There And Draft Again

A Fellowship of Fantasy Writers

Is your Fantasy Novel gender-biased? April 3, 2013

I am a Fantasy writer. I am a reader. And I am a (young) woman. Because of who I am and the way I was brought up, I am always asking myself how women are represented in fiction, especially Fantasy. And since I write Fantasy books myself, I am always careful to avoid the usual pitfalls of gender-biased novels.

But how, you ask, do I know I am writing a novel that represents women in a way that is both realistic and unbiased?

First, you need to ask yourself if there are women in your story. As incredible as it may sounds, too many Fantasy novels published nowadays STILL don’t have a female main character. We can forgive Tolkien because he wrote his books in the 1940s. But in 2013, if a book doesn’t have a female main character, I’m sorry to say I’m likely to leave it on the shelf, or to read it and hate it. And it’s not because I’m a feminist. It’s because I’m a reader who lives in the 21st Century.

But let’s say your novel has a female character, whose part is somewhat important to your plot and story. To check if your book is gender-biased, you can use the Bechdel Test.

The Bechdel test was introduced by Alison Bechdel in 1985. She credited the idea for the test to a friend, Liz Wallace.

The test is as follows:

1. The piece of fiction in question must have at least two (named) female characters.

2. They must speak to each other.

3. They must converse about something other than a man.

Anything with a score lower than 3 fails.

The test moved into mainstream criticism in the 2010s and shows that a great proportion of contemporary works fail to pass this threshold. The test was originally conceived for evaluating films, but has since been applied to other media.

Most recently, it was applied to the new Doctor Who series.

Doctor Who

Here are the results:

Total percent of failed episodes: 35.2%

Total percent of episodes in which there were two named female characters, but they didn’t speak to one another: 14.8%

Total percent of episodes without two named female characters: 8%

That’s one example among many.

So would your novel pass the Bechdel Test? If not, will you revise it? I’d love to read your comments below!



13 Responses to “Is your Fantasy Novel gender-biased?”

  1. Alex Wells Says:

    Mine passes the test! The only thing is I’m worried people will be put off. 4 main characters, two are female, and they both appear as damsels in distress. They get out of the situations and are strong women, but I hope potential readers would give it a chance! One is kind of assisting a throne claimant, but they lose and are captured, the other gets captured due to naivety…

  2. jcckeith Says:

    My book definitely passes the test. My concern is the opposite, am I going to far to try and make these women non-stereotypical?

  3. Yes! My main character is female and there are three other named female characters (admittedly one is four years old!) in ‘A Construct of Angels’ who talk to each other, but rarely about men…there are more pressing issues! My main character does ponder on why she is attracted to the Angel in the title, but juggles that with her rather pragmatic outlook on life.

  4. deshipley Says:

    I almost said, “I’m a reader who lives in the 21st century, and a book’s lack of female characters isn’t in itself enough to turn me off.”

    Then I realized, wait, I don’t live here. I just visit from my head, every now and again, and that territory doesn’t correspond well to any real point in either history or geography. So we may assume I’m not a terribly representative example of today’s female readership.

    That being said, I will say that I believe authors should approach their handling of female characters the same way they should approach *any* aspect of their writing: They should strive to challenge themselves, but not push so hard toward some quota/formula/statistical ideal that they lose sight of their story and their voice. Criteria like the Bechdel Test may be eye-opening as far as your stories’ patterns and show you where you may want to change things up, but they are not the dividing line between a good story and a bad one.

    • I like this (last paragraph) observation a lot. Alotalot.

      The B-test is valid, that is, it proves what it sets out to prove (male and female characters are treated/portrayed differently).

      I tried to make up my own 3-point test that expressed what I’m looking for in a story, This is the best I’ve got so far in my “Helmericks test”:

      1. Does the story-issue apply to anyone who doesn’t look or live like the affected character?
      2. Does the main character spend meaningful time with individuals inherently different than him/herself?
      3. Does more than one central character choose to disadvantage her/himself for the benefit of someone else (deserving or not, able to reciprocate or not)?

      This is a more-useful to me in finding or framing the stories I enjoy.

  5. Shah Wharton Says:

    Mine passes… Luna has Flo ( her best friend and Shadow who lives her head) and another friend – Eliza – is a kick-ass vampire. But her enemy is also female and her mother sucks big time! So I don’t tell readers woman rule, I mix it up a bit. I prefer a more realistic character, even in fantasy. I need to believe in them whether I write and read.

  6. katemsparkes Says:

    I don’t think I’d revise a good story based on the test, but I’m aware of it, so thinking about those things might affect my stories, anyway. It is eye-opening, especially when you realize that there isn’t and has never been a need for a test like this for male characters (what? Well of course they talk about other things!), and when you understand how many novels and movies don’t pass the test.

    I’m pretty sure all of my stories pass. Yes, my female characters (and there are a lot of them) talk about men; romance is a big part of the plot of my novels, so obviously they’ll talk about it. Especially near the beginning, when we’re in a marriage-and-baby-obsessed society (bleh!)… but then more important things come into play.

    Actually, I have a lovely little scene in which a group of women are getting ready for a party, and my FMC has a discussion with one of them about the differences between their societies, some of it regarding relationships in a general sense, but also laws, attitudes and customs. It’s interesting and fits well with the story, but I wonder whether an editor would ask that it be removed because it’s not pushing that romantic agenda. Because that’s what sells, y’know… *eyeroll*

    I think Bound has about 15 named females with speaking roles, including children, not all major. It wouldn’t occur to me not to have them… what fun would it be not to have all different kinds of people (genders, species, beliefs, whatever)?

  7. Aldrea Alien Says:

    Number one: Oh, definitely check. Though most of them are older than the MC.
    Number two: Yup, yup.
    Number three: Er … hang on … there’s bits like when my MC wakes up and wonders where the foog she is and how she got there. And few meetings with some agonists of the female persuasion where boys are mentioned but are not the main topic. Do those count?

  8. jcollyer Says:

    This is something I feel strongly about in fantasy fiction and it’s not because I’m a feminist or even because I’m a woman, it’s just because without believable female characters, the story is jsut not realistic! The writer is missing out on so much if they neglect this aspect as well because all characters are people first and then gender second. You can use the gender to inform their character but in ficiton and in real world your personality is informed by how you react to things. This may be effected by circumstance, upbringing, gender, society, but ultimately people are a person first and a gender second. And if they are not then there is a reason. All of which are great character-building concepts.

  9. I think it can go the other way too, when it comes to gender bias. My problem might not be exclusion, but fascination. All my books are about the “other” in someway, and females are other to me (I’m a guy). I’m now stretching to think of any male characters in my books. I mean main characters of sufficient complexity. I have two, plus a solid supporter, and another key character. Out of five books!
    So mine might fail your 21st century test of authenticity for other reasons altogether. I don’t find males all that fascinating.

  10. My main character’s are twin sister’s and I think it is time the girls, showed the boys what hero’s are all about. My daughter aged ten loves the girl being the hero I write for her. To show how we woman can do anything we set our minds to, even in a fantasy world.

  11. Yael Itamar Says:

    It’s worth noting that the Bechdel test is only a measure of realistic female presence. It doesn’t actually measure whether or not a book or movie is feminist.

  12. davidtemrick Says:

    Mine passes the test, moreover the main character is a female who isn’t a harlot or ridiculously butch. I’d be interested to see how you and the other commenter’s feel about the story. Check out “Daughter of Vengeance” by David Temrick on amazon and kindle. 😉

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