MARIE, Early-20s, Attractive But Doesn’t Know It
by Matt Latham
My eyes have shimmied through 140 scripts for the Austin Film Festival screenplay competition this year, and I have caught onto an undeniable fact: most screenwriters don’t know how to describe women.
Take any 5 descriptions of female characters from different screenplays, and you’ll most likely get something like this:
LISA, 30s, beautiful.
ASHLEY, late-20s, sexy and knows how to work it.
JOAN, 40s, well put together, attractive for her age.
KIMMY, 15, cute and spunky.
MARIE, early-20s, attractive but doesn’t know it.
The other wonderful quirk of screenplays is that you can assume that these are meant to be white women, because if they were black, they would be described as “African-American, attractive,” and if they were Hispanic, they’d be “a sexy, hot-tempered Latina.” Generally speaking, screenplays written for American audiences do not feature Asian people, with the exception of the old, wise Asian man, so I’m afraid I can’t tell you whether Asian women would be generally be described as “attractive,” or whether they’d be described as “cute,” but it’d probably be one of those two words (or… *shudder*… “exotic”).
Male characters are more likely to get a wider breadth of descriptions, though it’s still rare to find interesting or unique descriptions. Typical descriptions are: handsome; square-jawed; scrawny; a giant wall of muscles; scruffy; bearded; crazy-eyed; pot-bellied, and so on. There’s slightly more character to their character. There’s still the assumption that they’re supposed to be white if their ethnicity is not described.
For the screenplay competition, we are not given any information about the writer, so I can’t say for sure whether the scripts I read are written by men or women–though I can usually make a good guess based on the writing style and story content. I can say, however, that most professional screenwriters in America (according to the Writer’s Guild) are white dudes. I can definitely tell you that most directors in America are white dudes (something like 85%?).
I do think that that is a factor in why there’s not a lot of diversity in American film, but I also want to say that bad writing is something that crosses gender and ethnicity lines. A bland description is a bland description, and these bland descriptions are usually just a part of a generally bland screenplay. These writers are just writing the movies that they’ve seen before, and most of those movies that they’ve seen before are about attractive white people.
I zeroed in on character descriptions because I noticed that there was one word used over and over again to describe female characters: attractive. This word is so meaningless as a one-word descriptor in a screenplay that it’s worse than not having any description at all (no description would be perfectly fine, if instead we get a sense of her character from her actions and dialogue). It’s so meaningless that it doesn’t even serve to distinguish between female characters within the same screenplay, because you’ll have a scene where GINGER, 20s, nerdy but attractive, is talking to POLLY, 20s, punky but attractive, about what they’re going to do with the body of ROSE, 20s, dead but attractive.
The word “attractive” gives me nothing as a reader. What does that word conjure up for you? I’m not sure if it’s just me, but as I’ve been reading these scripts, I get the feeling that the word “attractive” is a signifier that this is a tall woman that we should care about, while “cute” is a short woman that we should care about, and “hot” is the woman that everybody wants to see naked, but we don’t really have to care about her. She’s the one who would die in a horror movie.
I also often come across descriptions that we wouldn’t be able to see on screen, such as: “This is HELEN, late 20s, scorching hot. She’s George’s half-sister and engaged to Marta’s wealthy father.” If this information is revealed through action and/or dialogue later in the script, then this description becomes redundant. If it’s not revealed through action and/or dialogue, then it’s information that the audience watching the film would not get. Sometimes the character is meant to be such a caricature that the audience should be able to get upon first glance exactly what this character’s deal is, but “George’s half-sister” or something like “Gregory’s fiance” is not the kind of information you get upon first glance of a character.
So, one of the many things that I’ve learned from reading these amateur scripts is to think more about how to describe characters. I’ll write a few posts from time to time about the things I’ve learned from reading screenplays, good and bad.