It’s no secret that diversity on screen offers fresh stories that today’s audience wants to see. UCLA’s 2021 Hollywood Diversity Report found that, even during a pandemic with altered release schedules, films with a diverse cast saw higher online viewing ratings.
While there have been big strides taken to offer more inclusivity in characters in film and television, we still have a way to go. Conscious change takes committed self-effort on the part of everyone, and when it comes to diversity, screenwriters have the power to foster more true representation on screen.
Whether you’re writing a TV pilot or feature screenplay, the below tips will help you stand out by bringing more diversity to your script.
Specify Characters’ Ethnicities
This is by far the easiest way to bring diversity to your script. Simply specify a character’s ethnicity as being a person of color or mixed-race when they’re introduced.
As a seasoned reader and story analyst, I can tell you from experience that if a character’s cultural background or ethnicity is not specified on the page, it’s most likely being read as being a white character. There are various reasons behind this, one being that white characters have historically been dominant on screen, so our brains interpret what we’ve been groomed to see.
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Another factor is that people see the world from their own perspectives. UCLA’s annual Hollywood Diversity Report last year found that top studio positions lack people of color, meaning those in key decision-maker roles are generally white. Thus, characters in a script without a specified ethnicity are most likely going to be seen as being white from their perspective.
Nip that in the bud and set the stage right off the bat by stating what a character’s ethnicity is, even for supporting characters that only have one line. You could also describe the color of a character’s skin or mention an actor of color to reference a character type that evokes an image of your BIPOC character. Either way, defining a character’s ethnicity is an easy way to bring diversity to your screenplay.
Incorporate and Develop Female Characters
The lack of female characters on screen has been part of the diversity discussion for years. Male-dominated scripts have been such an issue that the Bechdel Test was created in 1985, offering three simple criteria to assess the diversity of male versus female characters and female character development:
- Does the film have at least two women in it?
- Do they talk to each other?
- …about something other than a man?
For your script, the Bechdel Test is a great starting point to measure how diverse your screenplay is when it comes to female characters. However, it’s true that some scripts will not pass the test for totally valid reasons, such as historically accurate scripts.
Another tool you can use to assess your female characters is the Female Character Flowchart, created by Shana Mlawski and Carlos A. Hann Commander at Overthinking It. Check it out below to see if any of your female characters fall into a cliché. If so, make changes by developing your female characters further:
Speaking of clichés, every single race and group of people has a stereotype that’s been portrayed on screen. Trans characters are often sex workers. Black and brown characters are thugs. Asian women are hyper-sexualized, while Asian men are de-sexualized. Just like you would research a certain era if you wrote a period piece to portray the time period accurately, it is your job as the writer to do your research to portray diverse peoples authentically.
Check out this excellent in-depth look from StudioBinder of the history and various types of Hollywood character stereotypes to help you assess if any of your characters are falling into a stereotype.
For BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People Of Color) characters, the Manhola Dargis-created “DuVernay test” is a great way to evaluate if your BIPOC characters are underdeveloped tropes. Use the questions below from Salon’s Nico Lang to assess if your characters have fully fleshed out lives or simply serve as scenery for white characters:
- Does your BIPOC character die? (Bonus: Do they die first?)
- Does your character exist to serve white people or aid them in a quest for fulfillment?
- Do they have other friends, family members, or a life outside the world of the white characters?
- If they have a love interest, are they paired up with the only other person of color on screen?
- Are they the only BIPOC character in the entire movie? If there are other BIPOC characters, do they talk to each other?
- Are they a supporting character in their own story?
GLAAD developed its own criteria to analyze LGBTQ characters, which can help you with your screenwriting. It’s called the Vito Russo Test, named after GLAAD co-founder Vito Russo. The below is directly from GLAAD’s website to help filmmakers create well-developed queer characters:
- The film contains a character that is identifiably lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender.
- That character must not be solely or predominantly defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity. I.E. they are made up of the same sort of unique character traits commonly used to differentiate straight characters from one another.
- The LGBTQ character must be tied into the plot in such a way that their removal would have a significant effect. Meaning they are not there to simply provide colorful commentary, paint urban authenticity, or (perhaps most commonly) set up a punchline. The character should “matter.”
You may also consider reaching out to someone with a life experience similar to the character(s) in your screenplay and ask if they would be open to giving you feedback on your script. Offer them a consultant fee and credit for helping you. Make a true effort to bring authentic representation and a fully developed life to your diverse characters.
Include The Entire Spectrum Of Diversity
Diversity is more than adding a woman or person of color to your screenplay and avoiding stereotypes. Inclusivity and representation mean including the entire spectrum of humanity and making the effort to portray each experience realistically. This is especially true for those that have historically been underrepresented on screen.
Below are some areas of diversity you may not have thought of to include in your screenplay because they’re rarely represented on screen, particularly in protagonists. Evaluate your story to see if you can change any characters in your script to include the experience of one or more of the below groups:
- Disabled: a physical or mental condition that limits movement, the senses, or activities, such as deafness, blindness, paraplegia, dwarfism, learning disabilities, etc.
- Neurodiverse: neurologically atypical patterns of thought or behavior, such as ADHD, autism, Asperger’s syndrome, etc.
- Gender Diverse: non-cisgender, such as transgender, non-binary, intersex, androgynous, genderqueer, etc.
- Sexual Orientation: lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, etc.
- Religion: Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Atheist, etc.
- Body Size Diversity: body shapes other than the typical thin or super fit, such as plus size.
- Age Diversity: women aged 40 and older, especially in a leading role and/or in a romantic relationship with a younger love interest.
Remember to consider pronouns used on the page when describing your characters, even supporting characters. Writing “she” or “they” instead of “he” for a no-name supporting role with one line of dialogue changes the way the reader sees the character and populates the world of your story in a more diverse way.
Who has the most lines in your script is another important factor to address in how diverse your screenplay is.
In 2016, The Pudding executed the largest ever analysis of film dialogue by gender. Their intentions were not to prove anything but to find the facts through analysis of about 2,000 films. Spoiler alert: their findings revealed that white male characters have the most dialogue – even at times when a female character is the protagonist.
Assess which characters have the most dialogue in your script. Final Draft created a tool for this with input from The Geena Davis Institute. It’s called “Inclusivity Analysis” and is available with Final Draft 11.0.2 or newer versions. Inclusivity Analysis is also a fantastic way to gauge other facets of the diversity in your script, like the ratio of male to female characters.
If you use Final Draft, check out the video below for how this tool works:
If you use Highland for your screenwriting software, versions 2.0 and newer have a “Gender Analysis” tool to help you see which characters have the most dialogue. Here’s a brief video explaining the tool, narrated by screenwriter and Highland software creator John August:
If you don’t have professional screenwriting software, it’s as easy as assessing each scene’s dialogue as you re-read your script.
Stand Up For The Diversity In Your Script
This advice is about the process of working with others and developing your script. For the diversity and representation you’ve woven into your script to see the light of day, you, the writer and creator, need to be the advocate for your diverse characters. Compromising on the diversity in your script will lead to watered-down representation or a whitewashed cast.
Be discerning about the notes given to you on the diversity of your characters and know your script well enough to understand that if a character is changed, it affects the entirety of your story and the message it sends to the audience.
For example, if you write a feature with a queer woman of color as the lead, and your agent says they can sell it better if you change the protagonist to a white cisgender male that would appeal to a certain name actor, you as the writer must be the one to speak up and not see the diversity in your script as a negotiating point.
Screenwriter and showrunner Tze Chun offers this insider tip for how to make the diversity in your script part of the agreement when selling your screenplay:
Reminder that if you are selling your project to Hollywood and are concerned about whitewashing you can add a casting restriction clause to help prevent this.
See below for sample language I used for a project with a Chinese protagonist. Please RT❤️ pic.twitter.com/KHytiJ64aQ
— T$E CHUN (@thetzechun) September 18, 2020
Screenplays are a blueprint for the rest of production. When you infuse your script with the full diverse spectrum of humanity and refuse to compromise on it, that sets the tone for the production from the beginning and paves the path for a story that can speak to the hearts of many.
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.