Revenge of the Bechdel Test: Dirty Magick, Sequels, and My Desire To Write Better Female Characters

I noticed a troubling trend in my current flagship story, The Horde. It didn’t past the Bechdel test. I found this very frustrating as I consider myself something of an equal rights advocate and I quite like my female cast. All the justifications regarding my narrator’s myopia and difficulties and plans to expand the roles of the female cast in the sequel doesn’t remove my distaste about how the story appears superficially.

So when I started working on my story for Dirty Magick: Los Angeles, I wanted to do something different. My story for that book, The Hounds of Tartarus, was inspired by the film Payback and I wanted to expand and explore the female characters. It’s a seemingly straightforward story about our hero (Charles) trying to get revenge on the people who left him for dead and took his money (wife Lucy and best friend Vince).

Then I realized that this wasn’t a novel, it was a short story about a guy getting revenge and all my carefully crafted scenes had to be cut just to tell a coherent story. I watched the story edge closer and closer to failing the Bechdel test until finally there was one last scene that had to go to make it under the word limit for the anthology. I cried as I cut the scene that turned the story from passing to Bechdel passing to Bechdel failing. I promised myself I’d write a sequel, bring the cut characters back, and do them justice.

That story needed those scenes cut to be a solid short story supernatural revenge flick and I don’t feel guilty about that but I also wanted to expand that. Film noir is supposed to be full of powerful women who even get to talk to each other at times. So I’m going back to the drawing board for this story and trying to make it not just past the letter of the Bechdel test, but surpass the intent.

At it’s core, there is an issue. My heroine for this new story was a villainess in the previous one: Lucy is set up as a lady who tried to kill her husband, ran off with his best friend, and left them both as she disappeared with both their huge piles of stolen money. I don’t want this story to be about her relationship with her husband though, I want it to be about her relationship with herself. At the end of the last story, I set up Charles tracking her down for the Hounds in order to bring her in but just like the first story ended up being more about his relationship with his own sense of self than his revenge on the people that hurt him, I want this story to be more about the heroine’s development using the husband as a device to drive the action as shegoes through her story.

The trouble comes when coming up with basic concepts for what Lucy is like now that she’s free of her past and what she’s pursuing now that she has money and power. The clearly ringing theme for her is guilt over trying to kill her husband over a rumor that turned out to be false. Can that be a story about her instead of her relationship with her husband? I don’t know.

I’ve thought about having her doing a recapturing her youth story but again, the scenes I came up with imagined her trying to look young and get men instead of having some youthful dream that she missed out on by being with Charles since a young age.

These all feel a little too about men to really create a story that is about what I’m interested in. I have a three interesting female leads- Lucy, her sister, and a fortune telling psychic with a magical bookstore. The Bechdel test helped with basic idea to bring the three together and make the story not about her husband coming after her but it doesn’t provide much guidance after that.

So instead I’m revisiting commentary by various writers about female characters- I’m particularly fond of George R. R. Martin’s comment about writing complex female characters by remembering that they are people. Let’s be honest, I’m at least superficially a cisgender male that sometimes makes it hard for me to be aware of what’s going on with other people unless I actively explore.

So really, the best thing I can do is probably do lots of prewriting, explore my characters to find out what makes them tick and try to write the best story possible regardless of what their gender is. It worked before and I think it’ll work again. For me, however, one important metric of success in this story is whether it passes the intent behind the Bechdel test and creates a world with interesting and dynamic female characters.

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