle-aged and not early 20s? What if this character was a woman instead of a man?

The first question suggests a story in and of itself. And I wrote that play, Sibling Loyalty, and it was well received – not only because it felt like a truthful conversation between a brother and sister, not just because it balanaces humour and drama, but also because it approaches mental illness honestly.

I was approached by an audience member after the recent production of Sibling Loyalty and asked if I had any family members dealing with mental illness. My first question was whether he meant I’d done a  good or bad job with the story. Luckily, he meant that it felt real enough to him – who has had to deal with mental illness in his own life. Unfortunately for him, it struck very close to the bone. As a writer, I was proud to have made that connection.

I have friends who deal with depression and I have seen how some deal both on and off their medications. These relationships are part of my experience, so I “write what I know”, even if it’s not always about me.

The second question – the question of what age a character can be – mostly suggests subtle changes to dialogue and touchstones and worldview. It’s not that you wouldn’t ever have a middle-aged character referencing Facebook or Twitter, but you should be aware of how they perceive social networking differently to a Gen-Y character who has basically had the internet all their lives.

One particular short play I wrote, Like a House on Fire, suggests in the character notes that the character is in her mid-40s. These were both important decisions to be made – the age of the character and their gender. A monologue about a pyromaniac to me suggests a male character first and foremost – and I began sketching this character as a man in my mind. I even wrote the first line of dialogue thinking the character would be a man:

“I set fire to a brothel once.”

Think about how different even the delivery of that line would be when said by a man and a woman. What’s the first thing it suggests about a man who has set fire to a brothel? What does it say if a woman does exactly the same thing? They might be very similar people, but the impressions it leaves an audience with would be entirely different.

When I started writing the character as a woman, I probably fell on my default “every character I write is my age” – until I start to think critically about how different ages affect the story. With this play, I decided quite quickly the story of a female pyromaniac who is frank, forthright, crude and sexual would be far more interesting as a woman in her 40s than a young woman in her 20s.

As part of the Three Women project I am developing for February 2012 – three female monologues and a fourth devised piece with the three protagonists of the monologues interacting – the actor playing the pyromaniac is in her mid-30s. And I have recently been approached with the suggestion of having the role played by a woman in her mid-20s. Personally, I’d be fascinated to see it played all three ways – just to see how it works from different perspectives, with different actors. With the script unchanged.

Just to reiterate – I am not a woman. Nor am I a pyromaniac.

The third question – a woman instead of a man – I find can mean either a profound change to the text or mean next-to-nothing at all, beyond changing the character name and the pronouns. I think a frank, forthright, crude and sexual male pyromaniac in “Like a House on Fire” tells an entirely different story – even if the words are the same.

In my full-length play, The Twelfth of Never, I noticed the large cast was weighted toward male characters and before redrafting wondered how the dynamics would change if one of the male characters was female. So I changed one of the characters from male to female by essentially changing the name and the pronouns. And that was it. Case closed. To me, men and women are not necessarily that different to each other. And in this case, I wanted to prove it to myself by not agonising over differences but by embracing similarities.

The biggest change was how that female character now related to the other characters in the cast. Her relationship to nearly every other character was different, even though the only thing I changed was the character’s gender. I think this is very telling, but completely beyond the scope of this blog post.

Very early on, when I was still studying writing at TAFE, one of the early lessons I learned was about challenging the status quo – questioning things that were the obvious/expected about my writing and trying something unexpected/different. 

Or, “Write what you know” but don’t make all the characters yourself. If you’re a white, middle-class, male writer, don’t make your lead characters white, middle-class and male by default.

Make them Middle Eastern. Make them female. Or make them an alien from another planet, as in my play It’s Not the End of the World. Just write from experience. Write who you know as much what you know.

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And speaking of writing female characters – and by extension, representation of women in the media – check out this extended trailer for the documentary Miss Representation.







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And speaking of writing for women, my play Poems a Dead Boy Wrote opens at Short & Sweet Melbourne tomorrow night at Chapel Off Chapel in Melbourne. Book now. 2nd, 4th, 8th, 10th Nov at 8pm, 6th Nov at 3pm.

Comments

Anonymous said…
Spooky timing because I watched Miss Representation on Sunday night!

I loved this post. I don't comment enough on your blog, but I LOVED this.
Alicia Foodycat said…
Very interesting. I've read a few books written by men where I've felt the female characters just didn't work as women and I have wondered if men have the same experience sometimes when they read men written by women?
Keith Gow said…
I can only go by what other people have told me - and I particularly take solace in what female actors have told me, that I write interesting characters for women and they want to work with me.

But I've certainly read female writers who have written unconvincing male characters and vice versa. Not every writer can write everything. But I find it a bit troubling that male writers avoid writing for women - or think they can't because of that old cliche that men can't possibly ever understand women. Because that's just crap.

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