The Woman in the Story: Helen Jacey on developing better female characters
WFTV was delighted to hear the news that the second edition of Helen Jacey’s creative guide The Woman in the Story: Writing Female Characters in Trouble, in Love and In Power is to be published in 2017. We helped to launch the first edition six years ago, and it went on to become an industry bestseller with its distinctive and creative approach to developing better female characters for film and TV. As female characters reach new heights on our screens, we thought we’d catch up with Helen to find out what we can expect with the second edition…
“This edition’s goal is the same: to inspire storytellers to make choices about characters that feel true to them, whilst having the confidence to take risks and have fun on the way.”
When there are so many complex female characters now, why is there a second edition of The Woman in the Story?
I genuinely thought the first edition would be a one-off publication; there’s an argument that a book on female characters shouldn’t be necessary with the rightful industry focus on diversity and challenging of all kinds of negative stereotypes on the page, behind and in front of the camera. As there are so many great female characters on screen, with more agency, more POV, leading more compelling stories, the second edition celebrates these and aims to inspire writers to keep the momentum up – and there’s still some way to go! Older women protagonists are finally on the rise. This edition’s goal is the same: to inspire storytellers to make choices about characters that feel true to them, whilst having the confidence to take risks and have fun on the way.
Is the new edition very different?
Yes! As the book’s really geared towards the creative process, it has been refreshed with a whole range of new and updated case studies of female-driven stories, such as Orange is the New Black. New chapters talk about the Heroine’s Journey model, writing female driven biopics, and developing characters across platforms – with lots of new exercises to help the reader be ‘gender mindful’. I was thrilled to meet American producer Susan Cartsonis (What Women Want, Deidra & Laney Rob a Train), who is committed to making stories with complex female characters, and who provided a fabulous new Foreword.
“I was invited to do a lot of training, story consultancy and writing on all things ‘heroine’. So the book took me on quite an unexpected journey!”
Really overwhelming! I didn’t expect such a wide appreciation of the book. I think this boils down to timing partly, the diversity awareness was a trickle not the tidal wave it is now, and screenwriting guides didn’t feature anything on gender. The book seemed to hit a nerve in so many writers, directors and producers for their development challenges. Many have said it offered useful tools to fix female character dilemmas or helped them find new layers in their stories. The book was also useful to those working within international film agencies to support more female-driven projects in their own industries and I was invited to do a lot of training, story consultancy and writing on all things ‘heroine’. So the book took me on quite an unexpected journey!
Any negative reactions?
Not really. Somebody got rather cross because the book didn’t mention Buffy…the second edition doesn’t either I’ve just realised! But now I’ve mentioned her here so…
Who is a stand-out memorable female character in your opinion?
Annalise Keating (How to Get Away with Murder). She is a character who just had to be created. She’s bursting with M-factor. She’s a genius, a strategist, and a compassionate woman.
Any memorable moments with the book over the past six years?
Just after the book came out I was invited by the Norwegian Film Institute to give a keynote on the work of Liv Ullmann at the Liv Ullman Symposium in front of Liv Ullmann (picture below). She was truly inspirational and most supportive when I stupidly lost my passport!
What are you working on now?
I’m now very consumed by writing my own crime fiction novel series – Elvira Slate Investigations – walking my talk. She’s a very new kind of detective set in the ’40s. Updates will be at www.helenjacey.com.
Can you give a quick tip to our writer members?
It seems obvious but find or create a small writers group where you live to share work and get regular feedback. Having a group is good for the process and good for the soul!
Speaking of writers groups…
The WFTV Writers’ Group will next meet on Wednesday 14 June when Helen will deliver a masterclass, and copies of her book will be available to purchase. Find out more and register here.
NB. You must be a WFTV member to register for this event.