Barbara Jwanouskos has a lot of character.
Made ya look!
I want to take a second here to talk about character descriptions.
I’m about to finish my second week of my last year of grad school (seriously, for probably ever because I just don’t know how much more school I can take). Did I mention that I’m teaching writing for the first time? Oh, right… I did.
Anyway, I already happened on an anomaly in teaching – one of those strange, elusive opportunities to truly put forward something I believe in, that possibly could change the face of the world as we know it. And all it has to do with is character descriptions. You know,
NORMA DESMOND, a little woman with a curious style and a
great sense of high voltage about her.
Character descriptions! It’s so seemingly innocuous, right? Other than being pithy and evocative, what’s there to learn about character descriptions?
Because let’s say you’re writing a movie and you decide that your protagonist is a dude. But not just any dude, your guy is a man’s man. He’s a bad boy. He has this deeply troubled past, but really he’s just trying to do the right thing, but he’s kinda jaded because he lives a life surrounded by corruption. And he has everything. He’s the Guy Who Has Everything. Well, almost everything…
Then, you’re like, “Well, surely he’s missing something!” Cuz, hello, conflict! And you think, “I know! A girl!” So, you write this badass meet-cute where he like pulls up on his motorcycle and says, “Hey, babe, what’s your name?” And that’s when the spotlight’s on her in your script…
JANEY JANERSON, 20, young, blond, and attractive
And, honestly, I feel like that’s giving it too much credit, because not to toot my own horn here, but I still feel like that’s a bit more tongue-in-cheek (and therefore better) than
JANEY JANERSON, 20, a young, beautiful woman
That’s it. That’s ALLLLL Janey is and all she’ll ever be, is a “young, beautiful woman”. Well, #sorrynotsorry to get all feminist on you (if that’s what this is) but “young, beautiful woman” just is not good enough. It doesn’t cut it. And let me tell you why.
“Young, beautiful woman” has no specificity. I have no clue what a “young, beautiful woman” looks like – I’m mean, beauty’s in the eye of the beholder, right? So subjective… When you toss around a description like “young, beautiful woman” it means you haven’t done your homework as a writer. As a casting director, when do I know I’ve found the right person to play this part? As an actor, how the hell am I supposed to play “young” and “beautiful” and “woman”? Is there a way to do that? (I mean, part of me is literally asking here because I’ve acted so few times in my life with a script that I honestly don’t know).
Character descriptions are opportunities for us to learn about the world of the story. If there’s nothing specific about them, we’re just looking at a blank room with a couple squiggles in it. Boring! I mean, look at how great Norma Desmond’s description is. It doesn’t even say anything about being a “starlet” or being “past her prime” or any other ways we could describe who Norma is. It gives us something really fun to play with “a curious style” and “a great sense of high voltage to her”. Wow! Don’t you want to meet this person?? I do! And Gloria Swanson delivers, doesn’t she. Just think of how much we’d lose if Norma Desmond was just a “young, beautiful woman”. Gloria would just have had to wing it (which, don’t get me wrong, may not have been a bad thing).
But, it gets to why it irks me so much about this whole character description thing. It’s cheating. It’s cheating to say “young, beautiful woman” since we have no way of really knowing what that means. But that’s not even the thing! “Young, beautiful woman”? Well, she’s essentially just a prop. She’s just there as something to achieve. I mean think about The Guy Who Has Everything. Everything but a Young, Beautiful Woman. Doesn’t it seem like a status thing? Like the guy won’t be legitimized until he’s gotten her? Does this Young, Beautiful Woman even have a journey? Does she? ANSWER ME!!
I just feel kinda wrong and dirty even thinking about it…
And so, it’s kinda harsh, but I just write “No” in my red pen and cross it out “young, beautiful woman” when I see it. I say, “give me a personality trait and a role or profession”. I mean really, this isn’t even a feminist thing; it’s just storytelling common courtesy. Am I right?mI get this with all sorts of characters. I get “man” and “husband” and “mother” and “mentor”. The list goes on. (And on…) It doesn’t have to just be a character describing a woman. It’s the same issue – a lack of specificity. I frankly don’t care about characters that lack specificity. Literally. Like, I literally am like (shrug) “so what?” You’ve already given me free reign to stop being interested and stop tracking this person. She just doesn’t have anything about her you can hold onto or relate to. Or see. How ‘bout see. I can’t see her in my mind’s eye AT ALL. It’s this abstract concept, really.
I guess, here’s the feminist thing…
FEEL FREE TO SKIP THE NEXT COUPLE OF PARAGRAPHS IF YOU GET SQUEAMISH ABOUT THE USE OF THE WORD “FEMINISM”.
I really don’t have to give this note about the characters identified as male all too often. It’s a depressing amount less than how often I have to circle the girls, ladies and women of the stories and just say “no”. Is it because the female characters in our stories are just ancillary? Are they just there to help or hurt our usually male protagonist? I don’t know. That seems to be what we want to go to when we’re given a pen.
It makes me think of this other thing. The other thing was that there are only three women out of about 15 actors in a collaborative class we have here called Theater Lab. And granted, it’s really skewed partially because many of the other women in this particular class of actors are taking Theater Lab next semester. So, fair enough. But, really, three? THREE?!?? How does that even happen? Is it because the only part for a woman to play in this sweeping epic is Young, Beautiful Woman? I don’t know… just observing…
It’s the first time I felt like I had a real opportunity to talk about how we can turn those tides by creating all these fantastic roles for women in them where they get to be more than Young, Beautiful Women. Maybe they’ll get to be engineers! (I was really fixated on using “engineers” as an example of a profession with my students today, so might as well stick with it). I wasn’t sure if I’d alienate them though. I didn’t want to go all full feminism ahead on them. They’re already stressed about having to write loglines. How much pressure would that be? So, I stuck with explaining it by saying that “it lacks specificity”. Maybe I missed my moment… (I don’t know, I’ll probably still sneak it in… muahahaha!)
As the writer of a piece you have such tremendous power and opportunity. We waste it sometimes, or take it for granted. Even if there’s only one part in your piece that you’re imagining that a woman would play, could we just start with the character descriptions? Could we just figure out more creative and less boring ways of describing our female characters?
I’d like that. I know at least three out of 15 actors in our Theater Lab class who’d like that too.
And maybe then I’d start writing “Yes!” in my red pen when I come to the character description. Because it kinda is exciting when you get to meet a really cool character, isn’t it?