I've been reading play submissions for a company I'm not involved with. When you open your (free) submissions to the world - you get a million and one replies. (Some times, you get forty plays from the same fellow in Australia.) And when that happens, you call upon your friends to help you sort through the good, the mediocre-but-potentially-good, the bad, and the "I think I should call this guy because I'm pretty sure he's about to hurt someone." (Hint: If I can count on more than one hand how many times you use the word "rape" in a punchline, I am worried about you.)
It has come to my attention, reading all these other submissions, that there is some basic advice that a lot of playwrights are missing out on.
The most basic of which being things like, say, if your character is Muslim, you don't have to name him Mohammed and have 'Muslim' be his single defining characteristic. See, if you're going to be one of the only playwrights submitting a play with a minority in the story, because non-white people are INCREDIBLY under-represented,* maybe don't dwindle them to a stereotype?
*Yes, even if you think your characters can be any skin color... check again.
Okay, so that one seems pretty obvious, right? And it is true that I only had ONE submission with an obviously offensive racist stereotype in it. That mistake is not made very often. I can relax.
What I really, really, can't relax about is 98% of the female characters I've read so far. (I have SO many submissions for Some Lady Parts. Katrina even wrote me back. I fangirled a little bit. At my desk. It was awkward.)
in the character description:
- Describe her without using the word "boobs", "breasts", "hot", or "buxom." Honestly, I had no idea how important a person's chest size was to their character until I started reading play submissions.
- Try to avoid describing her as "The ____ type." Women fit into more categories than you might think, just like there are more jobs open to us than there were in the 50s, and describing someone as a "type" is not only unimaginative, it's assuming that I know what "type" you're talking about. Unless you're writing pornography, people -both men and women- have deeper characters than "the girl next door type" or "the butch type."
- She can be older than 25, and she can be less attractive than the most attractive woman you can imagine. Pro tip: If she's not hot, and if she's not nice, that doesn't automatically make her a lesbian, no matter what the 90s movies tell you.
- You can write scenes about lesbians, as long as they don't have sexy time solely because it is hot for a male audience, (again, that's porn you're thinking of), and as long as none of them play softball.
- The bottom line is: Try describing someone who isn't your dream girlfriend. That's right... someone who you don't necessarily want to have sex with, who is also a fully functional human being with feelings and ideas. If this is really difficult for you, might I suggest you go out and find some female friends. Real friends, that you talk to and exchange ideas with, who you don't want to have sex with. Get to know women past the size of their boobs, and maybe you'll be able to write them better.
When she talks (cuz I hope she talks):
- Maybe she doesn't have to talk about her man, her men, her ex, her exes, her boss, or her sex life. At least, not for the whole scene.
- She might have a job. That would be cool. She can talk about that!
- If you read through your scene and find out that everything she says is offering something to the male lead, ("Can I get you a coke?" "Want to have sex?" "Shall I pick up a sandwich on my way home?") you might have a problem.
- Avoid these pitfalls: "I am leaving you for no reason," "I am leaving you because the sex is bad," "I am leaving you for another man," "I am leaving you for another woman," "I am leaving you for totally unmotivated reasons I just wanted to give the protagonist something to be angsty about." Hint: they are all the same thing.
- She never has to talk about her boobs. I am around women a lot, and they talk about their own boobs about 1% of the time. It happens, especially in theater dressing rooms, but it is uninteresting in a play.
- Women drink more than red wine. Just sayin. That one is weird.
If all of this sounds way too difficult, maybe just leave women out of your scene. (And once you're done writing it, look back and see if gender-swapping one of the characters really changes the scene all that much. TAH DAH!) And for the women who have trouble writing women, my advice would be to put the romcoms away for a little while and watch a lot more TV and Movies written by other women. Broaden your media experience. Suggestions to follow...
Once you've mastered this female character, you get extra points if you have TWO women like that in your scene - but that must be a really advanced technique, because I have never, ever seen it.* Have you?
Now, you might be thinking, geez, lady, calm down. It's not that bad. You're just reading bad material. Not EVERYONE writes that way. This is all really obvious stuff that doesn't really need to be reiterated anymore.
But you (and by "you" I assume I'm talking to a young playwright who has already written 40 pages of their play without taking any of the above advice) try opening 50 plays that start like this....
It happened first in 2004 when I was in someone's living room for a high school cast party, and I thought I was about to watch some really lame "Dude Where's My Car" type movie, but I wound up laughing my butt off. The movie was called Mean Girls, and when I wondered why I loved it so much, everyone would tell me "because Tina Fey wrote it." That seemed to explain everything - a really intelligent, hilarious women wrote it, so THAT'S why I can relate to the female characters on the screen. THAT'S why they women are not just comic stereotypes, but honest to goodness real people as well. THAT'S why I don't have that girl in the back of my brain poking me and telling me I should feel insulted and ashamed for laughing. Because a WOMAN wrote the script.
It's been a decade since Mean Girls (holy crap I'm old) and we have, actually, made more progress. We've not only got things on television like Parks and Rec, and The Mindy Project, but I also just discovered Broad City, which - get this - is about two women who aren't good people. (Mindy and Leslie are good people with hubris*, Abbi and Ilana are just mostly infuriating people.) That fact alone kept me watching. That, and all the cameos of incredible women in comedy ... Amy Poehler, Amy Sedaris, omg is that Janeane Garofalo? Yes. The pot-smoking slacker hetero jerk character is not just for James Franco anymore. Yeay!
The idea that women can write is a good one. The idea that material written by women doesn't even have to be the very best thing ever, it just has to be better than the load of crap already out there, is encouraging.
*"hubris" actually means egoism, so I probably actually mean "hamartia," which is the Greek word for "tragic flaw" that theatre dorks learn about in play analysis... but not only does "hamartia" sound totally pretentious, but it also sounds like an STD. I didn't want to be confusing.
And it's not just happening in comedy!
The world is round, and that is nice.