Sunday, April 5, 2015

Writing for balance, and going beyond the Bechdel test

by B. Lynch, author of King Callie

B. Lynch
If you are a writer, and you use the internet with some regularity to access writing forums, Twitter, and what have you, the odds are very good that you know what the Bechdel test is - or its evil goateed mirror universe twin, the Reverse Bechdel. You might’ve applied the Bechdel to one of your stories, or totally judged a book/movie/comic/etc. because it didn’t match up. Or, you might be on
e of those writers who consider it an arbitrary measurement forcing you and your ink-ilk to include characters that they shouldn’t, and therefore impinges on your creative rights.

But at the core, the Bechdel is flawed. It’s too easy to pass, and it ignores the real issue – balanced casts with agency.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Bechdel, a brief refresher: the Bechdel test was named for cartoonist Alison Bechdel, whose characters in the comic Dykes to Watch Out For discussed a three-part rule for evaluating the female-friendliness of movies that has since become an indicator of gender bias across a variety of media. It’s a three part rule, and the parts are as follows:

1) The movie has at least two named female characters
2) Who talk to each other
3) About something other than a man.

The Reverse Bechdel was suggested (or rather, first recorded on the Internet, so same thing, really) in 2008, by Jeff Fecke – you can find a link here. It came about after he realized that, upon writing a female-centric novel, he saw that his male characters didn’t talk to each other much, and would fail a male-focused Bechdel test (a.k.a the Evil Goateed Mirror Universe Bechdel).
Alison Bechdel

He also makes a good point: failing the Bechdel or the Reverse Bechdel is a direct byproduct of the gender of the main character of the film. If the movie has a male protagonist, it’s more likely to fail the Bechdel. If it’s a female, it’ll be the Reverse Bechdel – because there will be fewer opportunities for primary/secondary characters of the opposite gender to talk about things that aren’t centered around the protag’s gender.

Here's the thing, though. Passing the Bechdel/Reverse Bechdel is EASY, which is why it’s such a slap in the face when it doesn’t happen. Here’s how: take a film like one of my favorites, Pacific Rim, which won’t pass because Mako Mori doesn’t talk to any other female characters. It still has a brilliant female lead whose plot arc actually defines the movie. How do you make it pass the Bechdel? Add one scene where she’s talking with Sasha Kaidanovsky (the only other visible female Jaeger pilot) about Jaegers. That’s it. Pacific Rim passes the Bechdel in 30 seconds or less.

But remember, the Bechdel is a jumping off point. It’s a bare minimum for writers focused on gender diversity. It was also originally applied to film, which is another important thing to remember - film doesn’t have the luxury of time. Each scene has to drive the plot forward meaningfully. We might like to see more done with characters, but when everything revolves around how they interact with the plot, and the clock going tick-tick-tick, we can’t have that. Not in film, anyway.

We can, however, in novels. We have the luxury of space and time, and our characters aren’t always set in stone. So let’s start there – we’ve got freedom, and we can mess around. Let’s assume that a hypothetical novel has skewed heavily one way or the other, and begin with that.

Think about the composition of your cast. We can save a discussion of diversity / mental health / able-bodied-ness / body type for another day; in your cast as it is, think about the gender of the people who are in it. Don’t arbitrarily decide “Oh, this person can be male, this person can be female, make it fifty-fifty, boom, call it a day” – Give it some serious thought. Weigh each character, and ask yourself: do they need to be male or female?

And if you really want to examine how the balance has affected the story, gender-swap all the characters. Then go through their interactions. Would you be comfortable writing a story like that? Probably not. Which is how some of your readers might feel. But you don’t necessarily need a balance for each story; like Fecke mentioned in his article, some stories will naturally skew one way or another. Any given Dresden Files novel from Jim Butcher will inevitably skew male over female. Elizabeth Bear’s Karen Memoryis the other way around. The more important thing is that a gender balance feels workable to you, that it presents opportunities for these characters to interact - and more importantly, for them to impact the plot.

In King Callie, I came at writing a fantasy novel from that type of perspective – inspired loosely by A Song of Ice and Fire, but more inspired by TV dramas, like House of Cards, The Borgias, Downton Abbey, Breaking Bad, and Battlestar Galactica in terms of pacing, composition, and character gender balance. I wanted to make sure that there was ample opportunity for main female characters to stand out as much as for male, but also to have diversity of character, along with potential for solid antagonists of both gender. I wanted them to be capable, intelligent, and resolute - whether they were male or female. That shouldn't be remarkable; we all know women and men like that.

Our fiction shouldn’t be any different.

KING CALLIE (Callie's Saga, #1) by B. Lynch

Caliandra, teenage Princess of Barra, is in dire straits: her father, King Rionn, is dying; her fiancĂ©e left her to marry a richer woman; and her brother Valric's gone missing, while looking for a cure for their father's illness. Her very title hinges on Valric's success – since their father, King Rionn, was picked to rule by Peacebringer, a magic axe, and when he dies, Valric and Caliandra lose everything.

But the Royal Seer, Royth, sent the Prince on a fool's errand into dangerous territory, and for good reason. Valric was to be the next king - and according to Royth's visions, Valric would destroy their kingdom… while Caliandra would rebuild it.

When Valric turns up dead, King Rionn succumbs to disease, and Peacebringer goes missing, Caliandra and her mother, the Queen, must out-wit Marrol, the King’s Minister of War, in a high-stakes game of political ambition against a rival willing to do anything to keep the throne. What will Caliandra and her allies do to get her back in power – and what price will Caliandra pay to wear the crown

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Author Bio:

B. Lynch is a New York area-based mobile game writer who also enjoys writing novels, reading fantasy and lit fic, watching 80′s action movies, keeping up with Downton Abbey, and vegan baking. He was once a fight scene extra in one of the worst fantasy movies of all time, so he figures it’s all uphill from there.

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