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From the movie: Winter's Bone

Pamela Gray (credits as long as your arm with “twenty good scripts gathering dust in my garage,”) was honest and hilarious about writing stories told from a woman’s point of view, as well as seeing them through production. A bit of horror from the trenches launched the room into bursts of laughter over the difficulty in getting a female orgasm shown on the screen – if she’s over 40. Doesn’t matter if that’s the spine. But you had to be there. She shared keen insights on female mythology differing a bit within the classic Hero’s Journey.

Elizabeth Hunter (as in Director of Development for Universal-Apollo 13-Clockers-Crooklyn-Twelve MonkeysJumping The Broom and so very much more) was an elegant foil, with a lot on structure, plus lifting the skirt on writing and producing stories from the ethnic woman’s point of view.

Wish you were there for this powerful duo. Really. Hunter and Gray could take it on the road.

Pamela Gray

  •  The good news is, in 2008, four women were nominated for an Oscar for their original screenplays. That was big news for women. And it’s good to remind yourself of the positives. As often as possible.
  •  Forget all the reasons not to, and write female characters that the best actresses will want to play. (Jim Uhls also advised creating actor-attracting characters as a means to break into Hollywood. We see a pattern, here).

Elizabeth Hunter

  •  Everything starts with structure and story. If you don’t nail that, you’ll be called on it.
  • What stories should you tell? Pay attention to the stories you tell yourself over and over. Those are probably the stories you should tell. Just write the stories that you want to “tell to the world.” Movies told from a female perspectives are all “a story about a woman who…”

Conversation between Hunter & Gray

  • Unfortunate fact, but make sure your female protag, no matter what she’s dealing with or initiating, has a core that’s likable, as in a bad woman but a good mom. Both said if you don’t, you’ll get lots of notes to make your tortured fem “redeemable” and that as within a narrow confine of what execs might see as acceptable. (I guess that’s why, if she’s bad, she better be a hottie – if you want your film to be made).
  • TELEPLAY WRITERS: Take note. Television is friendlier towards a wider variety of interesting, female-driven stories than Hollywood is for film. (Note: If you’ve only written screenplays, you might want to do some reading on the 7-act structures required for accommodating the ad placements in network television. Grittier material would gravitate toward the cable market, without ads, so same 3-act structure as film applies for cable without ads).
  • Both panelists said they often return to reading favorite classic and contemporary feminine-perspective stories as those written by: Georgia Elliot, Emily Bronte, Jane Austin and Toni Morrison. (This is just what I wrote down, and does not reflect the full scope of all they cited as favorite authors).
  •  Structure holds everything together. Both panelists recommended “Writing Screenplays that Sell,” by Hal Ackerman, with Gray swearing by Ackerman’s Scene-o-gram for ensuring structure.

Pamela Gray

For those familiar with the archetypes in storytelling, understand that the Female Protagonist’s classic Hero’s Journey is a bit different than it is when using the same story arc for a male protagonist.

  •  In many aspects, the world itself is more repressing for a woman than it is for a man, so environment is often at least one of the female protag’s Antagonists or Threshold Guardians.
  • In the Call to Adventure, the female protag often says no to “the call” more than once before she finally succumbs and goes on her Journey. Her extra hesitation reads natural. The female protag is often more heavily invested in community and family than the male protag, so she has more at stake in leaving all that behind to pursue her Adventure.
  • The Mentor or Ally is different for women. Often more intimate and unexpected. It can be a friend who, without a clue, chirps in with bulls-eye honest insights. And who is capable of delivering the Betrayal 2nd Act Reversal from the Ally and/or Mentor, which occurs in both the classic Hero’s Journey story arc and in most good screenplay structure. (For the male protag, an example of that moment of betrayal/reversal might be “Obi Wan Kanobi dies without giving Luke the further training and help that he feels he desperately needs).
  • Threshold Guardian (can be antagonist): In a woman’s story, this can also come from intimate sources. It can often be her spouse who challenges her level of commitment (think Norma Rae). You rarely if ever find the spouse playing this role in the male Hero’s Journey.
  • Returning with The Prize and Sharing that with Community. This is the returning home conclusion in the Hero’s Journey story arc. A return home to share what she has learned and won is a very natural action for the Heroine’s Journey protagonist to take. It’s nearly a foregone conclusion.

The panel included an excited announcement about Hunter and Gray ganging up to offer a one-hour long series online entitled: Pitching: Making it Happen. Time on that TBD.

We wait with baited breath, and will share as soon as we know. Until then, may your female protagonists continue to push the envelope on what we expect from a buncha women.

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Image by Chris Miles

None of us is all good or all bad. If your goal is to craft believable characters in your stories, then none of them should be, either.

When dipping into the vast and brilliant reservoir of material on “The Hero’s Journey” and basic archetypes as a storytelling model with which to create your stellar beings, remember to give them more than one Internal Archetype to wrestle with. Layer the archetypal qualities in your characters as a means to develop and understand their unique perspectives and likely choices.

(No Spoilers): For an example, let’s look at the protagonist in the recent film (2010) “The Warriors Way,” (which became a guilty pleasure): The protagonist is both “Warrior” and “Priest,” quite literal expressions of the archetypes in most martial arts films. Tones of the “Artisan” gave the protag sensitivity (poetic, deep emotion) reflected in the stylistic look/shot choices of the film, and in his storyline choices (respect for purity – save the condemned baby – turn his back on a horrible “blood feud” tradition).

Our Hero takes the higher yet more difficult path and gives up everything in order to try to save The Child (Innocence, Potential, Seed, the Future, Continuation, Hope). As as a Warrior Monk, he is self-sacrificing and highly disciplined, and in the highest expression of that archetype, cannot turn a back to Innocence. We delight as his embodiment of the “Warrior” (Action/Courage in service to some kind of authority, be it King or Clan or an inner sense of morality), moves him forward on his chosen path (character goal/plot line).

The use of the archetypes Priest, Warrior and Artisan for creating the protagonist’s skeleton and flesh, if you will, gives us a character with depth whose choices we subconsciously accept as making sense for who he is in that story. But a key component to this character really working comes from the Artisan, because that element created a character capable of inspiring compassion in us for someone we care about and relate to on some level, no matter how tenuous. The Artisan makes him vulnerable, human and accessible to us after an intense embodiment and expression of the Warrior/Priest, who is not very emotionally approachable. (Imagine a warm conversation with Ripley from the Alien movies). Most people can relate on some level to the messy Artisan who takes leaps based on intuitive hunches and indefinable reasons, the Divine Fool, impossible to control or predict but willing to open their hearts. We relate because we all either embody the willingness to leap ourselves – or we long for the faith and confidence it takes to do so.

I know that some storytellers have intentionally created unsympathetic characters, and I can understand that choice when it comes to purely artistic exploration, or when writing something based on actual events, but personally, the stories I enjoy the most are the ones where I have the means to root for the bad guys on some level, or feel sympathy when they lose, or at least get a sense of understanding why they’re crazy or mean. And I like to see the good guys hesitate with self-doubt during critical moments. Even the good guys have cracks in their armor, and I want to see them because it makes me root for their moments of courage all the more.

Bottom line: Please, don’t create flat characters by modeling them after one archetype. Audiences want flat characters to go away and don’t care how as long as it’s soon. When a fiction writer creates characters that nobody cares about, they’ve got a story nobody wants to hear.

By layering multiple archetypes, you have the potential to create a character capable of inspiring enough mystery and depth to convince us that we will never fully know that character, just as we are limited in our complete understanding and knowledge of each other. This is just one foundational approach for the proper use of multiple archetypes for creating characters whom we want more of once the story is over, characters who arouse our sense of curiosity. There should always be the sense that there is much more to be explored in your major characters long after “The End” and/or “Fade Out” appears.

Too often, we see movies or read manuscript and screenplay material wherein the characters are transparent in how they’ve been modeled after one archetype rather than revealing a deeper understanding and use of this storytelling model by layering multiple archetypes within each character. You can apply a simple, 2-or-3 archetype layering approach right down to the third spear carrier on the left, if you want. When you know each character at least on an Archetypal model level your spontaneous creative choices when blocking out scenes and writing your narrative and dialogue will all be truer to the characters and therefore more believable and emotionally powerful.

**7 Basic Archetypes

I primarily use the following seven archetypes for delineating fundamental characterization, as I find that most other archetypes are subtle variations that exist within each of these basic seven themes, depending on how the inherent energies are expressed:

King: Commander, guiding/providing for/affecting many others, yet seeking/needing to learn self-mastery (leaders, business owners, politicians, military commanders, role models)

Warrior: Action oriented, the “doers” of the world devoted to serving/upholding existing systems and/or powers (business people, soldiers, institutional workers, police, martial artists)

Artisan/Craftsman: Acutely aware of and affected by harmony in spatial and human relationships, and seeking to creatively express their observations (actors, builders, entertainers, designers, architects, photographers, artists, musicians, filmmakers)

Sage/Counselor: Agents of reflection, communication and change (writers, visionaries, entertainers, comics, musicians, filmmakers, spin doctors, artists, mentors, all trail-blazers)

Server/Healer: Compassionately aware of and seeking to tend to the needs of others (nurses, doctors, all healing arts, educators, social workers, therapists, religious workers)

Priest/Priestess: Primarily concerned with the spiritual welfare of others (all religious and spiritual fields, especially those who are actively guiding/teaching others)

Scholar/Scientist: Wants knowledge above all else; life-long careers of study and gathering information (workers in research oriented fields of science and other fields of specialized expertise and understanding)

Of course, the understanding of archetypes in human consciousness and in our storytelling is abundantly available through many authors better than I, and is a specialized field of understanding unto itself. You can delve as deep as you like through reading the works of Karl Jung and Joseph Campbell, to name just a few.

Everybody has a sad story, with the scars to prove it, so I also decide what sort of scar/s each of my characters carries, and how they acquired them. (Gotta love back-story). From deciding where each character is at with dealing (or not) with those scars when my story opens, I can determine the state of the character’s Inner Child (another archetype), which comes into play with the character’s sense of confidence, spontaneity and rebelliousness – and that affects how they experience and interact with their entire world.

Armed with this basic information, a writer can move forward secure in the faith that both the character/s and the story will fight them relentlessly (a good thing in this case) if they move their characters away from the natural choices and reactions those characters would normally have, given what the writer knows about them. This is just one way to develop a deeper connection to and keener intuitive understanding of your characters, which thereby allows you to keep them sharply in focus throughout their mis/adventures. In this manner, no matter what you throw at them or how quirky their choices might seem, your characters will sound like real, multi-faceted people and will stay true to the qualities you want them to embody.

**Archetypes taken from the Michael Teachings, as the information has been written and shared through multiple authors and channels, i.e, “The Michael Teachings” by Jose Stevens.

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