Giant Thief, Crown Thief, and How to Fail the Bechdel Test
Amongst my endless goals for my first novel Giant Thief – which, looking back, were basically a wish list of the things I’d like to see in the type of book I had in mind – was the determination to try and come up with a strong female central character. I wanted to steer away from the cliché of an all-male central cast, but equally if not more so, from having female characters running round in fur bikinis or getting stuck in the thankless role of love interest or playing any part that could be described as ‘token’. I wanted a properly strong female character; one who played a major role in driving the story, who wasn’t constantly being rescued by men, who had authority that had nothing to do with her chest size.
And I thought I’d done okay. Marina Estrada is a successful and respected town mayor, and that responsibility and her basic good sense and acumen make her the one person to recognise the invading warlord Moaradrid for the threat he is, not to mention the one who gets to lead an army against him. She’s tough and brave when called to be, but also empathetic towards those she has responsibility for, and not above doubting herself and learning from her mistakes. She might not be the narrator, but she’s the one who makes most of the crucial plot decisions.
Yeah, I thought I’d pretty much covered that whole strong female character thing – until I came across the Bechdel test.
For those who don’t know it, a brief introduction: Created by Alison Bechdel in her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, all a work has to do to pass is contain at least one scene where two or more female characters have a conversation that isn’t about a man or men. That’s it. Two women, one conversation, and all it has to be about is any subject under the sun except men. I mean, nothing could fail that, right?
Well, nothing but, oh say, the entire original Star Wars movie trilogy. Or any of the Lord of the Rings films. Or the vast majority of films made in the last century. Or, for that matter, Giant Thief. And that was bad enough, but it didn’t take me long to realise I’d dropped the ball not once but twice…because the sequel I was just then finishing, Crown Thief, failed as well.
Still, I had no shortage of excuses. Both Giant Thief and Crown Thief are narrated in first person by my protagonist Easie Damasco, and Damasco has a tendency to underestimate Estrada, as he does most everyone – a habit that only serves to emphasise how much tougher, smarter and all round better at almost everything than him she is. Both books have relatively small casts, particularly Giant Thief, and both are heavily action driven; it’s not as if any of the characters find time to talk about much besides what’s happening at that minute and what the other characters are up to. Fast-paced genre fiction, after all, doesn’t exactly lend itself to people standing about discussing the weather.
So, no lack of excuses. And it took me a while to realise that, while they were all valid to a degree, they still remained just excuses at heart.
What I came to appreciate, slowly and over the course of those two books, was that good intentions aren’t enough. Because the reason I’d failed the Bechdel test wasn’t that I had a male protagonist, or that I was writing about a patriarchal society, and hopefully it wasn’t even that I was secretly a misogynist just looking for an excuse to foist my deep, dark prejudices on an unsuspecting public. It was just that I’d let my own circumstances colour my perceptions of the fictional society I was creating to such a degree that I’d failed to understand how that society would really work.
I can see now that there are plenty of minor and probably a couple of major characters who could have been female without it making the slightest difference to the plot, but let’s settle for one straightforward example: in a country where a woman could become mayor and lead an army, isn’t it at least possible that there would be a few female guards? If my goal had merely been to meet the criteria of the Bechdel test then it really would have been that simple. Give a couple of guards a sex change, let Estrada talk to them about the sort of things a mayor would talk to guards about, and I’d have passed the with flying colours – and created a more plausible, more internally consistent world in the doing.
And that, for me as a writer, is the crucial point. What I realised is that trying not to restrict the characters you depict in fiction on the basis of gender, race, sexual proclivity or any other criteria isn’t a matter of political correctness, or of appeasing anyone, and it certainly isn’t about passing tests for the sake of it. Diversifying your cast is of value because imposing needless limitations on yourself restricts not just the realism of the worlds you portray, but their breadth and possibility as well. Fiction, particularly fantasy fiction, has almost boundless scope; as limitless as human experience and imagination. With such a vast playground, why choose to keep to one corner, turning a blind eye to the rest? Simply put, inclusivity means more possibilities; more possibilities mean better stories.
The Bechdel test, of course, is only one criterion, useful in only certain circumstances; there are plenty of other equally valid ways to talk about this subject. Even if I didn’t get it one hundred percent right, I’m still proud of both Giant Thief and Crown Thief, and proud of Marina Estrada, who remains more than the equal of anyone, male or female, in either book. And at any rate, I get to take comfort from the fact that I’ve learned from at least some of my mistakes. In Prince Thief, the closing book of the trilogy, Estrada finally meets her match, in the shape of a woman named Kalyxis – and I’ve finally managed to write a Tales of Damasco novel that passes the Bechdel test.
Title image by Belibr.