The Good Character Checklist

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I’ve been working on putting my criteria for good women characters into a simple outline, and it occurs to me this might make an interesting discussion.   What do you look for in a good character?   What questions do you ask yourself to make sure you’re not just having a kneejerk reaction?   Some of what I look for in a character would be:

(1) The character is consistent, and when she does behave in an unexpected way, the writers at least make some attempt to explain it in the script.

(2) If the character fits any stereotypes, this too is explained by the writers.

(3) Behavior that would create serious problems for a real-life woman is not treated as perfectly ordinary.

There are also some questions I ask myself once I think I’ve decided the character is good or bad, to make sure I’ve got perspective:

(1) Would I feel the same way if a male character did the same thing?   This is tricky, though – it doesn’t apply in situations where female stereotypes are being touched.   For example, a white male character sulking like a teenage girl does not send the same message as when a female character does it.

(2) Are the male characters written any better than she is?   This, also, doesn’t always matter.   For every white male character who falls into stereotypes from hell, there are quite a few who don’t.   For every female character who’s stereotyped, there are… well, very few others to choose from.

What do you look for when you’re evaluating a character, or in particular, a female one?

Comments

  1. Revena says

    One thing to look at is how the character in question fits in with other personalities in the story. A woman who is behaving in a really stereotypical way could really drive me nuts if she’s the only female character, or if all of the other female characters “just happen” to share the same or similar faults and virtues. But if this stereotypically feminine character is on a show with lots of different kinds of women, all of whom have their very own flaws and virtues, she might strike me as a much more viable character, becuase she’s showing one possible assortment of traits, and not The Only possible assortment of traits.

  2. scarlett says

    This is what I love about Degrassi – ALL the characters, male and female, were a kind of stereotype, but they took the time to look beneath the stereotype, and someone address it head-on, so you ended up with a bunch of fleshed-out characters.

  3. scarlett says

    As as far as what I look for in a good female character – a woman who could quite easily be rewritten into a man, and if she can’t, that there’s a damn good reason why.

  4. Jennifer Kesler says

    Good point. And if there’s an equal number of stereotypical men, that’s another factor that makes me think the writer is depicting people who intentionally fit into stereotypes, not just being lazy in the characterization.

  5. Jennifer Kesler says

    Yeah. For my taste, I’ve yet to FIND a good reason why. I just never have any trouble flipping character genders.

  6. aizjanika says

    I love Degrassi, too, but I’ve never really thought about why. I am a character-loving person, though, and that’s one show where I’ve ended up loving all the characters, even if they are, on the surface, a stereotype that I don’t normally like. Even though they have such a large cast and they have had a few missteps, I think they do a good job of fleshing out nearly all the characters to some extent.

    I think part of what makes it work is that character motivation is at least somewhat clear. Sometimes it’s years before it completely pays off, such as in the case of Craig. Whether they were leading up to that all along or not, I have no idea, but it doesn’t really matter. The motivations behind most of his erratic behavior in the past, which did have some basis in his personality, became even more clear once it was clear what his specific problems were.

  7. scarlett says

    Well, using BsG as an example – Starbuck could be transplanted wholesale into a man and all you’d have to change is ‘she’ into ‘he’. But Six, even though she’s a strong, motivated character, would take more reworking to be a male character because a huge element of her character is her highly sexualised ultra-femininity.

  8. scarlett says

    Which one was Craig? I’ve only rewatched the first season of DJH so far, the character who haven’t come in yet are a bit hazy.
    What struck me watching it was thinking ‘God, what a cow’ about characters like Stephanie and Kathleen, but even so, I could sympathise with them because I understood why they acted the way they did. Coupled with the fact the writers didn’t hesitate to address every controversial topic under the sun, I think the relateable character is why I loved the show so much.

  9. Jennifer Kesler says

    I disagree. Six could easily be a male seducer of a female scientist with a God complex. He could be a female fantasy of a man – attending to her every wish, sensitive yet strong, etc.

    • Keith says

      Once again, late to the game.
      First I should mention that I assume we’re talking about “Head Six”, the one who interacts with Baltar.
      I tend to think of flipping a character’s gender as making no changes other than pronouns. If you did that with Six, but didn’t flip Baltar’s gender, it would probably work fine. But if you changed both character’s genders I think there would be problems. Mainly because flipping Baltar’s character is problematic. Baltar is weak, egotistical, and cowardly. Write a male like that and it doesn’t send a particular message because it’s so easy to find examples of strong, humble, brave males. Writing a female like that? Well, BSG might have been able to get away with it, but I think they would have taken some flak at least.
      But it seems to me that making Six “a female fantasy of a man – attending to her every wish, sensitive yet strong, etc,” involves some fundamental changes to the character, so to my mind we’re not talking about a simple gender flip.

      • says

        Yes, flipping Baltar’s gender would require some minor tweaking – she’d need to be one of several other (male) archetypes:

        –The headstrong scientist who refuses to hear that her work is evil
        –Too power-hungry to consider ethical ramifications or whether Six is really her ally
        –There are probably others, but that’s all that came off the top of my head.

  10. scarlett says

    At any rate, those are the kinds of characters that are my only exception – hyperfeminine but still strong, crafty, tactical etc. And from the way you see it – and I can see your reasoning – maybe they’re not even exceptions.

  11. scarlett says

    Karen from the Girls Read Comic Books blog (it’s on the links column) did a checklist about how to write a good female comic book character, you should check it out for inspiration.

  12. Jennifer Kesler says

    LOL, I spent 10 minutes perusing her blog to find it earlier this evening – I was going to rec it, too. Do you have the exact link to that post, Scarlett?

  13. Mecha says

    On the general topic of ‘whether a character can be flipped’, I’ve been pondering character gender even more explicitly recently, and find that a lot of my trouble playing a character I see as ‘female’ as male, or as ‘male’ as female, tends to the environmental cues I expect them to react to.

    If I’m in an ‘egalitarian’ society or the character does not have a huge number of traits associated with ‘men’ or ‘women’ in that sub-society then it’s relatively easy. As an example, hackers/geeks/scientists are easy to flip in general, because both men and women can tend to (over)confidence or not, nervousness or not, weird habits of all sorts, and there’s often some degree of inherent asexuality inside of that realm without much trouble at all. There are some slight differences in parts there (god complex versus goddess complex) but the biggest parts of the character in that realm are stable on both sides.

    In contrast, placing a character in a very strong gender-normed society means that if you flip, all of a sudden you have to add an abnormal tag to them, and their development, and so on, and so on. A military female versus a military male (in a military that’s non-egalitarian) just incurs a lot of extra baggage for the female character in development, in experiences, in how they developed, while the male character would have ‘other things’ to develop in and towards while the female character had to deal with the inherent sexism (and would often be a bit sexist himself.) You can break those trends, but those are extra character ‘weight’, if you will, and then the characters aren’t really so much ‘equivalent’. A strong and confident yet actually female military commander is a far more meaty character than a strong, confident, male military commander, before you add anything else, simply due to environment. Not a bad thing, but it’s something that comes into play. It takes up development space, if you will, that could be used on other things. If one sees development space as limited (and I get the feeling that it is), then… well.

    A flip’s not so easy as it might look when you look at it as an as-if. At least to me. If someone uses that as justification for not ever having female characters or male characters that aren’t stereotype, though, then they’re just being lazy.

    -Mecha

  14. Jennifer Kesler says

    Well, that’s true to an extent. I was thinking in terms of sci-fi, because Scarlett mentioned Six on BSG. And previously she mentioned Inara on Firefly. In sci-fi, I never have trouble flipping because the author created the world. Even if the author creates a heavily gender-biased world… well, she could’ve made the gender bias against men, right? So I can still flip, by flipping everybody. Just my perspective.

    But even in Earth-bound stories, it seems more flexible to me than most people seem to think. In DaVinci’s inquest, every regular character could be flipped, no problem. Now, there is the continuing arc in which prostitutes (at least 50) are being murdered, and most of them are women. That, I agree, could not have been flipped because the group being murdered needed to be very socially vulnerable – easy prey for killers, because our sociery has turned its back on them. It would be tough to come up with a group of men that socially vulnerable in our world.

  15. says

    Haha, I think Karen and I think a little too alike sometimes… all but one relevant point on that list I had already put in. Still, though, thanks for reminding me about it ’cause I read it way back in the day but totally forgot about it when I was thinking of resources to help me make my list :)

  16. Jennifer Kesler says

    LOL, Mecha already dug it up in an above comment, but thanks for the effort. It’s definitely an entry worthy of two links. :P

  17. scarlett says

    Damn, and I spent an hour reading her archives trying to work out where it was…

    Hour well spent, nonetheless :p I would vote we link to her except, well, we already do…

  18. SunlessNick says

    Starbuck is an interesting case, because she’s transplanted from a man, and retains most of the same flaws. She is portrayed as more of a screw-up than her predecessor, who was awarded the “lovable rogue” vibe, though no bones are made about her extreme competence at her job. Does this mean the writers think Starbuck’s flaws are less acceptable in a woman than a man, or is it about how they think Starbuck’s flaws should have been regarded last time. I’m inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt, and assume the latter – especially given some of their other characters – but even then, do they think they’ll have an easier time making those flaws flaws in a woman than a man?

    I’ve seen more people regard the new Starbuck as unsympathetic than the old one – but is that their issue or are they following the depictions made by the two sets of writers? I’ve seen a fair number of people complain about making Starbuck a woman in the first place (more in fact than I have about making Boomer a Cylon) but mostly in the same way I complained about making John Constantine American in the film. Myself, I didn’t like old series anything like as much as the Hellblazer comics, so I wasn’t fussed about such a change. Of course it helps that Katee Sakhoff is a much better actor than Dirk Benedict.

  19. Jennifer Kesler says

    Does this mean the writers think Starbuck’s flaws are less acceptable in a woman than a man, or is it about how they think Starbuck’s flaws should have been regarded last time.

    I say the latter, too. The old show was made back when they thought audiences – particularly the mainstream broadcast channel audience – couldn’t handle seriously flawed characters. In any episode where a good guy behaved badly, we had to see by the end that he was really swell after all, and sorry for his mistakes.

    Nowadays, and especially on cable, you can make characters less sympathetic and really dive into them more. Adama is less sympathetic, too, but I don’t think that’s because the actor is Latino. I think the writers’ intention is to write well-developed characters, regardless of gender and race, and they’ve done a good job from what I’ve seen of the show (up to mid-S2).

  20. scarlett says

    For what it’s worth, what struck me about BsG was how all the characters (with the possible exception of Six, which I’m still pondering) could easily be flipped. Everything Starbuck does, I could see a man do it and I wuld still be impressed by such a flawed, fleshed-out characters.

    Watching the dynamic between Roslin and Adama/Tigh is fascinating, because they could s oeasily have turned it into a men-as-leaders vs woman-as-civilian-teacher-pretending-to-be-leader but instead I got the impression that, if they flippd the roles, Roslin as the military leader and Adama as the civilian leader, they’d still be fighting about the same things, but in reverse.

    But that’s a rave saved for another day…

  21. Jennifer Kesler says

    I agree about the military v. politics. I don’t think it would lose anything in the dynamic.

    BSG does more or less what Davinci’s Inquest does: they base character dynamics on roles, not gender. Cops are ambitious on DI: that includes the women and men. Pathologists tend to be arrogant, whether male or female. And so on.

  22. SunlessNick says

    The very first point is one that’s often missed, including (perhaps even especially) the the female character in question is the lead or in charge. Eg Threshold (though I’ve only seen two episodes of that, and liked them immensely).

  23. SunlessNick says

    These have come to mind:

    1. Don’t confuse attitude with strength. Someone who’s mouthy might be strong, but they might just have a cheap substitute. I see these mixed up far more often in female characters than male ones, especially female characters who don’t have real strength – and while sometimes it’s going to be about putting the mouthy girl “in her place,” I think a lot of writers who make this mistake are genuinely trying to write strength. Compare Michelle Yeoh’s and Zhang Ziyi’s characters in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (one of my favourite fight scenes, in large part because because it’s the only one I’ve been able to say “sorts the women from the girls.”).

    2. Don’t confuse recklessness with competence. Eg the female lead in Ghost Ship. I like both the character and film, but her intro scene is one where a salvage operation turns complicated, and she performs a stunt to fix it, in violation of all safety procedures. Skilled, yes. Brave, yes. Physically adept, yes. But people who are competent at dangerous jobs don’t perform reckless stunts, and do adhere to safety procedures so as not to risk danger to the rest of the team pulling their asses out of the fire.

    I have no problem with a female character who does show attitude or recklessness; but it’s too common to do them and forget that they aren’t the same things as strength and competence.

  24. Jennifer Kesler says

    Excellent points, both! Pointless mouthiness is a mockery of saying what needs to be said – a noble effort many writers leave exclusively to the men. Pointless recklessness is a farce of bravery, which is also frequently left to the men.

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