The Inverse Bechdel Test

Female psychology and fiction: Thoughts inspired by (the first 53 pages of) A Darker Shade of Magic, by Victoria Schwab.

This novel suffers from a common problem with its beginning.

(1) The problem: Not much happens in the first 53 pages, where I paused to record these thoughts. E.g., the opening scene has the magician Holland conversing with a prince. But we don’t hear much of the conversation and it’s not enough to pique our interest. Worse, the initial conversation between another magician, Kell, and a King doesn’t realize its promise. When Kell delivers a letter from a monarch in one universe to a monarch in another, we expect some earth-shaking development that will precipitate the story: A declaration of war or something. Instead, we get a polite inquiry about the recipient’s health: The royal equivalent of “Howya doin?! Arite, check ya later!” Huh? Something should have happened there. Fifty-three pages in, almost nothing has happened.

2) Why does this problem occur? Note: The first 53 pages are almost 100% super-alpha males – kings, princes, and powerful magicians – and almost 100% of their “screen time” is them talking to other super-alpha males. Of course alpha males, especially super-alphas like kings and princes, are intrinsically fascinating from a female point of view. But from a male point of view, well, no.
      In the funniest example of this problem, a prince (super-alpha) discusses his birthday party plans with his parents (King (super-alpha) and Queen) and brother (powerful magician and adopted prince; super-alpha). To a male reader, this is like some accountants planning a birthday party. Maybe the author and her female readers are rapt, because ALPHA MALES!!! But this male reader, and I imagine most male readers, are thinking, “Planning a birthday party? Why are we being shown this?”
      In fact, this scene is actually two entirely different scenes, depending on the audience. For the (female) author and female readers, the scene is OH MY GOD, SUPER-ALPHAS!!! For a male reader, the scene is some accountants talking about a birthday party.

There’s nothing wrong with women being attracted to alpha men, any more than there’s something wrong with men being attracted to young, beautiful women. But if a novel is intended for both sexes – as opposed to being romance porn for women – it should not contain scenes like the above. I’m not objecting to porn, I’m just saying, sort out your goals and intended audience before you start writing.

All of this leads me to propose an analogue of the Bechdel Test for female writers:

Would a scene that features men be equally interesting if the men were all accountants?

If not, you might be letting female sexual preoccupations overwhelm your authorial professionalism. Honestly ask yourself whether the scene should be there.

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