Thursday, February 10, 2011

Women's roles and writing them (if you're not a woman)

I get good response from women actors about my writing, especially when writing female characters. I've had women who said they didn't believe a man wrote women's voices so well, Kate Mulgrew of Star Trek stood up for me against producers who wanted to change a screenplay and many others.

And the best complement I think I ever had on writing was from a woman, who simply said of an episode of a series, "It's so Jim".

Okay, so I'm bragging a bit, because, like all writers (or at least most), I feel that I'm simply faking it and soon, they will discover that I have no ability whatsoever. And I think that comes from an insecurity that itself comes from my childhood.

I was watching Colin Firth yesterday talking about his life and career and he mentioned his parents moved around a lot and the consequences it had on him. I immediately identified as my father was nomadic, we moved at least 15 times before he actually settled into a home of his own.

And what happens with that, at least for me, was a feeling of insecurity as well as having to reinvent myself with every move. Sometimes I would enter a new school halfway through or even a few weeks later than start date. It also turned me into an outsider,  as I never knew how long it would be before we moved again so I rarely made friends.

But outsider is good for a writer. Because you spend half your life watching other people and using that craft to make your characters real.

But writing for women was often filled with cliches at the beginning of my career. In fact it stayed until after my Ghostkeeper film.

What's the thing about my writing, in the case of women characters.

They say the characters are often strong and self reliant, confident and focused. Really. And I suppose they are. But I have a secret, and I rarely tell them that because it might spoil their performances. And while I wish I could say it came from my own abilities and insight, I can't.

I learned it all from who else -- a woman.

It happened when I was trying to get an actor, Saul Rubinek, to be in a film I had written. I was at  his house as we discussed the story. His wife Kate Lynch, happened to sit in one day, she had read the screenplay and offered her thoughts. Kate is smart and insightful.

At one point, she said she would like to play the main character's friend, which had been written for a male supporting actor. She liked the dialog. I wasn't crazy about that for several reasons, the least of which meant rewriting it for a woman.

Kate said not to rewrite it, just leave the dialog as it is.

But I couldn't, after all it changes when you make a man's part a woman's. Kate suggested we read it, which we did. And surprisingly, it seemed fine. In fact it seemed better than I expected.

Up till then, whenever I wrote a woman's part I tried to imagine how women think and what they would say. Most of the times it was cliched and not really believable.

The lesson here was simple. Kate's role was stronger and more confident because she was reading a man's dialog. It worked for all three of us because it was real, because it was strong and firm and many of those stubborn male traits.

But it also made the woman's part stronger because I was essentially writing a man's part, only this time for a woman.

Ever since then, I wrote women's parts with the same attitude and strength and thus created strong female roles that still continue to get me attention.

Is this right, you might ask? Is this unfair, or taking advantage, or suggesting that women are meek and mild. Not at all, it's just how I write women's parts, and from the reactions, they like it. I've told some women about it and they mostly laugh, adding that it's time their dialog was beefed up.

And in the end, all that matters is to create believable parts for actors of both sexes and while it's not everybody's method, it works for me.

(Mon: Wrapping up Ghostkeeper)

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