Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Complications of the Bechdel Test in Writing

The Bechdel Test can best be described as a litmus test that is applied to movies to evaluate the role or presence of women in the film.  To pass the test, the movie must have two female, named characters, that speak to each other during the film about any subject other than men.  It is a striking simple test, and yet a vast majority of films fail to meet it.

In literature, you don't have screen time and the rules should be somewhat different.  In theory, with writing, it should be easier to have the Bechdel Test requirements met.  Yet, I've found that depending on the factors behind your story, this can be surprisingly difficult to pass, despite the fact that the number and significance of the female characters in the story exceed the number of males.

In Extrication, the story is told first person through the eyes of a thirteen year old boy.  He has several female characters that he interacts with, three of which are a significant part of his life.  He has his mother, the neighbor, Gail Rosenberg, and his long distance friend, Claire.  Also, being a thirteen year old boy, he is attending school during the day with countless kids his age of both genders.  So, with all of these female characters, it should be easy to have the Bechdel Test passed, right?  Wrong.

One of the problems with writing, is that every scene should carry with it a purpose.  Having an abundance of female characters in the story makes it possible to have two of them interact.  But, they need to interact in such a way to advance the story.  In the case of Extrication, the story is about a young boy finding that he has an extraordinary power.  This greatly limits the options available for two female characters talking to advance the story.

Fortunately, in my bag of tricks, I was able to find a way to work this out.  Part of telling a story is setting the scene of the world.  One way to learn about the world is with conversations between characters.  If the piece of information is important to the reader, but not something your character would necessarily talk about, you have a perfect opportunity.  You can have your character overhear two characters discuss this in front of your protagonist.

If you have a piece of writing that does not meet the Bechdel test, you should look closely and ask yourself why doesn't it.  Adding in a scene where two students talk about an important piece of world news isn't a major change.  You can also look at your existing scenes where a group of characters are holding a conversation and see if you can switch around who's talking to whom to make the story pass the Bechdel test.  This small bit of effort takes nothing away from the story and makes the book just that much more accessible in a world where Bechdel tests are needed.

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