With Black Panther and Tomb Raider perched at the top of the box office earlier this year, audiences can see a multitude of powerful female characters lately. They aren’t just action heroes, though—they’re women of action.
Women of action drive the plot. They’re active characters who make choices, even mistakes, as the story unfolds—not passive characters around whom the plot just happens.
The film version of Jane Austen’s Emma doesn’t plunge into caves in her 19th-century gowns, even though she wields a bow and arrow like Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft. Yet she’s an active character. The precocious Emma kicks the plot into gear by becoming a matchmaker to those around her. (A flawed one, too, considering how lousy she is at romance.) Likewise, the headstrong Elizabeth Bennet from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is precisely so beloved because she willfully spars with Mr. Darcy, setting up misunderstandings and obstacles galore to their eventual romance.
The women in these current films all contribute something fundamentally significant to the plot.
What do your characters do?
Don’t think in terms of an occupation. Think of action. Characters are what they do, as a novelist, script editor, and screenwriter Lucy V. Hay often notes. Sure, a character might have a distinct way of speaking (like the titular pregnant teen in 2007’s Juno), but “great characterization is about behavior.”
With female characters especially, are they there to serve just as love interests, or some magical sprite who helps a male character out of his ennui just by being cute and quirky? Motivation for a male hero by being raped or killed? Introduced in a cool way but then sloughed aside so another character can complete the hero’s journey? In short, if a woman in your story can be “seamlessly replaced with a floor lamp with some useful information written on it,” she’s not a strong female character, critic Tasha Robinson has said.
Black Panther showcases its powerful women through action. Writer-director Ryan Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole first show Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), a spy, on an undercover mission with female refugees. Her hair covered by a scarf, she reassures the others in the back of a military truck until Black Panther, aka T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), disrupts the caravan.
He makes short work of some of the soldiers, then can’t help but freeze as Nakia steps into view. She’s his former girlfriend, which leaves him flummoxed. Fortunately, his loyal bodyguard, Okoye (Danai Gurira), arrives as backup. Nakia chides T’Challa for interfering with her job. He explains that his father has died and he’s to be crowned the new king of Wakanda, their home country. He’d like her support by attending the ceremony. She accepts.
“Did he freeze?” his little sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), asks Okoye upon their return.
“Like an antelope in headlights,” Okoye says with a grin.
Based on the Marvel comics, Black Panther revolves around what kind of king T’Challa will be: isolationist, like his father, or more open to sharing Wakanda’s advanced technology with the rest of the world. But the women around him provide him with strength beyond his bulletproof armor.
Nakia’s humanitarian instincts inspire T’Challa. She’s also brave, fighting with her fists, a shoe, or ring blades. The bald Okoye is a stalwart defender of her country and king, commanding an elite squad called the Dora Milaje and employing an electric spear as a bo staff or a projectile.
In one standout chase in South Korea, Okoye grumbles about the guns being fired at them as “primitive.” She then climbs atop a speeding car in a red gown (magnetized soles anchor her in place) and launches her spear with pinpoint accuracy, felling their attackers.
Shuri, a teenage scientific genius, is quick to flip the bird and grouses about the traditional attire at her brother’s coronation. Like Q to British agent James Bond, she also shows T’Challa around her lab, explaining different gear she’s made for him. (She teasingly doesn’t tell him how one will jolt him before recording it all on video.) Later, she whoops with joy when he calls for her help, driving a vehicle remotely during the same chase sequence.
The heady sci-fi film Annihilation, based on the book by Jeff VanderMeer, features a biologist, Lena (Natalie Portman), who volunteers to investigate a strange phenomenon in a swampy national park. Something touched down near a lighthouse on the coast, a flash of light that caused a rippling effect and iridescent border that researchers have named “The Shimmer.” No one exploring it has returned for years except for Lena’s husband (Oscar Isaac), a special-ops soldier with little memory and multiple organ failures.
Lena, an Army veteran, wants to find a way to help him. The other explorers, all women including Tessa Thompson and Jennifer Jason Leigh, are also scientists. They want to reach the lighthouse to stop The Shimmer from expanding, but the suspenseful, mind-blowing script from writer-director Alex Garland (Ex Machina) derails them at every turn. Still, they persevere. They track their position by the sun and an analog watch when their instruments fail. They hunt creatures unlike any they’ve seen, reluctant to leave anyone from their group behind. They argue over whether this is a suicide mission or if humans are naturally self-destructive, apprehensive about what they’ll discover but resolute, anyway.
In Tomb Raider, we first see Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) in a gym’s boxing ring. She’s learning to hold her own—and failing at it, slapping the mat and crying out in vexation.
Video-game fans have known Lara for more than 20 years as a buxom Indiana Jones, usually wearing shorts and a tank top and sporting holsters on each thigh. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider in 2001 and its sequel played up her wealth and globe-trotting, along with her sex appeal in scenes where Lara (Angelina Jolie) drops by someone’s apartment to shower or bungee-jumps at home in silk pajamas.
This newest Lara is based on the 2013 reboot of her famous gaming franchise. Directed by Roar Uthaug and written by Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons, the film depicts Lara as untested and vulnerable.
Lara could be an heiress, but she’d have to declare her father dead. She’s reluctant to do that, even though he disappeared on a mysterious quest seven years earlier. Instead, she works as a bicycle courier. For much-needed cash, she opts to be the quarry in a “fox hunt” with other cyclists around the streets of London.
“Not quick or dumb enough for you?” she asks when the organizers gape at her a bit too long after she steps up to the challenge.
A punctured gallon of paint on Lara’s bike marks her path for her pursuers, but she evades them through speed and smarts in a thrilling first-act sequence—until she’s distracted by evading a motorist opening his door. Then she smacks into a police car.
Of course, Lara finds a clue to her dad’s last destination and sets out after him, but the script keeps this larger-than-life character at a human scale. She stumbles into and fights her way out of trouble, finding her way in the world. She’s someone who doesn’t have or want everything handed to her, and one of the film’s joys is how it shows us that instead of telling us.
When writing your script, consider what your characters’ actions say about who they are.
Valerie Kalfrin is an award-winning crime journalist who now dives into fictional mayhem as an author (Quicklet on The Closer: Season 1), essayist, film critic, screenwriter, and emerging script consultant. She also writes for The Guardian, Bright Wall Dark Room, ScreenCraft, Hazlitt, Signature, and the blog for Final Draft, the top-rated screenwriting software used by the filmmaking industry. A member of Screenwriters of Tomorrow, she’s collaborated on short films and features, and she’s affiliated with the Tampa Bay Film Society. She lives in Florida. Find her online at valeriekalfrin.com.