Dara Marks at Toronto Screenwriting Conference 2013

Engaging the Feminine Heroic

Dara Marks

In a follow-up to her very popular Transformational Arc talk of previous years, Dara Marks took us through another aspect of character development, something she calls the feminine heroic. A counterpart to the well known hero’s journey, the feminine heroic completes the hero’s character and thus is not necessarily tied simply to female heroes. Rather, it encapsulates the feminine side of everyone’s natures.

Transformational Arc

She explains, as writers, we are constantly trying to understand the narrative in which we are living, but we experience that narrative from a very personal perspective. Thus, in her canonical transformational arc, there is both an outer realm, where external forces act upon the hero, and an inner realm, the more personal influences. We grow, she says, only in relationship to demands on us to grow, and the external realm stimulates the internal reckoning.

The union of the feminine and masculine brings about wholeness in the character. It is a combination of the masculine spirit, which represents all that we can be, and the feminine soul, the deepness of our authentic self. Marks offers the example of a tree, which may reach toward the sky, but is only as strong as the root system that provides it nutrients.

Everything we are in life is what comes from deep within ourselves.

Marks presented this relatively complicated diagram that illustrated the hero’s external and internal journey (and in many ways, reflects our own journey through counseling or life itself). To the left, we find the Ego Self, where the onus is on my aspirations and beliefs of me. To the right is the True Self, which is understood after reflection and denotes my understanding of myself in the universe.

The union of the masculine and feminine sides of a character creates a wholeness

The union of the masculine and feminine sides of a character creates a wholeness

Ego Self: All early development, even that of a child, relies very heavily on the development of the Ego, a sense of will and determination. We believe that we’re in charge, despite all evidence to the contrary.

So if we start the journey in the Ego Self realm, we can look at the External or Masculine side and the Internal or Feminine side of ourselves.

Masculine Ego: In the top left quadrant, we have the Call to Life, the external mission that demands we strive or ascend to a greater level. We assert the force of our will on the universe. This area therefore is associated with a youthful and energetic quality. We have to move forward. We cannot let fear hold us back. To do this, we must sacrifice our feminine side, pushing those feelings down, or we cannot move forward.

Marks suggests that the tragedy of Hamlet was that he couldn’t get beyond his feminine side when he needed to move forward. She also gives the very literal example of Agamemnon, who was forced to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia before the Greek ships would be allowed to voyage to Troy.

Feminine Ego: In the lower left quadrant of the diagram, we see the influence the masculine decision has on the feminine ego. We suffer a wound because part of us is no longer valued. We are literally abandoning a key part of our self and this will have a lingering effect. While we appear invincible externally, we are very vulnerable internally.

Thus, the feminine side needs to be rescued by the proverbial knight on a white charger. Marks is quick to point out that this is no time for political correctness as at this stage in our development, we just don’t have the internal skills to rescue ourselves.

She goes back to Greek myth to show how this works, focusing on the story of Demeter and her daughter Persephone, the latter of whom was abducted to the underworld by Hades to become his wife. Demeter was distraught at the loss of her daughter and journeyed to the underworld to bring her back to the surface.

The underworld experience may be difficult, but it is educational and we need to journey through it to come out more whole in the next stage.

Marriage of Death: The combination of the masculine and feminine ego is what Marks calls the Marriage of Death. Anytime we strive to become something new, it means the death to other aspects of our being. We just can’t strive at all things at the same time. But this marriage is not designed to last.

As Marks points out, the problem with striving is that it is doomed to failure. We can’t be rich enough, strong enough, famous enough, whatever enough. And it is at the moment of realization that our dreams are doomed that we have a Crisis of Faith (masculine side), which leads to an Awakening of Potential (feminine side). We move closer to the discovery of our true self, the right hand side of the diagram.

Masculine True Self: As the masculine ego passes through its crisis of faith, it suffers a fall from the unattainable heights, which converts the Call to Life into a Battle for Life. For self-renewal, it is essential that our delusions and illusions are shed during this descent, such as the belief that we are in control of our lives. And thus, at this stage, it is the masculine self that needs rescuing.

Marks offers the example of Odysseus (a popular subject at TSC this year) and the knowledge that his journey home was his great undoing as he loses more and more of his ego self (including his ships, crew, etc). The second half of his journey is literally the journey homeward toward his true self.

Feminine True Self: And who rescues the masculine true self? As the masculine side becomes more vulnerable, the feminine side becomes emboldened. We heal our wounds and reunite, turning pain and suffering into love and creativity.

The way out of our self-imposed purgatory is through compassion. We have to hear the story and then feel and acknowledge the pain. And it is only when the pain is given voice that it can move back from the underworld into life.

Marks exemplifies this aspect with the myth of Inanna and Erishkegal (which I do not know as well and so simply provide a link).

Sacred Marriage/True Self: It is at this point, through the sacred marriage of the masculine and feminine that we finally achieve the true self.

NOTE: All images and illustrations are property and copyright of Dara Marks and are used here without permission.

Toronto Screenwriting Conference – Day One Highlights


I am hoping to a more complete write-up shortly about the sessions I attended at the Toronto Screenwriting Conference this weekend, but here are some personal highlights/insights from today’s sessions.

Glen Mazzara – The Odyssey of Writing (former show runner for The Walking Dead)

Be your own writer: Mazzara shared his earliest experiences in starting as a writer and he said that in the early days of his career, he tried to write things that he thought screenplay readers wanted to see, but that ultimately, this was a failing approach. In his eyes, you have to write topics that reflect and come from you. Things that represent who you are and in what you are interested.

Making sense of your characters: He also offered an interesting tip on how to make sure the emotional/story arcs of your characters make sense. He suggested approaching it like an actor, whom he says is only interested in and therefore reads his own lines. Move through your screenplay, tracking only one character at a time—ignoring all others—and see if their progress makes sense. Are they angry in one scene and suddenly laughing in the next? Does that make sense? It’ll also allow you to tighten up their dialogue, he says. You then do this for each character in your screenplay to ensure each tracks correctly.

Dara Marks – Engaging the Feminine Heroic (renowned Hollywood script doctor)

Too often, we only explore how a character responds to outside forces (masculine heroic). For a character to be whole, Marks says, we must also examine what is happening within a character (feminine heroic).

At the beginning of a story, the character receives the external call to life and responds by striving for a goal. But to do this, she says, the character must sacrifice other aspects of themselves that will slow or stop their progress. This sacrifice is not without a cost and the internal psyche suffers a wound because part of it is no longer valued.

Unfortunately, the problem with striving is that it is doomed to failure—we can’t ever achieve enough of our goal. A crisis of faith occurs in the masculine self, that triggers an awakening of potential in the feminine self—internal fortitude.

Externally, the character falls as the call to life becomes a battle for life as its illusions are shattered, and when the outer self becomes vulnerable the internal self is emboldened and can heal the wounds, turning pain and suffering into creativity and love.

Thus, it is the sacred marriage of the internal and external selves that allows the character to discover its true self.

David Hudgens – Breakdown of the One-Hour Drama (showrunner of Parenthood)

On receiving notes: The most important thing about receiving notes on your screenplay is understanding what’s the note behind the note. The note itself is often directed at something that may be relatively minor, but in its essence, it speaks to a deeper issue in the writing. Look for that essence.

Beau Willimon – Masterclass (co-creator of Netflix’s House of Cards)

Writing screenplays ≠ making movies: It is entirely possible to have a good career writing screenplays for movies without ever getting any of your movies made. It’s a numbers game, as studios constantly contract out for hundreds of screenplays, hoping that at least one of them will turn into a profitable movie, but they can’t afford to make all of the movies to find out.