Writing Good Female Characters: Feminism and Literature
One of the more popular methods of determining whether a story—be it literary, film, or otherwise—gives equal footing to men and women is the so-called Bechdel Test, which was first put forward by Alison Bechdel in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For”. This litmus test has three key components:
- There are two or more female characters with names
- who interact with one another, i.e. have conversations
- about something other than men.
While this is important not only for considering target audiences but making a story more convincing and life-like, the Bechdel Test undermines several key points crucial to making a story more egalitarian between the sexes. To begin with, how are these named women characterized? Do they always wear makeup, skirts, and heels? Do they all prefer pink, purses, and chocolate? Are they teachers, secretaries, and waitresses?
Beyond that, we must consider the situational context in which the female characters interact. Are they talking over cell phones after one of them has had a spat with her boyfriend? Or are they chatting about an upcoming conference on their way to the office after lunch? The former still forces them to rely on men to produce the conversation, the latter is the result of women pursuing careers in business and working together on the job without necessarily interacting at a male’s prompting.
Additionally, women must talk about material that is deep, insightful, and spurs the story onwards. Consider when the women are not talking about men but still playing into preconceived notions of female conversation topics—they are still being portrayed within the societal stereotype. If they only talk about lipstick and pushup bras or perhaps how terrible Suzy’s dress looked yesterday, that’s not going to cut it.
With all of these ideas mulling around, it seemed appropriate to come up with a new test. Here are more comprehensive (though by no means perfect) criteria:
- The characterization of the well-developed female characters should not fit stereotypes.
- These females should not interact in stereotypical contexts and media
- and must have some degree of meaningful conversation that does not include stereotypical subject matter.
- Within the above, the female characters must be able to act, interact, and converse without any sort of male context, framework, or causation.
My personal reasoning for this heavy emphasis against societal stereotypes is this: these molds are designed by the largely patriarchal ideologies ingrained in our Western culture for centuries and perpetuated by government, media, social, and religious groups largely led by men. These male-dominated (and sometimes phallo-centric) perspectives of women therefore need to be overturned or at the very least ignored by female characters in literature if one is to craft a truly feminist piece. Naturally, stereotypes about women and girls must be present to some degree in one’s story not only to make it natural and life-like but also to allow for one’s opinion about these misconceptions (or conceptions, if one is inclined to agree—stereotypes can stem from fact).
What I have found most compelling in my experiences writing well-developed female characters is that they add a new dimension and bring insightful direction to my stories. And, as Rachel will probably attest, it makes my stories better.