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Giant Thief, Crown Thief, and How to Fail the Bechdel Test

David Tallerman

David Tallerman

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.

Giant Thief (cover)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.

The Escort by GorremWhat 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.

Crown Thief (cover)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.

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18 Comments

  1. As a reader, I’m learning to recognize when writers miss these things, and when they get it right.

    We can only try to do and demand more as readers, writers and fans.

  2. Zyrah says:

    An interesting article. I didn’t know about the Bechdel test, but I do agree that a diverse cast is probably always the best way to go. At the very least, the books with more diversified casts tend to be the ones I enjoy most, simply because I feel that if they’re not just pretty dresses for show it helps (or maybe even forces) the author to really flesh out unique characters. A cast of five male characters who are all sworn warrior-monks is very different from a cast including something like, say, a homosexual character whose race looks like diminutive elves even at maturity and who is in love with a human who will probably have a very difficult time (even if he/she wanted to) returning that love.

    Anyway, most of the work you fielded as examples for failing the test is old princess and prince stuff; the entertainment world is a bit better today and you have authors like Amanda Downum painting eagerly with genders and gender roles.

  3. Vincent Quill says:

    i think the Bechdel test is inaccurate, as it makes perfect sense for the female protagonist to discuss the male villain and how to beat said villain, as any other dialogue might cause your writing to deviate from its path. however, if they only discuss males in a romantic sense, then i think it should fail the test. if they aren’t discussing the villain or their male (if in a medieval setting, women wouldn’t have been allowed play the roles men were,) enemies/allies, what are they talking about? it doesn’t hurt to add in a few female characters, but it is not sexist for them not to play a huge role IN A EUROPEAN MEDIEVAL SETTING. in an urban fantasy or another genre set closer to the modern era, it is inexcusable to fail the test. my own work in progress is set is a counterpart to Eurasia during various time periods, so the majority of main characters are male, but it follows the story of two groups, one all male five man band, and another two female with one male trio of younger heroes. all of the heroes are warriors of some sort, but i don’t think i fell into the typical chain mail bikini clad heroines, one being a Celt, and the other being a Samurai, neither being astonishingly beautiful, and being equally as important as the male characters, and not having to be rescued every two pages by our perfect hero. these are just my opinions, but i really think the bechdel test should clarify HOW the women talk about men.

    • Vincent Quill says:

      My comment sounds ridiculously sexist, but I forgot to mention this only applies if the men talk about the same things (e.g. male villain and the means to dispatch him), you don’t want double standards, do you?

      • ellejaybee says:

        I’d agree with you, if I thought there was a single book out there where *every single* conversation between men (or men and women) was about another male character. You don’t fail the Bechdel test by having 2 women talk about a man, you fail if that’s *all* they ever talk about.

        It’s also worth mentioning that both women have to have names as well, so having a main female character talk to an un-named female guard wouldn’t be enough.

  4. Bear in mind, though, that a fantasy world doesn’t necessarily have to be based on any specific RW society, and certainly not necessarily on a mediaeval one. If you can justify it internally, there’s no reason why the society can’t be whatever way you want it. Of course, there’s going to be some societies that have attitudes we wouldn’t find acceptable today (fantasy isn’t about creating utopias) but it has to be justified, not just an excuse.

    Of course, as the article said, there are lots of reasons for a story to fail the Bechdel test. My novel At An Uncertain Hour fails for the simple reason it has a male 1st person protagonist who by definition has to be involved in every scene. On the other hand, I’ve written at least one story where the only male characters are bit-parts. I don’t consider one to be more “virtuous” than the other.

    • Vincent Quill says:

      Yes, I seen your point, but if it IS based off a real world civilisation, then you shouldn’t put a modern society into it. Of course you will have to try and show the readers that your patriarchal society is deeply flawed, but that is no reason to force your female characters into discussing something that may not be relevant.

      • Anne Lyle says:

        However you also need to realise that most RW historical cultures _did_ have women in all kinds of roles, but they’re less likely to have been mentioned in history books written by men 🙂

        Medieval noblewomen basically ran their husband’s estates whilst the men were off fighting or just keeping the king company; the wives of London tailors ran secondhand clothing shops (because they weren’t allowed to be guild members in their own right); women were the main brewers of ale in medieval England…the list goes on.

      • ellejaybee says:

        “My novel At An Uncertain Hour fails for the simple reason it has a male 1st person protagonist who by definition has to be involved in every scene” – That wouldn’t necessarily fail the test

        The scene or conversation doesn’t have to be exclusively female. Your protagonist could be involved in a conversation that includes several people two of whom are female. Or they could hear a conversation between to women that they are not a part of.

        If those two women have names and are talking to each other about something other than a man, then your book passes the test.

      • Devon says:

        Do try to keep in mind that ‘based on’ does not mean one has to incorporate every single bit of said real world civilisation. If you did you might as well write historical fantasy. The thing about basing something on a real world equivalent is that you can pick and choose the parts you like, leave what you don’t and make up the rest. Which means that you can mix a fantasy version of a historical setting with a more modern way of thinking. That’s the fun part about a fantasy setting.

  5. Jamie says:

    In a European Medieval setting, it’s still perfectly easy to pass the Bechtel test. How hard is it to have your character pass by a couple of women talking about how drafty a castle is, how fine a tapestry has been woven, the best way to make dumplings or remove a stain? Real life conversations, the kind that add detail and depth to a fictional world, are conducted by women as well as men. It’s like the women which would have been pervasive in such a society are just completely invisible. The conversations don’t even have to play a major role in the story, they just have to be present – an acknowledgement that women exist, and aren’t just there to talk about men.

    • Jamie says:

      Bechdel. Not Bechtel. My Freudian slip before coffee. Still appropriate. Don’t treat your characters like cartoon cat calling construction workers would.

      • Vincent Quill says:

        I see what you mean, you should try to pass, but forcing in unnecessary dialogue isn’t always a good idea. Your characters may never experience anyone outside of the ‘important’ people of your world, which, if you’re going for some sort of gritty realism, probably won’t contain women. That is not to say women can’t, won’t, are less able, or anyway the inferior choice for the job, but in a strictly realistic mediaeval society, people did have those opinions and women were disallowed from important positions.

    • Actually, mediaeval women weren’t necessarily just slaves or ornaments (or both). Although they certainly didn’t have the range of choices men had, many women actively ran the household, since the men were away so much, which could mean anything from keeping up the accounts to generally managing an estate (for the more upper-class women). They’d have plenty to talk about, not just sewing or cooking.

      • Vincent Quill says:

        Yes, if you are writing a long fantasy detailing the lives of EVERYONE, it isn’t easy to fail. You practically have to try to fail! But if your story is a very plot-oriented high fantasy, following the story of your presumably all male band of warriors and their conflict with their presumably all male villains, paying no attention to external affairs, the only non warrior people your protagonists meet being kings and noblemen, your narrative won’t likely allow for talk on keeping accounts etc.
        I do accept that they had important roles, but in the action oriented mediaeval fantasy that we see so often it just is an unnecessary addition to the story that may alienate your readers.

  6. Ben Overmyer says:

    I had never heard of this test until your post, linked from the World Building community on G+.

    As someone who designs fantasy gaming books and tries to keep things on level footing for everyone, I will have to watch out for this in my own writing.

    Very interesting.

  7. Anne Lyle says:

    I agree with David that, whilst you can’t always pass the Bechdel Test and with good reason (e.g. a single male PoV, which means that there are no scenes that are only between two women), it’s a great jumping-off point for fixing unexamined prejudices in your writing.

    I didn’t have many female characters in my first novel, because it was focused on Elizabethan politics and the theatre, both predominantly male spheres – even where two female characters did talk, they were mainly discussing plot events that touched upon their male family members or work colleagues. I therefore tried to vary the gender of the characters a bit more in the following books, and that was an interesting exercise that brought in new plot possibilities! However, the nature of the ongoing series means that pretty much any stretch of dialogue is likely to mention men at some point, and I see nothing wrong with that.

    To me it’s far more important that the women have agency (i.e. play active roles in the story) than that they arbitrarily discuss an irrelevant topic.

  8. JW says:

    My female chars already passed the test in every installment despite being unaware of its existence. Difficult not t pass it with a 50/50 gender split.

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