27 February 2016

That Astounding Teaching Moment: The Bechdel Test

by Melodie Campbell

In which we address the question:  Will your book appeal to both men and women?

As part of my Crafting a Novel course, which I teach at Sheridan College, I introduce the concept of The Bechdel Test:  that is, does your book (or screenplay) have more than one woman in it with a speaking part; if so, do those two women talk to each other; if so, do they talk about more than a man?

I teach this from the point of view of marketing.  Sixty percent of book purchasers are female.  If you want a female audience as well as male, it’s smart to have a likeable female character that girls or women readers can relate to.  (To contrast, can you imagine many men wanting to read endless books where there was only one male in the book, and he turned out to be a rotter?)

At this point in the last class, one of my thirty-something male students looked down at his own work, in which the only female character turns out to be bad, and is killed before the end.  He then looked up, stunned, and said, “I can’t believe it.  White male privilege – I pride myself in thinking I am especially sensitive to this, and yet, here I am, guilty of it in my own novel. Without even realizing it.”

It was an astounding teaching moment.

Of my current class of ten, four out of five men were indeed writing books that failed the Bechdel test.  They hadn’t even realized it.  They certainly didn’t intend this.  And they all plan to revise their manuscripts to address it.

Which brings me to the second point of this post: sometimes the teacher can be the student.

I love when this happens. 

A few weeks ago, I asked another student of mine why she liked to read genre romance books.  I am not a romance reader, so I am always curious about what compels other women to read the genre.  She said, “Because they’re about women.”

Huh? That shocked me. I responded, “Well, really they are about the growing romance between a two people and overcoming obstacles to being together.”  We had covered this in depth, during our breakdown of the genres.  Did she miss that class?

My student said, “But they are written from the point of view of a woman.  And the woman always has friends.  Ever since I stopped reading YA, I’ve had problems finding strong female characters in novels, or sometimes any at all. That’s what was so good about YA.  There were always female characters I could relate to.”

Which got me thinking.  Many fantasy books are published, including both sword and sorcery, and dystopian.  But I bet when you think of recent bestsellers (meaning 21st century) you think of Harry Potter, and The Hunger Games.  Okay, and maybe Twilight.  Did the soaring success of these have a lot to do with the fact that there were strong female characters in significant roles? 

Damn straight. Hermione is a delight.  What a role model for young female readers.  The female star of The Hunger Games is a very different sort of heroine, but also wonderful.  One might even say, unique.

Like many, many readers, when I read a book, the experience is all the better if I can find a character to relate to.  Let me go further:  I like to sit on the shoulder of this character, and even imagine I have become the character for the duration of the story.  That’s magic for me.

And it’s magic for many readers. 

This term, while my students learned about The Bechtel Test, I discovered, or perhaps relearned, another important lesson from my romance-reading student:

Write for readers.  Anyone can write for themselves.  That’s easy.  Writing for 10,000 readers - that's much harder.

If you are a professional, you are writing for others, as well as yourself. 
Always keep your reader in mind.

Melodie Campbell's award-winning mob Goddaughter series passes the Bechdel test for both men and women.   The latest has just been released:  THE GODDAUGHTER CAPER
You can buy it most places.
on Amazon


  1. A good piece and a nice illustration of the fact that to a large extent stories and narratives emerge somewhere below conscious control and thus are all to prone to stereotypes.

  2. Good piece. I used to enjoy Bechdel's comic strip (where the test was first mentioned).

    When I was writing GREENFELLAS I realized it flunked the test so I gave a police technician a sex change, from Stu to Serona, and what do you know? The scene improved a lot.

  3. Fascinating piece, Melodie. I'll admit I'd never heard of the Bechdel test before--I look forward to applying it to the next books I read and the next movies I watch. It reminds me of an assertion someone once made about Jane Austen novels--and, unless I'm forgetting some scenes, I think the assertion is true. Austen created some strong, fascinating male characters, but, according to the assertion, she never wrote a scene that doesn't have at least one woman present. That rings true to me--can anyone think of an exception? So even in scenes in which two men have a conversation (a conversation between Darcy and Bingley comes to mind), women are in the room, commenting on and correcting what the men say. If that's true, do all of Austen's novels flunk the reverse-Bechdel test? If so, why didn't Austen ever write an all-male scene? Was her experience with men so limited that she didn't trust herself to imagine what men might talk about when no women are around? Or was she simply not interested?

  4. Absolutely right. And I need to address this myself, in my writing!

  5. Melody, you are not only funny,you're obviously bright. Your students are lucky to have you as a teacher, and I feel lucky to read your posts. Now, please excuse me, as I run off to correct my manuscripts.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. I understand and agree with your point, but you said «To contrast, can you imagine many men wanting to read endless books where there was only one male in the book, and he turned out to be a rotter?»

    Writers and readers should know that a significant proportion of women's lit is premised upon exactly this model. However, that doesn't invalidate your argument and should augment it.

    Helene du Sault


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