Writing from viewpoints that differ from your own can be difficult. It’s why Mark Twain said, “write what you know.” Characters will not move organically through a story if they aren’t grounded in reality, and the only reality you know is your own. That doesn’t mean there’s just 12 versions of yourself interacting with one another for 300 pages, but each character will fundamentally carry a piece of the writer’s experience in some way, shape or form.
But, let’s say you are a male writer and you feel like your male lead needs a love interest. Rather than putting that piece of “you” in the female character, you go about creating someone whose sole role is to walk by the main character, catch their eye, and give them a romantic arc. Maybe you add conflict in there for them to interact with, like the lead’s unapproving mother, or a stern best friend. While good intentioned, she’s missing fundamental building blocks that your main character was afforded.
In all likelihood, this work of fiction would fail the Bechdel test.
This test was named after its creator, Alison Bechdel, wrote a comic strip in 1985 that stated the following;
- The movie has to have at least two women in it,
- Who talk to each other,
- About something other than a man.
Since then, the test has been applied to more fiction mediums than just film, even though that’s where the test is still most discussed. I’m sure you wouldn’t be surprised to find out that well over half of mainstream films fail the Bechdel test. We do have a much more woke culture now than ever before, so there should be a positive trend here in the years ahead. One of the most transformative genres for this has actually been horror. While it was populated with generic slashers in the 80’s, films like The Babadook and The Witch, have recently given female leads so much more to do.
Novels can still fall into this trap but more so if they are a genre tales. Literary stories, as they pull more from real life experiences, tend to end up on the positive side of the Bechdel test. When it comes to female representation, literature just has more breathing room than other mediums to build out characters in a less hurried way so there’s less of an excuse to fail here. Short stories do have quicker paces but that holds true for main characters in these shorter works as well.
All characters should feel like they have a whole life that we are only getting a small glimpse of, versus being a caricature for the main character to pass by in their story. Especially for us male writers, I think it’s important that we take a real critical look at our own work when it comes to females or other minorities being included. There’s likely an inclination to write from a male perspective (see Mark Twain’s quote back at the start) and that can be okay, but, are you giving enough thought to the female characters you’ve included in the story? Or, if you have decided to give a female lead their own story, is she multi-dimensional enough to converse with the other women you’ve included about topics other than men?
I have failed the Bechdel test before, and doing research for this post has made me critically reflect on so many of my stories. It’s a good reminder to always rethink story elements so they aren’t just shortcuts or lazy writing, and instead include rich characters. One short story that I’m querying does have a female protagonist which I’m quite proud of, and hopefully will be picked up at some point.
What are your thoughts on the Bechdel test? It’s certainly had criticism over the years. I’d be happy to hear from any readers who think similarly or otherwise.
Keep turning the page,