I’m Not There: How to Write a Good Female Character We Rarely See

I’m Not There is a somewhat experimental bio-pic of Bob Dylan written and directed by Todd Haynes, and featuring six different actors (including Heath Ledger and a much-discussed and brilliant performance by Cate Blanchett) playing various elements of the Dylan persona. Since the film is about Bob Dylan, and since all of the main characters are Bob Dylan, it doesn’t leave a lot of time to focus on other characters, including the women in his life.

And yet, the film manages to include women who are fully fleshed out, sympathetic, interesting characters, even though they don’t get a lot of screen time. First, Julianne Moore plays Alice Fabian, a Joan Baez type looking back on her folk music career, her work with Dylan and Dylan’s influence during a series of interviews for a documentary. She comes off as intelligent and sensitive, talking about both the cultural force and the person that she cared about.

More apparently, the sections of the film dealing with Dylan’s relationship and marriage included a few really solid scenes featuring Charlotte Gainsbourg as “Claire”, Dylan’s wife. Claire is an artist with a career of her own, but who also manages to fall in love with this completely unattainable man and public figure. Her disgust when her husband treats her as a trophy checklist at a party – a sexy artist and French, what a score! – is the focus of that scene, and I didn’t get the sense that we’re supposed to read her as being unreasonably demanding or refusing to accept her eccentric and brilliant husband for who he is. The same thing comes across in the scene between Claire, Dylan and another couple, when Dylan claims that women just aren’t capable of writing poetry the way that men are. Not only does his wife immediately challenge him on this ludicrous statement, she then refuses to get involved in a one-on-one “contest” that – given their respective individual talents – she knows would prove absolutely nothing. She walks away, and again, nothing suggests that we’re supposed to read her as being irrational, overly emotional or bitchy. I think the film is written to portray her as a woman who feels abandoned, who loves another person despite all his flaws, who does “get” who he is and the struggles he has, but who gradually comes to realize that it’s just not a marriage that she can live in. There’s no caricature of her, there’s no criticism of her (it’s not really in the nature of the film), she’s just there, living her life and making her decisions.

This is a film that is not about the women characters, and it’s a film that is not about the relationships. This is a film that’s about one man, and it’s explicitly advertised as being about one man in all his complexities. Which is exactly why I’m writing about it – we receive a pretty substantial amount of criticism at this site that suggests that we’re being unreasonable, demanding that every Hollywood movie turn into a “chick flick” or, if people are being slightly more polite, focus completely on the women characters. And while I certainly believe female characters could and should be treated more prominently in media, this is a better example of what I think is really important – these female characters come off as human beings living their own lives, having their own motivations, reactions and emotions based on their own personalities and experiences. In this case, the reason we care about them as an audience is because of one of the men in their lives, but that’s never portrayed as the reason that they exist, the first and foremost thing that they think about themselves.

In short, there’s a really simple way to write good female characters, even if you don’t give them a lot of screen time or big storylines – write them as though they’re human beings with complete lives, even though we may not see the whole thing. This isn’t too much to ask.

Comments

  1. sbg says

    In short, there’s a really simple way to write good female characters, even if you don’t give them a lot of screen time or big storylines – write them as though they’re human beings with complete lives, even though we may not see the whole thing. This isn’t too much to ask.

    Writers would do well to create all characters with this in mind. Unfortunately, it seems “all characters” too often really means “all male characters with male characteristics and male behaviors.”

    But…what is male and female? Are those behaviors defined as much as people think, or are we all trained to see things as male and female when they’re really just human?

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