Suggested Substitutions

You don’t need me to tell you that many stories have a problematic relationship with their female characters, where they’ve managed to have any relationship at all. Tasha Robinson at The Dissolve recently wrote on Trinity Syndrome.

The tl;dr is that too many movies will introduce a Strong Female Character to show how much they respect women, then give that character nothing to do. Or at least, nothing that isn’t subordinate to the male lead’s story.

It’s an easy trap to fall into, particularly because I think most people don’t see a distinction between a strong character and a character with strengths. Trinity can beat you up, so she must be a strong character. But how does she really affect the plot? She kisses Neo back to life in the first movie, makes him worried in the second, and dies anyway in the third.

I doubt I’ve even written enough female characters to claim I have a solution. But when I do, I always try to keep in mind that a character’s weaknesses are more interesting than their strengths regardless of gender. If my female character is perfectly capable and confident, she will inevitably be boring. Anyone can beat up a bunch of henchmen. It’s a lot more engaging to watch them confront and overcome personal frailty.

Robinson at one point asks writers: “Could your Strong Female Character be seamlessly replaced with a floor lamp with some useful information written on it to help a male hero?” Because it’s easier to piggyback off someone else’s content than create your own, I’d like to offer some character substitutions for cases where a floor lamp would be unsuitable.

  • Godzilla (this year’s version) – Replace the hero’s wife with his favorite guitar, which he left at his apartment. The only thing he actually needs is a reason to keep traveling towards Godzilla via planes, trains, and automobiles.
  • James Bond (pretty much any of them) – Replace the female lead with the car Bond gets from Q. Make Bond put down a security deposit so he actually cares if the bad guy threatens to blow up the car.
  • Star Trek (The rebooted version) – Replace Uhura with an iPhone. It will be even more shocking to purists when Spock has a relationship with Siri.
  • Star Wars – Replace Princess Leia with R2-D2. He’s the one with the Death Star plans, and he doesn’t have a brother to creepily hit on.
  • 24 – Replace Chloe with R2-D2. Jack just needs someone with improbable hacking skills and R2 doesn’t say things that make everyone else in the office uncomfortable.
  • The Newsroom – Replace McKenzie with Aaron Sorkin. Actually, that works for pretty much every good guy on all his shows.
  • Game of Thrones (last two seasons) – Replace Daenerys with a plotline that occasionally advances.
  • Godzilla (Mathew Broderick version) – Replace whats-her-face with a low-yield nuclear weapon so everyone in the movie can be vaporized immediately.
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