“All you can do is try your best to make everyone recognisible as humans,” explains screenwriter Marnie Dickens.
Dickens is the writer behind BBC Three drama Thirteen, the channel’s flagship programme following its move online
The show follows 26-year old Ivy Moxam (Jodie Comer) who finds her way home 13 years after she was abducted on her way from school.
“There [were] several other projects in development around the same time of someone being captured and escaping,” recalls Dickens. “But most of them were told that way: captured and escaping.”
“We basically started where a show might end and tried [to] be as forward-looking as possible.”
With a background in TV production, Dickens started out as a runner straight out of university before becoming 3rd Assistant Director on a variety of shows, “basically just Spooks and Law and Order. I ping-ponged between them.”
But unlike many screenwriters, Dickens hasn’t been harbouring a passion for the pen since childhood. “When I was doing the running, I didn’t think I wanted to be a writer,” she remembers. “I fell sick, and I just started writing scripts.”
“I always feel that you read interviews with writers and they have always written, and they had a little diary under their pillow… I like that, but my story is, I stopped [production], I wrote and here we are,” she laughs.
That’s not to say that she was an overnight success. As with every new writer, her first projects were, in her words, “very very shit.”
“It’s not like I started later so everything was gold the minute I picked up my quill,” she insists.
However her background in TV did prove useful. “I knew the industry, and I knew there was no point in just writing any old thing.”
Strong characters, she says, are the key to successful drama – a sentiment that one of her writing idols, Sally Wainwright echoes.
“I can get myself excited about most worlds – although once I was looking at the world of finance. That was a bit of a stretch,” she adds laughing.
Her ‘thing’ however – “most writers have a ‘thing’,” she believes – is strong women.
“It’s difficult when you talk about strong women, people automatically assume you mean weak men as the counter point. Absolutely not!” Dickens insists.
However, some writers are more interested in writing the men than the women, or vice versa.
She gives the example of acclaimed film Nocturnal Animals. “It’s a good, divisive film,” she says. “[But] I took something completely different from it than my male friends. It was like we had seen two completely different films. It struck me that people are drawn to different things.”
It is something she has run up against in her own work.
“When I am doing a project,” she explains mournfully, “the character that I like the most, everyone goes ‘Oh, I just didn’t warm to that character. She’s too cold. She’s too hard. She’s too difficult.”
In Thirteen this was DS Lisa Merchant, one of the detectives charged with investigating Ivy’s abduction and return.
“Very deliberately I wanted to have her to be the more questioning, professional, logical, emotionally-distanced cop, and [her partner, DI Elliot Carne] to be the one who is sort of emotionally entangled by Ivy’s story,” she says.
"Anyone who comes through that experience and can string sentences together, is incredible in my book.”
However, Dickens admits, that many of the characters are not in any sense likeable.
“They’ve all, to different extents, elicited quite strong reactions – which I suppose shows they’re all strong characters,” she says. “You don’t react strongly to a character that doesn’t have much definition.”
And naturally the strongest reactions were to the show’s central character, Ivy, played by the RTS award-nominated Jodie Comer.
“Jodie’s performance is the reason the show got the audience it got,” Dickens believes.
“A lot of people didn’t like Ivy, or were suspicious of her,” the writer explains. “[But] you needed people to keep watching either because they did like her and wanted to know what happened, or because they didn’t and wanted to know what lie was going to be uncovered.”
For her part, Dickens is extremely protective of the character.
“I get very defensive of her because, although it obviously wasn’t based on a real story, [I felt] just a real responsibility to anyone watching who might have suffered abuse.
“You read some of the real-life accounts, and anyone who comes through that experience and can string sentences together, is incredible in my book.”
Now she is focused on other projects including Forty Elephants a girl-gang drama based in 1920s London, which is based on a real-life gang of “vicious but real and flawed women doing bad things for good reasons.”
“I certainly wouldn’t do something that was an all-male action piece,” she insists. But an all-female action piece? “Absolutely!” she laughs!
Thirteen has been nominated alongside London Spy and National Treasure at the RTS Programme Awards 2017 in the Mini-Series category, The writers of each of the nominated shows have been approached for an interview.
Click to read an interview with National Treasure writer Jack Thorne