Category: Characters

The Bechdel Test

The Rule: The Origin of the Bechdel Test

As I’ve been rereading WTRPCPSU during this revision process, I’ve been thinking a bit about the Bechdel Test.

If you’re not familiar with the Bechdel Test, it was based on a comic strip by Alison Bechdel nearly 30 years ago and has since been used to point out gender inequality in movies. Well, it began with movies, but it can just as easily be applied to television shows and literary works.

The criteria for passing the Bechdel Test is as follows:

There are at least two named female characters…

who talk to each other…

about something besides a man.

Now, I can’t speak for other women in this world, but I know that my real life would easily pass the Bechdel Test. Even if you discount the writing-centric conversations I have, I talk to my female friends about myriad topics ranging from politics to economics to petty gossip (I’ll admit to that) to sports to entertainment. Yes, we may talk about our husbands and our children, but those conversations don’t make up the bulk of our communication.

Since the main character of WTRPCPSU is a 15-year-old female, it should be a given that my novel would pass the Bechdel Test, right? Well, I’d hope so, but just because you have a female lead doesn’t mean you’d automatically pass. I mean, look at Pretty in Pink. I’ve watched that movie several dozen times, and I can’t think of a single conversation Andie has with her friends that don’t involve a guy. And that’s unfortunate.

(If anyone reading this disagrees or can prove me wrong, by the way, please let me know in the comments. I’d be happy to help myself to a heaping plate of crow if I’ve missed it.)

Well, I’m happy to report that WTRPCPSU passes the Bechdel Test. Despite the fact that it’s Teen Chick Lit (hey – I’m being honest), there are more than a handful of conversations among the girls that don’t involve a guy. (Of course, as Teen Chick Lit, there are plenty of conversations that discuss guys, too.) Moreover, I think I’ve done an adequate job of representing both genders, meaning that I include conversations between guys that discuss something other than girls.

That the Bechdel Test should be applied in reverse seems kind of unfair when you consider the initial purpose of the test, but I think it’s possible to swing too much in a single direction. And that’s part of the problem.

Gender equality is about equality. Female characters should get at least as much screen time as male characters. We absolutely need more strong female characters on the screen and in books who interact with each other and talk about real-life issues, not just boys. I’m not denying that. It happens in real life; it should happen in fictional works, too.

But I do worry, as a writer of a female-centric work, that I might not afford my male characters the same consideration that the Bechdel Test demands for female characters. It could be, as author Jeff Fecke suggests, that novels with female leading characters might not pass a Reverse Bechdel Test because the main character wouldn’t necessarily be privy to male conversation. (This would help explain why so many movies fail the Bechdel Test, if for no other reason than the main characters are often male.)

It’s a lot to consider, I’ve discovered, if an author wants to ensure gender equality in his work. But if you take the time to watch how people interact with each other on any given day, I think you’ll find that if you focus on portraying your characters in realistic situations as accurately as possible, you’ll inevitably pass the Bechdel Test – and its reverse – quite organically.

“Pretend you’re a guy…”

My male friends know they’re about to be asked a really random question when I approach them with this opener.

“Pretend you’re a guy,” I said to a friend once. “If your best friend liked your sister…”

“Pretend you’re a guy,” I said another time. “If you liked this girl and she totally friend-zoned you…”

I think if I approached people who didn’t know me, I’d probably get some awkward looks. Some may even run from me. But fortunately (or perhaps not), my friends know that I’m a bit of an eccentric and like to humor me.

There are times when I’m writing that I need to check my characters. More specifically, I need to check their motivation. And while I can speak somewhat authoritatively about how a 16-year-old girl might respond to something, I’m unashamed to admit I have no idea what goes on in the male adolescent mind. I mean, I guess I can speculate like I did when I 16, but then my male characters would be ridiculously unrealistic.

So I ask.

I’m an equal-opportunity stupid question asker, though. I’m completely aware that I am clueless, and even worse, I’m a couple of years decades removed from my characters. So then I have to ask even more inane questions to make sure I’ve captured the mindset. But those conversations can be aggravating.

“Pretend you’re in high school,” I said one day to the intern at work. (She’s all of 22 years old.)

“Um, that was a while ago, but, okay.”

I fought the urge to beat her on the head with my notebook but may have still rolled my eyes. (Oddly, it’s less annoying when someone who is 27 years old says that, by the way, though I’m not sure why. Maybe because I’ll accept 10-ish years as “a while” but not five.)

Because I like to write character-driven stories (which is another way of saying I really just like to think up characters, throw them into a setting, and see what they do), pretending is everything. How else can I draw the reader into my imaginary playground if I don’t pretend first?

It’s not just for Young Adult books. You can do it for any character, any age, any gender, any socio-economic class. Don’t believe me? Try it. The next time you get stuck trying to figure out a character’s motivation, take a step back and ask someone else to pretend to be [insert one or two characteristics of your character here].

Not only will you get an answer that either validates or invalidates your thoughts, you’ll have an opportunity to probe the respondent’s motivation further.

“If music be the food of love…”

With all due respect to the bard, I think music serves as the food of memories, not love. But by all means, play on.

Music is my ultimate emotional recall tool. What do I mean by that? I can listen to a song now that I listened to in junior high and have total recall about people, places, and certain events. I can picture scenes in my mind as they happened (or at least as my brain remembers them), including whatever emotions I was feeling at the time.

Some writers will listen to songs from their youth to get back in touch with their inner teenagers. That’s a little tougher for me because while my characters are an extension of me to some extent, they aren’t me. I like to think they are their own people. And I can’t imagine how some of my characters might be thinking about the guys they like if I’m listening to  “One” by U2 or “Black” by Pearl Jam. And perhaps it’s because I’m older now, but “Institutionalized” by Suicidal Tendencies makes me laugh more than remind me of what it was like to be at my parents’ mercy.

I’m not belittling my playlist from back then. Not at all. My “ideal guy” song back then (circa 1984) was “Somebody” by Depeche Mode, and it still holds up:

I mean, who can argue that Martin Gore isn’t singing about the perfect life partner? But it’s old, and from a completely different generation. I’m not saying that kids these days wouldn’t appreciate it, but I’m acknowledging my age, and that’s why I have a whole other Pandora station, strictly devoted to what I think my characters would be listening to right now. It’s more current stuff, though I’ve realized (much to my dismay) that some of these songs are from the ‘00s and are considered “old school.” (If planning my 20-year high school reunion last year wasn’t enough to make me feel old, this certainly did.)

This may be old school, but this is what I’d envision my characters calling the “ideal guy” song now (circa 2007): “I Could Get Used to This” by Everlife.

Same general concept, but with a different delivery. And even I, in my old and jaded adult stage, can appreciate it.

As I go through revisions for WTRPCPSU – and also as I inch my way through The WIP, I’m relying on my Pandora station more than ever. I don’t feel like it’s enough for me to tell a story or paint a picture. When I was younger, my favorite books made me feel. They drew me in and made me cry and laugh and get angry with characters. That’s why it’s so important for me to get these emotions right. It’s not enough for me to remember what it’s like to be a teen. I want to capture what it’s like to be a teen today.

I may not be able to walk in their shoes (I wouldn’t pass for a high schooler anymore), but I can listen to their music (or, at least, something more current than my high school soundtrack) and let it speak to me. And while themes haven’t changed over the past 25 years or so, it’s still nice to feel like I’m getting a fresh perspective.

Struggling with the Work In Progress

Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.   – E.L. Doctorow

The first time I read Doctorow’s quote, I laughed out loud, in part at its absurdity and in part because it seems so true. (I say “seems” because schizophrenia is a very real psychotic disorder and nothing to take lightly.) Looking up the exact wording of that quote, I came also across this interesting article that caused me to look into something called schizotopy (I don’t have any real symptoms of that, either).

The point is I’m not the first – nor will I be the last – writer whose brain feels as though it’s inhabited by fictional characters of her creation.

My current Work In Progress is taking longer to complete than I want it to. I think there are a couple of reasons for this, including my fear of the Sophomore Slump (even though I know most writers experience this – I mean, Chamber of Secrets is by far my least favorite Harry Potter novel) and simultaneously taking notes of what I want to change about my first novel.

By the by, I haven’t done my revisions on Will the Real Prince Charming Please Stand Up? yet, mainly because I’ve been able to identify more areas that need clarification and/or expansion by writing this second novel. Not to worry, though; as soon as I get this first draft hammered out, I will have a clearer idea of how to tackle WTRPCPSU.

Another reason I’ve kind of been crawling as I work on this WIP is that the voice is so different from that in my first novel. Even though my new main character made an appearance in WTRPCPSU, she was still a supporting character. I got to show her angstiness a bit, but as she wasn’t the main character, I didn’t need to delve into her issues all that much. Instead, I could focus on WTRPCPSU’s main character, which was fairly easy for me because she’s just, well, kind of adorably clueless.

When the concept for my WIP popped into my head, though, I was only halfway through WTRPCPSU and realized I wouldn’t be done with those characters or that world at the end of the book. I knew I didn’t want to continue with the same girl (I mean, once you get your Happily Ever After, what can you possibly complain about?), so I decided to continue on my angsty character.

Here’s what I’ve discovered: Adorably clueless is easy to write when you’re 20-something years removed from that age; jaded and angsty is far more difficult.

I listened to a lot of the Veronicas, Taylor Swift, and Miranda Cosgrove to get me through WTRPCPSU.  I’m relying on a lot of Hey Monday, Avril Lavigne, and Paramore to see me through this one.

Cursing in YA Fiction

I am really torn.

I’ve been furiously editing my first novel, Will the Real Prince Charming Please Stand Up?, and I’ve passed around the second draft to a few friends to get their feedback. My sister asked if it would be okay to let my nieces (aged 9 and 11) read it, and since I ultimately wrote it with them in mind, I responded with an enthusiastic “yes!”

Miss M (my 9-year-old niece) finished the book in a single day (she was home from school because she was sick) and emailed me with the following feedback:

I read your book and it was a nice book and was very realistic. A thing I think you may want to change if you want my age group to read this is the curse words.(do we really need to read the b word and the a word not to mention the h e double hockey sticks one?)

Okay, maybe nine years old is a bit young for my novel. After all, my protagonist is a 15-year-old girl who has her first boyfriend – whom we later learn is rather abusive. Should a 9-year-old be reading about an abusive boyfriend? Well, I guess I did when I was that age; Sweet Valley High addressed that very issue early in the series. But SVH didn’t have any cursing in it, from what I can remember.

But the topic at hand is the cursing, not the content. So here is my curse-word count as it stands at the end of the second draft:

  • Hell – 5 times
  • Ass – 4 times
  • Damn – 2 times
  • Bitch – 1 time

The “F-bomb” and the “S-word” aren’t in the book at all. I used the list of unacceptable words for Prime Time TV as my guide.

Now, I’m certain I can get around “hell”. I’m also pretty sure I can eliminate “ass” and “damn”. But “bitch” is where I have a degree of difficulty because I really struggled with finding the right word for that scene. It’s kind of like when Rhett is leaving Scarlett at the end of Gone with the Wind and the movie community wanted David O. Selznick to remove “damn” from the scene. Sometimes, there really is no other word.

(And, as I tried very hard to be cognizant of my nieces as my audience, “bitch” is only used that one time.)

Okay, I suppose I can substitute another word. I guess I could use “whore”. And since the character exclaiming this epithet is a bad guy, anyway, I wouldn’t feel so bad about it. But to me, “whore” feels like a much stronger word, something laden with much more malice and venom. I mean, by definition a “whore” is a woman who is promiscuous in her sexual activities; a “bitch” is just an unpleasant woman. I’m not saying that I’d like to be called either, but I’d be less offended if someone called me a “bitch” than a “whore”.

I guess I’m just irked that a much more loaded word would pass through the censors.

Last spring, ABC News reported that foul language is popping up more and more in YA books. I don’t think it’s necessary to have a few hundred instances of cursing, but one or two epithets are certainly forgivable. I don’t want to sound like one of those authors that says, “Well, my character is 15 and all teenagers curse.” I’m definitely not saying that. But I’m of the believe that a well-considered, appropriately placed curse is not just acceptable, it’s also necessary.

I may be wrong.

So then I checked out Mary Kole’s blog, since she’s the author of Writing Irresistible KidLit, which is a great resource in terms of making sure I’m addressing issues correctly and with the right voice. (And it’s also helped me overcome areas where I get “stuck” trying to craft a believable response to something.)

And here’s what she said:

If you absolutely have to use a swear word in your manuscript, if there’s no other word it could be, then use it. You won’t get a squeamish look from me…. You might also alienate yourself from certain libraries, school administrators, booksellers and editors who work for more clean-cut imprints and don’t publish content. There will be parents who are too scared of their kids growing up, who are in denial of the words and ideas that fly around every middle and high school in every town in every country, too.

[sigh]

My niece is just one of about 10 people I’ve asked to read my second draft, so I’m taking her suggestions to heart and will address them in my third draft. And I may very well just decide that nine is too young for my book. I’ve written a Young Adult novel, after all. I never intended for it to be a Middle Grade book.

But I also don’t want my word choices to alienate someone that I kind of wrote this book for.

Thoughts?

What I’m listening to now…

I mentioned in a previous post that I use music to get into my characters’ heads. And, as I’m writing/plotting from the perspective of high school students, it behooves me to listen to what (I think) they’re listening to.

After all, when in Rome and all that.

Anyway, I thought it might be fun to list what my Pandora Teeny-Bopper station has been playing for the last hour or so, if for no other reason than to laugh about it in a few years. So here it is, in reverse order (the artist is in parentheses):

  • The Anthem (Good Charlotte)
  • Kissin U (Miranda Cosgrove)
  • Ignorance (Paramore)
  • Breathe (Michelle Branch)
  • Float On (Modest Mouse)
  • Bite My Tongue (Reliant K)
  • Stay Awake (All Time Low)
  • His Girl Friday (The Academy Is…)
  • High School Never Ends (Bowling for Soup)
  • Nobody’s Home (Avril Lavigne)
  • Human (The Killers)
  • Such Great Heights (The Postal Service)
  • Kids (MGMT)

It’s an eclectic list. But looking at it, I can kind of understand why I feel a bit schizophrenic when I’m writing/plotting. A playlist like this makes me want to ask myself. “How old are you, again?”

Maybe it’s just keeping me young. That’s what I’m telling myself, anyway.

Getting into character

A few weeks ago, I was writing at a coffee shop with a group of other writers, and one of the baristas came over to ask about our work. I explained that I was struggling with my novel, primarily because of the age of my protagonist, and she suggested I go to the mall, sit at the food court, and listen to girls around me talk. I thanked her politely but also said that dialogue isn’t my Achilles heel. I love writing dialogue. If anything, I can’t get it down on paper fast enough. I hear conversations in my brain and just jot down words as they come out. And if they sound true in my head, I figure they sound true on paper, too.

No, getting into character is so much more than just knowing how my protagonist will speak. It’s all about how my protagonist will feel.

I will say this in hindsight about my high school experience (that was oh-so-many years ago): I’m really glad I was involved in the extra-curricular activities I chose. I’m also glad I went to a fairly small school, where I had the opportunity to get to know almost everyone, at least on a surface level.

For my first few years at school, my big extra-curricular was Drama. It was something that came easily to me, mainly because my elementary school offered drama classes, too, and the teacher provided a solid theatrical foundation. Nevertheless, I liked immersing myself in scripts and figuring out how to become each character. I didn’t take it to the Method extreme, though. I just liked the idea of portraying different people, taking on different roles, doing things not as I, Eileen, would do them, but as the character would.

Of course, my therapist would also say this is the primary reason I tend to keep people at arms’ length emotionally and have difficulty letting people into my world on a deeper level, but that’s neither here nor there.

The point is, as I write these novels in the first person, I have to remember what it’s like to be fifteen or sixteen again. I have to dig deep, recall feelings, and channel them so that I can get those raw emotions down on paper. It sounds so much easier than it is. As I finished up Prince Charming over the Thanksgiving weekend, I found myself crying at my laptop while I typed. I was listening to Taylor Swift’s “Teardrops on My Guitar” and just feeling really sad.

Never mind that my story has a happy ending. (Spoiler.) But you can’t get the happy ending without some heartache first. The pain makes the joy that much sweeter.

I’ve been thinking of this, of course, as I listen to Paramore’s “The Only Exception” on repeat while I plot my next story.

I have nothing but the deepest sympathy for girls who are still at the height of their adolescence – or worse, have only entered that phase of life. I’m just tapping into it for a few hours every week to tell a story as realistically as I can. How I managed to survive it the first time around – how any of us managed, really – is entirely beyond me.