When you start writing that next screenplay or pilot, it’s important to remember to step back a bit and take a look at where you’re headed as far as your characters are concerned. The characters you “cast” i.e. select to star in that story you’re imagining, say something about the kind of world you’re showing. In this frame, consider how your male and female characters relate to one another. Do they fit within the social norms, defy them, or are they somehow ambivalent to those norms?
Let’s take a look at a few non-traditional male and female characters in film and TV:
Arguably the quintessential “oil and water” couple, Dana Scully is coolly logical, scientific, and doesn’t believe in anything beyond what the scientific method can validate. Fox Mulder, on the other hand, is obsessed with the possibilities of what could be.
Now, consider what these characters would have been like if Scully had been the believer and Mulder the skeptic? Would the X-Files have been a hit? Would it have even made it past the pilot? The ways in which both characters subvert the norm allows for much more nuance which makes their characters more believable precisely because they break the norm. Hmm…
There aren’t so many films out there about a young man and a 79-year-old woman becoming friends, and more. Released in 1971, when Harold and Maude first appeared many critics just didn’t know what to think or say about the movie. In the years since, the film has become a cult classic for multiple generations and an example of writing effective foils or opposites in a dramatic work.
Originally written as a master’s thesis by Colin Higgins while he was a student at UCLA, Harold and Maude subverts traditional stereotypes in the sense that the young, male character is obsessed with death, while the older, dying female character brims with joy for life. Through making these two characters perfect opposites, an exploration of life, death, and fear becomes possible and, over the course of the film, Harold “comes of age” to realize what really matters.
Sarah Conner/John Conner
Got an action movie? Then usually you’ve got a scene or more where the muscular male lead is saving the female character, and for good measure, maybe their family (and dog) too. In Terminator 2, Sarah Connor is an independent, muscular, self-actualized woman who sets out to stop a post-apocalyptic future from taking place. Needless to say, this isn’t the first time a mother and son have been depicted on screen, but it is one of the most impressive portrayals of a mother in an action film. Watch the adrenaline fueled flick and you’ll see how Sarah Connor smashes every trope to smithereens.
Harry Potter /Hermione Granger
Harry Potter is beloved the world over. As such, many of the series’ characters have developed cult followings, and none are larger than that of Hermione Granger. Her pragmatic, no-nonsense disposition makes her a great counterbalance to Harry, and his mysterious, potentially dark nature. In this way, she’s a little like Scully to Mulder in the X-Files. Contrary to some of the fan fiction out there, Harry and Hermione are not in a relationship and they have no romantic tension. They’re platonic friends. And not only is that amazingly refreshing, many would argue that it makes their relationship more engaging and even downright enviable. To this kind of breaking the norm, we say yes and more please!
Clarice Starling / Hannibal Lecter
Normally, in horror films the monster is something to be feared, something lurking in the shadows. In Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter is on display for everyone to see and hard-nosed Clarice Starling should not be susceptible to his influence, but she is. Watch closely and you’ll see how stereotypes and ideas about gender get twisted in a hodgepodge of ways even though Starling’s role as potential “prey” and Lecter’s as predator actually aligns with the norm. Viewed in this light, what oh what does the ending tell us? Hmm…
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