Tag Archives: charactersdoingstupidthings

There’s Only One Reason SFF Should Fail The Bechdel Test…

…and that’s because the author has planned for it to fail.

So why are we still having this discussion?!

Ok. Deep breath, and let’s start at the beginning.

You’ve opted to go into science fiction and fantasy (SFF) because it provides a breakout from the boring structure of reality or history, where only men have speaking parts, and women are love interests. You want unicorns! Spaceships! Time travel! Magic! All the exciting stuff that doesn’t exist in our current universe, or is an extension of it, or is somehow a flight of fancy from our boring reality. That’s what makes it fiction!

And somehow you still fail to populate your world with anything other than men.


Ok. Another deep breath. Caaaaalm.

The Bechdel Test. It’s got four parts: two women must have a conversation about something other than a man. So that requires a) two female characters, b) talking  c) to each other, and c) about anything other than a man. It’s pretty damn simple.

The Bechdel Test is, frankly, a baseline that should be easy to jump for anyone. And this takes us back to the start: that there is only one reason why your book should fail the Bechdel Test.

That is because you, as the author, have deliberately chosen for it to fail. For example, your narrator is isolated – in which case, they’re not likely to be having conversations with anyone, so that’s fair. Your narrator is a single POV (although do they never overhear any conversations? Or see anyone else have any?) Your narrator is, for some reason, surrounded by men for plot or narrative reasons and this makes sense in the book.

That’s it.

What is not cool is for you to apparently completely forget that women exist outside of a love interest – or, even worse, a “very helpful NPC who points the way to the (male) hero”. You should not find it difficult to include women in the plot. You should not be making excuses as to why there are no or very few female characters. You should not be completely forgetting that maybe you need to make some of your important characters female. (If you only make a couple of NPCs female I will judge that even more harshly. Women are not bit players only.)

It is The Year Of Our Space Mom 2020 and two women having a conversation somewhere in the course of an 80,000 word book SHOULD NOT BE DIFFICULT.

And don’t even get me started on LGBT, trans* and non-binary – or, horror of horrors, what if you wanted to write aliens? I mean, it’s SFF. You couldn’t possibly think completely outside the human gender box, could you?!

I will now go and write an extremely polite rejection letter, pointing out the SHEER IDIOCY, and then fume in a corner. Thank goodness there is good writing out there to soothe my soul!

Kill Your Darlings?

I was chatting to Otter about writing advice, and my interpretations vs. what they’ve gleaned from reading too much of it online – and the one that got me waving my hands the most today was that old favourite, “Kill Your Darlings.”

Otter, from extensive research online, suggested that it sounded like “Take out every single piece of writing that you actually like.” Or possibly “If you’ve written a good bit, you’ve done it wrong.”



So, for me, “Kill Your Darlings” has three facets.

The Edit Tantrum

The first is when your editor sends edits back. Every single writer’s responses is going to be some form of “No! Won’t! It’s my book, I love it, you just don’t understand!” (And I say this as a writer, too. I’ve been there.)

Take a step back. Take some time out. Take a breath.

You might not agree with all of your editor’s points, but it’s worth considering them: think about why they’re being suggested, and what the effect would be. Even if you ultimately decide not to do that thing, your editor will very rarely* be suggesting wholesale slaughter for the fun of it.

So take some time, eat some “I’m Miserable” ice cream, and then kill your darlings.

The Scene Stealer

I really need to get my thoughts together for a longer post on this, but for me, every scene must do at least two things. Does it advance the plot AND tell us something about the characters? Does it give us some setting AND present a pivotal moment in character development? And, importantly, does it do something you haven’t done in another scene?

The same applies to language to some extent. You might have written the most beautiful conversation between two characters… but if you can tell us the same information in one sentence, then maybe you don’t need it. That line can be a brilliant gut-punch, but if it’s in the wrong place or offsets what you’re doing in the rest of the scene, it needs to come out.

This is the most frequent “Kill Your Darling” that I come across. It’s where you’ve written something good, fun, amazing, poignant – but it’s not needed. You’ve already told us that information; you could condense these three scenes into one; you could remove that sentence and it would make the rest of the conversation flow better.

It’s a lovely darling – but it doesn’t need to be in this book.

(By the way, I always took these bits out and saved them in another document – it’s one way of killing darlings without feeling too bad.)

The Deus Ex Darling

This one, I admit, mostly applies to newer writers, or the more tender-hearted of us. (How on earth do people like GRRM just kill everyone off? Do they have hearts of stone?!)

It’s where you can’t bear to go through with the plot or the action that you wanted. You’ve got to a certain point, to a climax, and- I just can’t do it. I want them to get together. I want them to survive.

Well, you’re the author – they can!

Except it breaks what you’re trying to achieve. It’s where plot armour comes from; where countless ordinary soldiers die, but the hero only gets a distinguished scar. Where no matter how many bad things happen, your hero still gets up again. It does also work the other way – where the hero gets more crap piled on than anyone else. Do they never get a break? Do they ever get some happiness? Frankly, a litany of Terrible Woe is as hard to read as someone Overcoming Every Obstacle Without A Thought.

Very often this is fixed by some judicious tweaking of cause, effect and the amount of shit you’re piling on characters, but it’s also a mindset. You are allowed to get personally invested in your characters – that’s the point! – but you also have to be mindful of the wider plot, of your reader, and of the need for emotional tension. You need to balance character with plot, and sometimes that does involve being mean – or not.

Don’t Kill The Good Stuff

So please don’t take “kill your darlings” to mean that you have to take everything you like out of a book – if you don’t like your book, then how on earth is the reader going to like it?

I think what “kill your darlings” is meant to do is make you look at the bits that you’re attached to, and give them a critical once-over. It’s making you think about why that piece is in there, and if you’re just leaving it in because you like it. It’s looking at the needs of the plot and the characters and the book as a whole, not at your writer’s ego.

And sometimes it’s wrong: you can leave that bit in. You can keep a sentence just because you love it. You can keep a scene because hot damn, it’s awesome.

But think about why you’re doing it.

And don’t be afraid to put the knife in when you need to.



*I mean. I’m not ruling anything out here.

An analysis of a flash fiction edit: draft to final

So, as you may or may not know, I write silly short fiction based on my workplace. And I wrote one recently that I’m not happy with – so I though it’s a pretty much perfect piece to analyse, and give some idea of how I work as a writer.

The edits are the hard bit to explain, often – unless you watch an editor work – and it’s often just trial and error that makes things work.

Version One

True power is never good or evil, you see. It lies in the hands of those who hold it, and lies with their decisions; and a neutral overlord is in many ways more terrifying than the maniacal laughter or the sweeping righteousness of the extremes.

He was good at his job; knew when to put a finger on the scales to tip the decision, and when to give a subordinate enough length to make their own bad decisions. The chastisement was never bad, per se; but it left you feeling like you had a pit in your soul. But the truly terrifying thing was that he did not care; underlings were resources, and when those clear eyes looked at you, you were judged useful – or not.

So! In this one…I haven’t caught the emotions I want. Paragraph 1 Line 1 works, I think. Line 2…doesn’t. It captures the feel, but it’s too long – it overdoes something that could take fewer words to say.

Paragraph 2; hmm. There’s a repetition of “decision” that I don’t like; I did want to use “enough rope to hang themselves” but I hate that expression, and the substitute doesn’t work. As for the next two lines, hmm, They’ve sort of captured the feel but they’re still very muddled. I want to use a specific example there, I think – it’s too general a feel, and I want to narrow it down.

Version two

He was not the maniacal-laughter type, but it was generally agreed that amongst the Evil Villains of the world, he was ranked pretty high. He was extremely good at his job; knew when to put a finger on the scales to tip the balance, and when to give a subordinate enough length to make their own bad calls. The clear eyes would look at you and judge you useful, or not; but that simply allowed him to use or discard resources for the project’s best interests. And the chastisement for failure was never extreme; but it left the subject with a pit in their soul, a chip on their spine, and the feeling that they had somehow failed beyond any measure of redemption.

This actually went through about two rounds of tweaks before I remembered that I was trying to keep track of what I was doing and why! You can see that quite a lot has changed…

So, I’ve removed the start; I just want the feeling of “Evil Villain” so I may as well state that outright.

From the original paragraph 2, with too many “decisions”; I’ve changed that to “call” in the second, and “balance” in the first. I’ve also extended the idea of being judged useful or not.

And the final line; to give the failure some consequence, and tell us something about the person – a final jab.

Unfortunately I feel like I need a red pen and highlighter to try to catch everything else I’ve done, and why; I’ll try to do this again with another piece and catch more of the reasons for the changes!