Higher Education: Young, Beautiful Woman

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? 

A LOT!

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?

Advertisements

9 comments on “Higher Education: Young, Beautiful Woman

  1. Thank you. Just, thank you. I’m glad you’re teaching, and writing. Please keep it up, for all our sakes. If you’ve got any plays for “small, high voltage women with a curious sense of style”, please throw ’em at me: val@pustheatre.org

  2. ThtrLvr says:

    I appreciate what you wrote here. The thing is, I am actually in favor of no character descriptions, other than age, gender, nationality or accent (if relevant). Surely the “character” is evident in the text of the play, so why is it necessary to include a character description? And all characters, if they are human, are multifaceted beings and will be perceived differently by different people.

    • bjwany says:

      ThtrLvr, thanks for reading and for your comments!

      To clarify, I’m actually talking about screenwriting here, which I know is a bit of a tangent on a theatre blog, but that is currently what I’m teaching and where I’m reading the character descriptions described above. I actually agree with you when it comes to plays. I try to include only the absolutely essential details because I agree that “character” can be discovered from the text of the play.

      I don’t believe that is the case with screenwriting and a script that will ultimately go into a production to be made into a film. In screenwriting, it’s all about what you see and hear. I think there are certainly examples of good films that have been made where you can check out the script and you see that it might just say the character’s name and give the action for this particular character. But a lot of times with these scripts, you’re dealing with movies where they’ve already picked who’s going to fill that role ahead of time.

      This is isn’t the best example in the world, because by no means do I think it’s high art, but look at “Bridesmaids,” which while uber commercial, gets credit in my mind for taking that raunchy humor and developing it with a female cast. And it’s not the first to do so, but I need something to point to… Since Kristen Wiig was already going to be playing that role, Wiig and Mumolo could just describe their lead protagonist as “ANNIE WALKER, mid thirties” and get on with the action she was taking. I feel like this is a different thing because that movie was already talked about being made with Wiig starring in the title role. I wonder how the script would have been different if Wiig wasn’t slated to play the protagonist. Would we have more a visceral description that revealed to us something about Annie Walker? Hopefully!

      I think for me it it just seems like a tremendous opportunity for the writer to tell an even better story. If you know, as the writer, that your character is quirky and offbeat, or whatever, then why not write that into the script so we can see it? Surely there must be some quality you’d be able to squeeze out other than “young and beautiful”. And again, I’m talking screenwriting here.

      Anyway, just some thoughts… You’ve gotten me thinking more about what my playwriting corollary would be (or if there is one), however… I’ll have to explore!

      • ThtrLvr says:

        Thank you, Barbara, for responding to my comment! And thanks for clarifying that your blog is discussing the writing of screenplays, as distinct from stage plays.

        Some questions came up for me after having read your response. I am sharing them here not for the sake of being argumentative, but only because they came to mind and I decided to put them out as food for thought.

        When I read your statement that film is “all about what you see and hear”, the first thought that came to my mind is that theatre is also experienced through what is seen and heard, despite its being a different medium. Reading your post informs me that apparently, there is a convention in writing screenplays in which character descriptions based on external perceptions are expected. Though it may be standard practice, I still see no actual reason for such descriptions. I realize that a screenplay is written differently than a stage play (screenplays with camera shots in mind), but I don’t see any difference in terms of the writing of a character’s words and actions. Therefore, why are such character descriptions actually more necessary in screenplays than stage plays? Just raising the question.

        If a character is judged by the writer as being “quirky and offbeat”, for example, possibly that character says and does things which most people would consider to be unconventional. But I would think that those words and actions would be written into the screenplay. So why include a character description? I can see the necessity of including a description for something like a particular physical mannerism or condition, (e.g. a head-twitch, or “walks with a limp”), or a way of dressing, because they describe specifics which are act-able or do-able. Other than that, I think character descriptions tend to be reductive and don’t seem to invite insight.

        Although, I really do appreciate what you’re advocating in your blog, I’m putting out the question, (for stage as well as screenplay writing in general, regardless of a character’s gender): If such illustrative character descriptions are the norm, it’s intriguing to imagine what might occur as a result of approaching characters in a less superficially classified, less confining, more open-ended way. For me, that would really be less boring!

  3. Hi Barbara, I like your point that the words we use to introduce our female characters are probably evidence of a deeper problem, that of the female characters being thought of as secondary or ancillary. As such, I’m not sure that just writing more expressive or precise character descriptions will be the solution. I think of how the now-discredited “manic pixie dream girl” character comes about when writers, seeking to make the character more than just a “young, beautiful woman,” graft some superficially quirky traits onto her (hip taste in music, etc.), but don’t bother to give her a journey or an arc of her own. Also, while I appreciate unique character descriptions that make me nod and laugh (for a great example, see Megan Cohen’s character descriptions in the soon-to-be-published JOE RYAN), I agree with ThtrLvr that more minimalistic character descriptions are OK too. I’ve read many plays where the characters’ dialogue and actions are vivid and unique, but the character list reads merely “JANEY JANERSON, 20. MARY JANERSON, her mother, 50.”

    • bjwany says:

      Marissa, thanks for your words!

      And to clarify, I’m talking about character descriptions in screenwriting rather than playwriting, because I do agree with you and ThtrLvr about minimalistic character descriptions, but I also think playwriting is a different ball game with a different set of rules than film (while many may overlap).

      I absolutely agree with your point about grafting on hip traits onto a stale character description. I think that’s what I’m trying to teach my students when they write something like “young, beautiful woman” initially for their female characters. There’s no hint of arc, journey or movement in that description. I have no sense of where this character might be going because I don’t have any clue about who she is. The bigger problem is when you write “young, beautiful woman” in a screenplay, I don’t know what I’m seeing. It’s generic. What is it about this character that you want me to see? I’m not saying that everything needs to be completely transparent from the get go, that there’s no room for ambiguity in character, identity, etc., but when I first see this person, what does she look like? What am I noticing about her? That she’s anxious? Flighty? Bold? What?

      I’m not offering revised character descriptions as a catch-all solution to creating better roles for women in TV and film (or plays for that matter, but like I said, I prefer minimalistic character descriptions in that medium as well). I’m just saying that maybe it’s a start. And that possibly our stories will be better if we just take a second to revise how we’re introducing our female characters to the camera/audience.

      Besides, this is really a much much larger issue, that I feel like my suggestion is more of a “low hanging fruit” type of approach. To be honest, my outlook about the whole thing is rather tongue-in-cheek, I mean is a revised character description going to change the world in actuality? No, probably not. But the revised character description that serves to tell a brilliant story and create a fantastic role that some woman out there kills and folks start seeing and talking about the film because it rocks so hard, is a little bit more of where I’m getting at.

      It’s like, well, you have a character there, why not color her in a little more? Seems like a missed opportunity to me (from both a story perspective and a feminist perspective).

  4. Thanks for the thought-provoking article, Barbara! Here’s my two cents.
    You shared your opinions on two issues regarding script writing. I agree with you on one of them; and on the other, we part ways.
    On the issue of disparity between the development of male and female characters, I totally agree with, and share, your frustration. Obviously, as a male actor, it doesn’t directly affect me as it does you and other female actors seeking good roles; however, as an audience member, it does affect me to waste time and money on so many plays and films that have fully developed male characters rubbing elbows in the same fictional world as one-dimensional female characters. This loop-sided approach means the women in the story – and all the scenes they inhabit – quickly become predictable, and therefore, unbelievable. This is not just a problem for feminists; it’s a problem for anyone who buys a ticket with hard-earned money expecting an interesting story in return. However…
    Regarding the use of character description in scripts, I agree with Marissa and ThtrLvr: character description works best when it is short, and limited to only what the audience can see and hear. I felt ThtrLvr’s list was pretty complete (although I would add to that what the character wears, since that is very telling). We learn about people in films and stage plays the same way we learn about them in real life: by their words and actions (and I feel, if anything, this applies more to screenplays than stage scripts).
    I agree that your suggestion of including a character’s personality trait does makes sense (providing it is something concrete the audience can see or hear); but why on earth would a character description include her profession, like engineer? If the character’s opening scene shows her to be an engineer (she studies a blueprint at a construction site, she’s asked her profession at a party, etc.), than it’s at best redundant. But worst, if the first scene that reveals her to be an engineer, via action or dialogue, doesn’t appear until, say, page 25, then the person reading the script is pretty much experiencing a different story than the audience that watches the completed work on the screen.
    You said you find a brief character description boring; but whenever I read a description that expounds on a character’s supposed ‘complexities’, I immediately think: “If the script writer lacks confidence that his characters’ words and actions will convey all this later on, why should I waste my time reading the rest of his potentially amateurish script?”
    In your response to Marrisa, I believe you suggested “flighty” and “bold” as potential words that would help you relate to a character. But what good does it do to describe a character as “bold”? What if a woman kicks a would-be mugger in the crotch, but cowers every time her mother unfairly berates her? What if a man pounds his fist on his boss’ desk when he demands a huge raise, but can only manage to stutter “I love you” after his estranged daughter has already stormed out of the room? Which of these two characters would earn the preemptive adjective “bold”? Both? Neither?
    Would another actor have read the sparse character description in the “Bridesmaids” script, and performed the part differently than Kristen Wiig? Yes. Would another actor have read the insightful, poetic character description in the “Sunset Boulevard” script, and performed the part differently than Gloria Swanson? Yes. They’re actors, after all!

  5. […] Her “calls it as see sees it” voice is still developing in her blog, but with “Young Beautiful Woman” she had a bit of a breakthrough, giving us a story both personally meaningful to her while […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s