So I’ve been having fun the last couple of weeks appalling myself by watching Ross Putnam’s Twitter feed. He posts the opening description of female leads from scripts he reads, just changing their names to JANE to protect the guilty. Every single one is initially described in terms of her looks, and generally not even her looks, but the effect they have on men: “attractive,” “forty but still sexy,” and the cringeworthy “ripe with young womanhood” for a black heroine. These are the lead characters, mind you, not supporting cast. No one is allowed to be just bookish or athletic or, God forbid, shlubby, the way a male protagonist often is. These writers assume both that a woman needs to be attractive for us to care about her and that her being attractive tells the actress and director everything they need to know about how she relates to the world and how it relates to her.
I don’t think so much about whether my female leads are attractive because I see the world through their eyes and they don’t spend a lot of time looking in mirrors; they have more important things to do. But to be fair, I am guilty of describing their love interests in terms I find attractive. So, okay, if a male writer is writing from the perspective of a male character, they’ll probably do the same.
But all my characters (even the supporting cast) have two things that are way more important to me than looks, both of which I generally make clear the moment the character first comes onstage: a job (which tells us a lot about their skills and personalities) and a family (which tells us about the forces that shaped them from an early age, and probably still impact them). Those are the elements that are going to drive an interesting story and throw up the most compelling roadblocks.