Since I started this blog I’ve had a few questions about the test from readers. I tried to answer them as best I can but never had time to properly go through the test when I was running the series. Well, that’s what I’m going to do now.
Here’s a run-down of how I answered each question on the test, with a little bit of background as to how I came up with them. It’s by no means definitive – I’m 90% sure that two people could put the same character through the test and get different results – but hopefully some of you will at least find it helpful when examining characters – or even writing your own.
- Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
One of the key problems that female characters have had to deal with is passivity. Historically, women haven’t always been portrayed as active characters – just look at all those stories about princesses waiting to be rescued from towers. It’s the first question for a reason, as it’s both a long-standing and an important problem. Essentially it boils down to this: is she in control of her own life?
It kind of overlaps with question 8, but this is how I differentiate the two. This question is a ‘big picture’ kind of question whereas question 8 is much smaller-scale. Look at the character’s overall journey through the story: is she being propelled along by other people, or is she making her own decisions? Does she get to where she wants to be? If so, is it because she’s worked for it or because chance has worked out for her? If not, why not?
You can have a lot of fun talking about ~*Fate*~ and ~*Destiny*~ with this question as obviously, it would be a bit unrealistic if literally nothing else influenced the course of a character’s life. Background and setting are important here. A character who always does what she’s told can be pretty boring. But if the character has grown up controlled by a totalitarian government and would be executed for stepping out of line, that’s a pretty good excuse, and it makes her much more interesting. This is also something that you should always bear in mind for historical characters, as they were likely written with a completely different idea of what constituted as acceptable behaviour for women.
Try and keep small stuff out of the question here and look at the overall story arc for the character. Look at her motivation and the society she comes from. Bear all of these in mind when reaching your decision, as they all have an impact – and if you’re stuck, give her a half point.
- Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
This question is really designed to work out whether a character is properly fleshed out. Ideally, a well-written character should have all three.
- What does the character want? It doesn’t have to be something she’s actively working towards, and it doesn’t have to be something that’s always relevant to the plot. She’s just got to have them – even if she’s only saving up for a girls’ weekend in Lanzarotte.
- What does the character believe? How does this affect her decisions? Is she in line with, or opposed to, any significant beliefs mentioned in the plot? You should be able to state an opinion belonging to any well-written character. It’s a reflection of what and how they think, so this is really vital.
- What does the character do for fun? How does she choose to spend her free time? This often falls by the wayside for many characters, particularly when they’re in a very fast-paced story which doesn’t have many slow moments. But it’s a very easy way to make a character seem more realistic, which is often overlooked.
These are often interlinked with both each other and the wider elements of the plot, but that doesn’t matter. As long as a character has all three, she’s well on her way. It’s important that these are properly followed through, though – it’s no good saying that a character loves reading if you never see her crack a book open. The best characters’ goals, beliefs and hobbies are reinforced in their actions. Just look at how many times Hermione mentions Hogwarts: A History.
It’s also important that a character’s goals, beliefs and hobbies are truly her own. Personally, I really dislike it when a female character meets the male lead and promptly changes her entire worldview to fit his. That’s not to say that a character should be static: just that if her goals, hobbies and beliefs are going to change, this development should be treated with care. We should be able to see the change and understand what this means for her.
This is a question where it helps to imagine the character as a real person. Put yourself in their shoes as much as possible and answer these questions:
- What do you want?
- What do you believe?
- What do you enjoy?
If you have an answer for all three, you’re doing well – but this is only half of it. Then, you need to pull back and look at things more critically. Are your answers backed up? Can you point to specific incidents where the character is shown working toward goals, living by what she believes, or just doing something she enjoys? Did these things suddenly appear right after she met a male character, or can you show that she’s been consistent regardless of who she’s met? If you can answer all of these questions she’ll probably pass this round.
- Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
All characters should be consistent, and female characters are no exception. Essentially, what you are looking for here are moments when the character isn’t acting like herself (with no explanation given). Has a tough-as-nails badass suddenly become helpless? Is a brilliant scientist completely stumped by a simple problem? It’s that kind of thing.
Skills can often be a problem area for female characters. I’ve found that this happens quite a lot in action movies: a woman is set up to be a total badass, regularly kicking baddies in the face, but then in the final third of the film she gets captured by the villain and the heroes have to jump in and save her. It happens so often that TV Tropes has a whole page about it – grab her by the upper arm and our heroine is powerless.
On the other side of the coin, you want to make sure that any skill or personality developments are realistic. If our character decides she wants to learn kung fu and gets to black belt in a week, she’s very firmly in Mary Sue territory. I’ve talked about this on the blog before, so I’ll just leave a link and summarise. Mary Sues are ridiculously perfect characters, usually overpowered, gorgeous and drowning in potential boyfriends. The label isn’t usually applied to male characters (the counterpart, or Gary Stu, is much less common) and, if I’m honest, I do wonder if that isn’t because of the whole gender thing. But that’s a post for another time.
To sum up – a character should be recognisable as herself both at the beginning and the end of the story. Characters can and should change; it would be daft if they didn’t. But this should be handled realistically, and should also be dictated by the character’s own actions and experiences, rather than because there needs to be a good way to finish off the final act.
- Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
This one is pretty straightforward. I came up with this question to weed out characters who’ve only been included to fulfil the very limiting roles of ‘love interest’ and ‘eye candy’. It was originally only going to be appearance and love life, but I added ‘strong female character’ after reading this excellent article.
The crux of the question is this – female characters shouldn’t be limited. If all you can say about them is that they’re pretty, or strong, or someone’s girlfriend, then someone’s not trying hard enough. Male characters get to be complex, intelligent, difficult, demanding, intriguing, damaged, determined – and there’s absolutely no reason why female characters shouldn’t get the same treatment.
- Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
I included this question to differentiate between well-rounded characters and characters that have been introduced just to be the love interest. I’ve found that this can actually be a bit of a controversial one, as some people think that what I mean by this is that all love stories are automatically bad. OK, I’m over-simplifying here, but you get the gist.
I don’t think that love stories are rubbish by default. That would be a dismissive and blinkered point of view which is steeped in gender bias of its own – sadly, a lot of the reasons why people tend to assume that romance books are rubbish is because they’re ‘for girls’. However, that’s not to say that the genre is without its flaws. Romance stories can often make use of some very tired old gender stereotypes, some of which can be harmful. For instance, there’s a marked trend in romance fiction for ‘alpha male’ heroes – and some authors illustrate this ‘alpha’ behaviour by having their heroes stalk, kidnap, or rape the heroine.
It goes without saying that such behaviour is unacceptable and should not be romanticised – but it is. Look at Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s all tied up with the ideas surrounding traditional gender roles in relationships, and traditional ideas about both masculinity and femininity. This question is essentially a litmus test to see if any of those ideas could be present.
As a very broad rule of thumb, I’ve often found that when female characters are only ever influenced by their love lives, they usually end up falling prey to some of the more problematic gender stereotypes. But when these characters have something else in their lives that influences their decisions – be it a goal, an interest, or the influence of another character – they tend to avoid them. Allowing a female character to have a life and interests outside of her boyfriend is not only more realistic, but it makes her more well-rounded and it makes it easier to avoid unfortunate implications. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, but I’ve found it works in nine cases out of ten.
To sum up: in real life, women aren’t defined by their relationships to men, so this shouldn’t be the case in fiction.
- Does she develop over the course of the story?
This is a question that can be applied to pretty much any character, regardless of gender. Character development is a hugely important part of any story. It adds so much – everything from emotional attachment to increasing the tension of the plot. It can reinforce both the strength of the character’s personality and the impact of the things they go through, so I think it’s a pretty crucial element.
How I scored characters on this question depended on a few different elements. I’ve listed them below:
- Do they develop at all?
- Is the change in their personality gradual or sudden?
- Is it proportional to the events of the plot, and the importance the character placed on them?
The first question is the easiest to answer. If a character doesn’t develop at all, then they’ve obviously failed this round. Experiences have impact, and that’s just as true for fictional characters as it is for real people.
The second question requires a broader focus – here, you want to be looking at the story in a larger sense. Look at the character’s overall story arc, taking the plot into account, and try and work out where and how the change took place. If it’s a snap change with no build up you might not do so well; if it’s a more gradual change, odds are it’ll be all right.
The third question is arguably the most important. Context is everything and this is no exception. If, for example, a character discovers a dead body, you might think that this could trigger a dramatic change in her personality – but this wouldn’t necessarily apply if she was a police officer on a murder investigation. Conversely, if a character didn’t get elected to the yearbook committee in high school, you might think that this wouldn’t be a big deal – but this might not be the case if it was something that, say, she really needed for a university application. It should all be relative – not just to the character but to the events of the plot. If our police officer was getting upset about not getting to do the yearbook, that might seem a bit out of place.
There are, of course, exceptions to every rule – minor events can have significance for characters who go through very serious circumstances, and characters can ignore major events because it may be easier in their current circumstances. But as a general rule this usually works. Character development should be present, planned, and proportional – try saying that with a mouthful of crisps.
- Does she have a weakness?
When I was first thinking up the test this question seemed a bit disingenuous for a blog about Strong Female Characters. But I soon realised this was crucial – and not just to avoid the dreaded Mary Sue.
I talked about this a little bit in question four – how male characters are allowed all kinds of interesting flaws, but female characters are just described as ‘strong’ and left at that. This is neither realistic nor fair. People have flaws, and so fictional representations of them should, too – and female characters should be treated with just as much complexity as male ones.
But this question is an interesting one, because this can often be a place where traditional and modern gender stereotypes connect. It’s all to do with the types of flaws a character has, and whether they actually affect her.
It goes without saying that all characters should have flaws. It makes them more interesting, more relatable, and more realistic. But when it comes to female characters, the question of flaws can get pretty complicated. If you go back – and I mean right back, into the realm of fairy tales – women tended to be boxed up as ‘bad’ or ‘good’ characters. I’m over-simplifying a little for the sake of argument, but as a general rule the mark of a ‘good’ character was their absence of flaws, and the mark of a ‘bad’ character was the sheer overwhelming number of flaws. These were not so much characters as examples for women to follow – illustrations of how they should and should not behave.
As fiction began to develop the idea that good women don’t have flaws took on a different form. Women were allowed to have flaws, but they weren’t really flaws that held them back or made them unattractive. They were often described as too pure, too innocent, too kind for their own good – essentially, flaws that made them more appealing to their audience and rarely had any negative consequences. It wasn’t a coincidence that most of these flaws were ‘fixed’ when these characters married. Now, we’ve swung the other way. People are often keen to avoid writing female characters with tangible flaws because a) writing any character with a serious flaw is difficult and b) a lot of people are convinced this will make their characters less likeable. But they also don’t want to write a fragile little flower who’s completely helpless without a man. The result is characters who are so efficient, well-adjusted and confident that they don’t really have any problems at all – and this is where the Mary Sue comes in.
So, how do you judge a female character’s flaws? I did this in two ways. First, you look at how it interacts with gender stereotypes. Is her fatal flaw that she’s so innocent, pure and naïve that she cannot recognise a bad situation when she sees it? Then you’re off to a bad start. But this isn’t completely unredeemable.
What really clinches it is how it actually affects her life. A character’s flaw should have a tangible impact on both her life and her relationships. It’s no good telling your audience that a character is a compulsive liar if we don’t see how no-one trusts her to tell the truth. It’s no good telling your audience that a character has trouble forming meaningful relationships if she immediately starts a happy and healthy relationship with the first man she sees. As long as you show the evidence of this, you can pretty much write any flaw you want. So it’s perfectly fine for a character to be so unbelievably naïve that they cannot recognise danger – but only if this has real consequences. If they blithely wander off, skipping happily towards a field of bear traps just in time to be saved by a lantern-jawed hero, then yes, she’s not going to pass this round. But if her naivety gets her into a situation where she has to directly confront the consequences of her actions, then we’ve got something much more substantial to work with.
For me, this is really exemplified by the contrast between Snow White and Sansa Stark. Both start their stories in a reasonably similar position – both innocent, naïve young girls who find themselves caught up in royal intrigues that put them in serious danger. But whereas Snow White is saved by the timely intervention of a handsome prince, Sansa has to get herself out of trouble. She realises how her naivety has led her to delude herself about people’s true motivations, learns how to survive in a brutal court, and actively tries to work against her flaws.
To sum up, these are the questions you should be asking. Is the flaw a cliché? Does it have real consequences on the character’s life? Look at how this flaw is presented, and how we see it in action. If the two match up, you’re on the right track.
- Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
As I said earlier, this question can overlap with question 1 – but the key difference between the two is that this question deals with events on a much smaller scale. You’re not looking at the overall plot here – this question is for smaller events, like individual scenes or chapters.
Essentially, what you’re really looking for here is multiple instances where the character makes a decision and that decision has a direct impact on the events of the plot. They don’t have to be huge, monumental decisions but they do have to be made.
What often lets characters down on this question is the idea of passive influence – which is why I included the ‘captured or killed’ caveat at the end of this question. Unfortunately, this tends to happen to a lot of female characters. They’re either kidnapped and the plot revolves around other people trying to rescue them, or they’re killed and the plot revolves around other people trying to avenge their death/deal with grief. If a character’s only impact is that she isn’t there and other people are sad about it, that doesn’t exactly speak wonders for her.
But these aren’t the only two ways in which passive influence can be seen. I’ve looked at quite a few characters who don’t do much of anything and the plot revolves around them. This is often related to things they have no control over – such as their social position, or the effect of some ~*Great Prophecy*~ that marks them out as special. In this case it’s not so much what they do but what they are that drives the plot forward – and that doesn’t count. I disqualified this because you can apply exactly the same traits to an inanimate object.
What a character needs to pass this round is pretty simple, which is why most of them tend to do well on this question. All you need is a couple of instances where you can show that her decisions – not her position – has a direct impact on the plot, and you’ll pass this round.
- How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
This was the question that tended to read most like a gender studies essay, liberal use of gifs aside. This is par for the course, considering what you really need to answer this question properly is a strong knowledge of tropes and clichés. I included this question because stereotypes are still pretty commonplace in fiction, and still have an affect on real women’s lives. It’s not just lazy to build a character using only stereotypes – it can have a very negative impact on how real people are perceived.
Look at how the story draws on traditional stereotypes. Your first step should be to see if there’s any present (and there usually are). These can take many different forms including character traits, story arcs and motivation. Is your character a pretty, shallow high school girl? Is your character a princess waiting to be rescued? Is your character’s only purpose in life to find and marry a nice man? Any one of these three is a stereotype, but they all relate to different aspects of a character’s role within a story. To properly look for stereotypes you’ll have to look at all aspects of the character and see how they compare to traditional beliefs about women.
Having identified your stereotypes, your next step should be to look at how the story treats them. If they are just repeated verbatim, then odds are the character won’t pass this round. But if the stereotypes are used subversively you’re in with a better chance. Subverting tropes can be a really interesting way of commenting on traditional roles and expectations, and there’s no better place to do this than in fiction. Does the shallow high school girl use judgemental behaviour as an outlet for her insecurities? Does the princess waiting to be rescued end up manipulating her captors? Does the woman trying to find a husband have to marry to save something else she cares about? All of these undermine traditional gender-based narratives. By allowing characters to break out of these boxes, writers can not only produce more original content but also create more interesting characters.
It’s also very important to consider the character from an intersectional point of view. It would be naïve to assume that all female characters are subject to the same stereotypes, so it’s important to bear any other stereotypes which may affect them in mind. When I was writing these posts I often had to supplement this with extra research – I’m a young, straight white woman, so I didn’t have direct experience of some of the clichés I was writing about. Race, sexuality, disability and age all have direct affects on how real women are perceived, and so these affects need to be noted when you’re looking at fictional characters. In some cases they can completely change the meaning and implications of stereotypes. For example, you might think that a woman who spends a whole film waiting for her husband to come and rescue her would fall prey to some pretty old-fashioned gender stereotypes. But this is essentially the role of Broomhilda in Django Unchained, and Kerry Washington makes the point that this is quite subversive, as the role of damsel in distress has historically been denied to black women. Washington, who studied slave narratives at university, makes some very eloquent points on how race can affect a character’s role, and I would really encourage you to read her article.
To sum up: check for stereotypes, see how they’re treated, and always bear intersectionality in mind. And prepare yourself for a lot of head-scratching.
- How does she relate to other female characters?
As most of you guessed, this question is based on the Bechdel Test. For the uninitiated, the Bechdel Test was invented in 1985, and originally only applied to movies. There’s three rules: the film must contain two female characters, who must talk to each other, about something that isn’t a man (or boy). There’s also a handy cartoon:
The test has been widely used and discussed ever since then but the basic principles remain the same. I adapted it slightly for my version, because as many people have pointed out over the years, you can still pass the Bechdel Test and be sexist. Your first step should obviously be to see how many other female characters your character interacts with. Obviously, if there aren’t any other female characters then that’s an automatic fail.
A general rule of thumb is the more female characters you have, the better. In recent years there’s been a trend to include two female characters in a group instead of just one. This is a step forward, but if there’s only one other female character that can lead to problems of its own. What often happens is the two female characters are used as a contrast: the tomboy and the girly girl, the party animal and the stick in the mud, the innocent virgin and the temptress. This is something that should really be avoided. It reduces women into one of two groups, and depending on how one or the other is treated, can reinforce some pretty old-fashioned ideas about women. Take a look at one of the many Dracula adaptations. There are two named female characters, Mina and Lucy. Lucy is almost always portrayed as a flirt, and Mina is almost always shown to be shy and demure. Mina gets to escape death and lead a happy life – Lucy pretty much always dies horribly and then has to get staked through the heart. It’s not hard to draw some pretty unfortunate conclusions from a story like that. The best way to avoid falling into this trap is to include more than one other female character.
Next, you should look at how the characters interact. If they spend the whole story fighting over a man, or getting jealous of each other’s dresses, then you’re probably going to fail here too. But if they interact in different ways depending on each other’s actions and motivations, you’re probably onto a winner. The best relationships between female characters take this into account. The ideal would be something like Buffy, where there’s a range of different female characters. This allows for different kinds of relationships to be displayed – everything from friendship to enmity to romance – and the characters’ actions and decisions have a direct impact on the tone of these relationships. They grow with the characters, and that’s what makes it work so well.
So there you have it! That is how to use the test. Hopefully some of you will find it helpful. If you tweak the questions slightly, you can also use the test for male characters too. I’ve found that leaving out questions 5 and 10 and changing the pronouns for the rest will usually cover most characters fairly well.
And that’s it for my Strong Female Characters series. But it’s not the end of this blog. I’ll be starting up two new series: one where I’ll talk about general trends in fiction and storytelling and another, sillier one called Book Recipes. There’ll be a new post every two weeks, so watch this space!
I’ll kick things off with the first Book Recipe – How to Write a Military SF novel. Bring your lasers.
And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.