Crafting well-rounded and complex characters is what we all strive for as screenwriters. When it comes to female characters, it’s fantastic that there are more and more dynamic women being written that break the mold of the stereotypes and one-dimensional female characters that have been the norm for decades.
Below are three prime examples of well-rounded female characters from film and TV that show you can have a fully developed and multi-layered female character, no matter if she’s the protagonist or a supporting character. (Beware of spoilers!)
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Poppy in Mythic Quest
Mythic Quest is a half-hour comedy on Apple TV+. Poppy Li is one of the leads of the show, and her character development is way above par.
Here’s a brief synopsis of the show: The owner of a successful video game design company and his troubled staff struggle to keep their hit game ‘Mythic Quest’ on top.
Ian, played by creator/writer/executive producer Rob McElhenney, is the owner of the company. When the series begins, Poppy is second in command, the lead developer of their game. By the second season, she’s co-leading the company with Ian. This means she has a character arc, which contributes to her development as we see her grow.
Poppy is a diverse woman in the tech world, originally from Australia. Her Aussie roots inform her dialogue and slang that she uses. What makes Poppy compelling is her ambition, talent, and ego are just as big as Ian’s. She’s not perfect. She’s flawed, which makes her relatable. She’s in a leadership position in the show, which is not often seen in an Asian female character.
As Poppy and Ian’s ego’s match each other, so do their insecurities. However, for Poppy, she deals with it from a female perspective. Check out this scene where Poppy’s insecurities are on display while she attempts to lead her team of programmers:
Speaking to Gold Derby about Poppy’s insecurities, actress Charlotte Nicdao, explains the unique perspective of her character:
“We’re kind of used to seeing a lot of these toxic, male tropes. Like, we know what a man who’s covering insecurity with masculinity looks like. Whereas I don’t know that it’s been explored so much in female characters. And I would argue that a lot of the toxic behavior that you see from Poppy is- I wouldn’t say like specifically female, but it’s definitely told from the perspective of a woman. We haven’t just taken a male character and got a woman to play it.”
It’s also particularly refreshing that Poppy and Ian’s relationship is one that’s based on being business partners. Typically, a male and female character working together inevitably leads to romance. Mythic Quest doesn’t go there, which allows for more exploration of Poppy and Ian’s ever-evolving professional relationship and friendship.
Download a script from the series here to see how Poppy is crafted on the page.
Lou in Sound of Metal
Sound of Metal is an award-winning dramatic feature film, available to watch on Amazon Prime. Here’s the logline: A heavy-metal drummer’s life is thrown into freefall when he begins to lose his hearing.
Ruben, the drummer, is in a relationship with Lou, his girlfriend when he rapidly starts to lose his hearing. Lou, portrayed by actress Olivia Cooke, is a great example of how to make a “girlfriend character” dynamic.
Under-developed female love interests alongside a male protagonist are a regular occurrence in screenplays. She usually serves as the girlfriend or wife to foster empathy with the audience by showing how vulnerable the protagonist is since he loves her.
In Sound of Metal, written by Darius Marder & Abraham Marder, Lou stands out because she is so well developed and serves as much more than the reason that we feel empathy for the protagonist, Ruben, played by Riz Ahmed.
Lou is the lead singer of their heavy metal band. She has her own backstory, hailing from a wealthy French family that resides in Paris. She has her own interests, and she speaks French. She isn’t passive in the narrative. In fact, her decisive action is what forces Ruben to face his new health issue.
Check out this scene where Lou has finally had it and leaves Ruben so that he will go back to a program that will help him with his hearing loss:
Often, underdeveloped female characters have what I call unrealistic vulnerability, meaning they cry often or at the drop of a hat. As you can see, Lou’s vulnerability is realistic, grounded, and heartbreaking.
She also has a character arc, as she is affected by Ruben’s hearing loss and goes on a journey of her own. It’s rare to see a fully developed female love interest, and it’s even rarer to see her have her own arc.
Check out the two scenes below, which show her character arc. The first is the opening scene of the film where Lou and Ruben perform on stage, their pre-existing life together. The second clip is near the end of the film. Ruben, now able to function with his hearing loss, surprises Lou at her parents’ house in Paris. At a party, Lou sings with her father.
Notice the marked difference in Lou in the second clip. It’s a poignant moment where Ruben realizes Lou has also changed and their relationship can’t go back to what it was:
Both the Sound of Metal script and film are brilliant on many fronts. Download the script here if you haven’t read it.
Fran in Shrill
Shrill does an excellent job at subverting the “sassy black best friend” stereotype with the protagonist’s BFF, Fran.
Here’s a synopsis of Hulu’s dramedy series, starring writer/executive producer Aidy Bryant as the lead, Annie: A woman seeks out ways to change her life without changing her body.
Actress Lolly Adefope portrays Fran, Annie’s best friend since college. The two roommates are in the process of changing their lives and figuring out what they really want. Once again, Fran’s character development is what shines to make her more than a stereotype.
Fran is a first-generation Nigerian-British-American. She was studying to be a lawyer in college but dropped out and is now a hairstylist. Her family has yet to fully accept her as a lesbian. Although Fran is opinionated and outspoken, especially with Annie, she struggles with criticism from her mother, who doesn’t agree with Fran’s choices.
Check out the following scene where Annie is attending Fran’s cousin’s wedding, demonstrating how Fran’s character has a full life and doesn’t just serve as a prop in Annie’s story:
Annie and Fran learn from each other as they both grow in the series, and they’re not always happy with each other. This video delves into their friendship, showing how much development went into the relationship between these two women in transition:
Download the Shrill series finale script here.
The so-called “strong female character” (ie fully developed female character) is here to stay. Because there has been a dearth of well-written female characters in film and television history, there is abundant opportunity now for a multitude of stories of complex female characters to be written.
Allow these female characters to inspire you and help you craft more dynamic women in your screenplays.
Joanna Ke is an award-winning, half Taiwanese actor, writer, producer, and trained sword fighter. Her foundation as a creative producer and screenwriter is built on nearly a decade of experience as a professional script reader in development and acquisitions. She studied screenwriting with the late, great Syd Field, and as an actor, has had the honor of working with director Cameron Crowe. Her films have won BEST ACTION and BEST FANTASY awards, and her acting has won BEST PERFORMANCE and BEST VILLAIN accolades.
Wielding her broadsword is a favorite, both on and off camera.