The Woman in the Story

Throughout the pages of history, women have played important roles. The question is, though, what roles are they playing in the pages of your movie script? In my capacity as a professional consultant for stage and screen, I see no shortage of aspiring writers that continue to embrace time-worn clichés and stereotypes about female characters – the helpless victim, the clueless housewife, the tart with a heart, the spinster, the corporate bitch. Interestingly, it’s not just male authors that resort to the premise of Every Gal Is In Need of Rescue by a Big, Strong Guy. Nor does either gender always grasp the reality that not only do men and women speak in different voices but they also approach their dreams, fears and obstacles from completely different perspectives.

I was, thus, delighted to discover Helen Jacey’s The Woman in the Story, an outstanding resource for anyone looking to create compelling female characters that performers will want to play and that audiences will long remember.  Helen took time from her busy schedule across the pond as a screenwriter, author, story consultant and lecturer to chat about the book and her views on the female presence in modern cinema.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett


Let’s start out with some background about who you are, what you do, and why you love it.

I’ve been writing screenplays for ten years for many UK and European producers, which is both a job and a passion! Screenwriting – and more recently, fiction – is probably the most painful and the most enjoyable aspect of my working life. Creating a world, a character and a story, the original brain power behind what one hopes will be a great film, is incredibly challenging but never boring! I travel widely giving seminars on screenwriting, particularly my Writing the Heroine’s Story Seminar, being something of a self-professed expert on female characters. Meeting writers from all over the world, learning about their cultural experiences is constantly challenging and stimulating. I get enormous pleasure from supporting the creative process in others, from professional writers, to younger students who are beginning to think about their careers.

What were some of the books and films that influenced your early – or recent – outlook about life?

In my early teens, I was addicted to Hollywood musicals of the 40s – 42nd Street, Brigadoon, and classics such as Gone with the Wind and anything with Lana Turner in it, the Ellery Queen series – all of these had a massive impact on me. The glamour, the romanticism, the style of that era! On the other hand, Star Wars bored me! I must have been born in the wrong time.

It wasn’t until I got to university and I was introduced by a brilliant lecturer to feminist literary criticism that I had a big light bulb moment that women’s writing and films were different for a reason – we have different lives! I fell in love with the work of the women modernist poets – Gertrude Stein, HD, and Mina Loy. I began writing poetry as a stress-relieving hobby (which I still do to this day).  The work and life of Jean Rhys, particularly her novels written in the 30s and the work of Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison also had profound effects on me as writers. In terms of film, Antonia’s Line, Three Colours trilogy, The Godfather trilogy – to name a few – were all great inspirations early on and made me want to become a screenwriter.

Now, I’m very eclectic and will watch the latest HBO series with as much passion as a dark and compelling film like the brilliant Iranian A Separation. I definitely get bored more easily these days, and live to be surprised by stories, so I think stories from different cultures give more diversity. In terms of my outlook on life, well let’s say I’m still working on it! Balancing work-life balance is challenging for me as I’m something of a workaholic. My son has grown up, I’m happily married to an amazing man, yet I also feel I am still very much on the journey to finding myself and balance the need to achieve with the need to accept where I’m at.  I’d love to find the right book/guru/role model that really makes sense to where I’m at in my life right now. Suggestions?! Having said that, I have an incredible ‘e-penfriend’ in the US who I have never met but I am sure is a guardian angel for all the emotional support she’s given me!

Was writing your first career choice?

Being a writer was my first ambition, but either lack of confidence, lack of encouragement or just not feeling I had anything of value to say led me on another path for about a decade. Let’s just say the Internal Censor was alive and kicking. When I hit thirty, I was managing aid programs in Eastern Europe, driving down mine infested country tracks in Kosovo, or dealing with endless bureaucracy in Romania trying to close down orphanages and help impoverished Roma women keep their children. All of this was incredibly rewarding but I was feeling a little burnout and empty and something of a guilty single mom. I also felt the Muse was finally usurping the Censor, and with more confidence and a fertile imagination I finally jumped off the cliff to follow the real dream and give up the high adrenalin aid work. I wrote about it, though. It was The Artists Way by the super-inspirational Julia Cameron that helped me on my way in those early days. I embarked on an MA in Screenwriting and never looked back. What did hit me was giving up a well paid senior management position to become a relative nobody was ‘interesting’ but I have never looked back.

What was the inspiration for your new book and how did you go about researching the content?

When I started out as a writer, the big names in screenwriting books – Story, The Writer’s Journey  – were all really inspirational to me. But there was a big But. I was struck how nobody talked gender difference in these books, or the world of screenwriting and film in general. I was also struck by the fact that representation of women characters was evolving almost yearly, reflecting our rapidly changing society and the changes in men and women’s lives. One inspiration was the buzz of being a pioneer – I couldn’t believe that nobody had seen the changes and seen the lack of information for screenwriters about thinking female! So it dawned on me that being a woman, with background in working with so many women from different cultures, and making the transition to being a writer myself, made me the ideal candidate to write the book. Research consisted of watching a lot of films, reading a lot of female psychology books, studying women’s films over the past several decades and talking to writers at my seminars and lectures – learning from their understanding of female characters was truly amazing.

In the screenwriting books, the big implication is that a character is a character, and principles governing story and characterization are universal. Which is true – but when they leave out ways of being which we traditionally relate to women (and what we call ‘feminine’) then half the ‘universal’ is missing. The human condition also includes loving, nurturing, intimacy, affiliation, bonding, being in the moment, thinking with two sets of eyes (when you are caring for a child), passivity, vulnerability, dependency, healing and joy. If drama is supposed to reflect the human condition, then it’s not just about action, conflict, and learning to put the destructive ego aside; i.e., the traditional hero’s journey.  A true hero’s journey involves the processes that are based on the bonds of love and connection. I did basically find the screenwriting books only half the universal story and limiting to both male and female characters.

However, I started off with thinking about women. I’m moving onto how we write men now!

Do you feel it’s easier for a female to write in a masculine “voice” than it is for a male to emulate a female perspective?

A truly conscious writer, of either sex, can create men and women characters with the same level of sensitivity and perception. However, we tend to write what we know, or we write what we want to identify with, or when we are working out our deep issues about our own sex and the opposite in our work. I know women writers who deeply identify with men, and they write in traditionally male genres, and have a problem with women. Father’s daughters, if you like. Aspects of traditional femininity repel them, and they explore ‘being a woman’ issues in their work. They don’t like the limiting roles of women, or they’ve had issues in their mother/daughter relationships, and their female characters seem to be projections of that difficulty.

On the other hand, some male writers deeply identify with women on an unconscious level, and are really in touch with aspects of female identity and ways in which women deal with these. They can create very female-authentic work, if that is what a ‘feminine voice’ is. The big issue is placing your work in a male-dominated industry where people in power might not have the same attitudes and values to gender representation. The stereotype can be alive and kicking in the development process and it’s a writer’s job not to be complicit with some really backward assumptions or conservative agendas. Complicating all this is – what does the audience want? Does it want to see familiarity and reinforcement of mainstream values? That is a tough call when you are trying to get your work made and make a living.

What are some of the inherent differences in crafting plots wherein the core conflict is experienced by a female character as opposed to a male?

I’m not sure I believe there are inherent differences, but rather conventional storytelling differences which are a choice of the writer or filmmaking team. Unless you are writing sci-fi creating a utopian world, or indeed writing The Killing or The Bridge, it is still a temptation to give plot time to your female character dealing with internal conflicts about her identity as a woman. These can be as far ranging as maternal guilt, competing with men, needing love and approval, or idealization of men or mother/daughter issues. This is what I term ‘gender baggage’. Male characters have more narrative territory to roam and take far less gender baggage with them in terms of identity.

By your own definition, what makes a female character “memorable?”

A female character that is her own person, follows her own path, has a big personality and plenty of positive and negative traits – and charisma of course. A character that isn’t limited by predictable genre conventions, isn’t a victim for long, and if she is, she finally realizes that she has to take some responsibility for it. Unless, of course, she’s living under a repressive regime in which any rebellion will end up killing her, literally or psychologically. But the memorable heroine will take a chance.

Examples: Sarah Lund from The Killing, Kalinda from The Good Wife (I really like Diane, too), Sarah Connor from Terminator, Dora from Central Station, Marge from Fargo, Julia from Hideous Kinky, Kat from 10 Things I Hate About You, Heylia from Weeds, Samantha from Sex and the City, Miranda in The Devil Wears Prada (and Emily, her assistant) and Mattie from True Grit.  All of these are women/girls who are hard to forget.

In Martha Lauzen’s recent study, “The Celluloid Ceiling: Behind the Scenes Employment of Women on the Top 250 Films of 2011,” she cites that women comprise only 18 percent of directors, executive producers, writers, editors and cinematographers. What do you feel accounts for this gender disparity and what can be done to put more women at the helm of major productions?

I’d really like to see a breakdown of the caring responsibilities of that 18 percent. This is probably not going to make me very popular, but I truly believe that until women are not expected to be, or choose to be, the ones who put career second after children, an industry like film is going to see these kinds of statistics. Directing takes you away from home for long periods, and long days. Writing requires enormous amount of focus. Producing is probably easier to juggle, with a supportive family. Are women prepared to pay the price? Can they find the right support from their partners? Do they have the money to pay for the right childcare? Alternatively, they have to put careers on hold until things are easier to balance – at which point of course it might be harder to break in. What I really think needs to be done at the level of society is more support for working parents, more quality and affordable childcare, making it more acceptable for men to choose to be the stay at home parent, and making it easier for women to stay on the career path. Boys need positive role models of men caring for young children so it’s seen as a valid choice for their future families.

You’ve worked in the UK film industry for 10 years. How do you feel it differs from the U.S. in terms of opportunities and support for new screenwriters and filmmakers?

We have a small film industry, so to make a living here, radio, TV and advertising are probably more sensible options for writers to follow. There is virtually no spec market here for scripts, so we culturally have a bias towards adaptations or other proven source materials. Unless you are going to produce it yourself, a spec script remains a calling card. What I like about the U.S. is the sense that the story seems to be paramount, and if it’s brilliant, then who the writer is isn’t such an issue. A successful first time writer breaking through here in film tends to be when the writer has penned something very low budget that found a big audience, or has taken the indie writer/director path.

There has been a growing trend in movies to depict females acting as badly/raunchily/arrogantly as males. Do you feel that this is advancing the cause of women or actually setting us back?

I can’t see how it could set us back, as it’s clearly trying to rebalance the perennial problem of the sexual double standard. Unless we disapprove of this behavior in men – and we don’t , we actively celebrate it – keeping women as the sex which is virtuous is not only a myth, it’s a form of social control (as in the last few millennia and evident in some parts of the world today. No thanks…). In The Hangover being raunchy is actually celebrated by a ‘boys will be boys’ mentality – in other words, we endorse and love this behavior in men on a cultural level. Jack in Sideways is a bad boy but we love him. Why the same antics in a girl or woman receive widespread disapproval really fascinates me. Are we still so scared of female sexuality and freedom? I find it strange and scary that the concept of the ‘slut’ is still so prevalent.

Personally, I enjoy watching the ‘bad’ girl and I’m relieved that finally the audience is getting onscreen representations of ‘bad’ behavior.  In Bridesmaids the women were completely tame compared to the guys in The Hangover, and the heroine was still saved by a man!  Where was the nightmare of a husband that one of the bridesmaids ditched after a one-night with a toy-boy? Where was the sex and drugs so lauded in The Hangover?  But at least the film tried to give women a comedy where female friends bonded to have some fun on their terms. There is, I sense, a deeply pervasive fear of being a slut or the ‘bad girl’ or the Bad Mom, in American culture, which inhibits women and unfortunately is a factor in the ongoing sexual double standard in films and TV. This isn’t as strong in the UK – we have other issues to do with the female victim cliché or silly idiotic female characters or stereotypes.

If you were invited to remake any classic film and change the male lead to a female, what would it be and who would you cast in it?</b?

Some Like It Hot. Imagine two women musicians – let’s say a jazz singer and the saxophonist from a girls’ band in the form of Penelope Cruz and Charlize Theron, both capable of immense comedy and charisma, like Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis.

What are you working on now?

Creatively, I’m working with Emmy winning director Dearbhla Walsh on one of my original screenplays, a female led thriller.  I’ve been writing a contemporary Western set in Wyoming for an indie film company Duchy Parade. I’m also researching a new book for screenwriters, something – in this now oversaturated market –  that I really don’t think has been done before! And I have a novel – my first – on the slow back burner…

In conclusion, what’s your best advice to the next generation of screenwriters?

It’s a tough time so you have to stand out and keep the faith – both of which take hard work and positive energy! Develop a portfolio of different types of work – for web, for radio, for TV not just film. Platforms are changing and evolving. Remember your spec screenplay might be the thing that gets you noticed, an agent or a commission, not the thing that gets produced. Most importantly, enjoy the process, feed the well and don’t just be a screenwriter.


The Woman in the Story is available at as well as through