Let’s talk about tropes.
Tropes, in the sense I’m using it, are clichés. Character types, plots, settings, etc., that are frequently–if not overly–used: sexy vampires, rogue space captains, headstrong princesses, sibling/parent villain/hero pairs, English-speaking medieval provinces, noble thieves, run-down smuggler ships. They’re common markers for readers, settings or characters that are easy to recognize or cling to, and that help tell a reader quickly where it is that they are. They get a lot of flack for being lazy, since it allows readers to fill in gaps without the writer having to do much work in regards to character/world/plot development (trope-dependent), but here’s the thing: I love them. When I find a story about a young, unassuming teen who finds out they’re secretly destined to become the last (or first in centuries) dragon rider, bring it on. Runaway princess with a handsome thief? Yes please. Is this because I don’t want diverse stories or because I only want to read variations of the same thing for the rest of my life (I’m looking at you, teen paranormal romance)? No, absolutely not. I love reading stories that are varied, and for the most part I do, but I also like knowing where I am, and if tropes help you orient me to your story quickly so I can get to the important stuff (why your story is different from the tropes), then by all means, use them.
The trick is making sure that you don’t use them without anything else. More simply, remember that the world, plot and characters that you are writing about are real. Fiction? Possibly, but to the characters within that world, everything you write exists. They are not acting. They are not pretending. They are living real lives, with real motivations that drive a real life interacting with other real people. Your character may be a busty, car wash-loving hottie, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t get there somehow, didn’t experience things in her life that made her love (or secretly despise) those bikinis and sponges. Bottom line, tropes are tools in your tool kit, but they can’t be the only light you use to show the brilliance of your work. You must use them as a foundation from which the rest of your work builds and embellishes.
Which brings me to tests. Specifically feminist ones, though it really could be any of them. We’ll start by defining one of the more common examples, so we’re on the same page, and move on from there. So, the Bechdel test.
The Bechdel test is used to determine if something counts as a “feminist” (using probably one of the lowest bars you could in defining feminism) text. It is primarily used for film, but applicable to other mediums as well, and the rules are quite simple. To pass, a text must:
- Have two named female characters
- Who talk to each other
- About something other than a man
Pretty simple, yes? You’d be surprised how many movies fail. I’m pretty sure one of my novels (and my stageplay) might not even pass, myself, but, and I won’t be the only (nor first) person to say this, it’s a pretty flawed test. One, it doesn’t specify what kind of relation the characters might have to the man. Two, it doesn’t specify anything about what the characters might be discussing instead. That is to say, a story of a mother and daughter talking about a newborn grandson or a dead husband/father woudln’t pass, but a story about two ladies talking exclusively about shoes and make-up would. And I’m not even trying to say that one might be more valuable than the other, one way or another, which is exactly what is wrong about these kinds of tests. The first story I mentioned could be a shallow discourse on how women’s only value is in giving birth or a stunning celebration of familial love (or hate). Perhaps the grandson is only a conduit for the women to hash out their true feelings–negative or otherwise–towards each other, the shoes in the second story a portrait of just how desperate women are trained to be for the affections of men instead of vapid discussion. Each could be completely powerful or pointless–not to mention completely feminist or sexist–in their own way, with absolutely no regard for whether or not they passed the Bechdel test.
Which is exactly what I hate about tests like these.
Don’t get me wrong, I see the value in pointing out trends, in showing that there is a disparity in roles and leads and all that, and I don’t by any means think that only men should be the heroes, but I also don’t think that trying to make rules for books/movies/etc. to fit into in order to be one thing or another is the way to fix it.
Because we’re dealing with people. Hopefully, as I mentioned above, real ones.
Changing a guard’s gender to female, giving her a name and having her chat to the lead villain in Escapement wouldn’t make my book feminist. Changing Eyna’s decisions to follow Rick (which she does freely because she wants to) wouldn’t make her stronger.
Point is, feminism doesn’t occur to me as something to “include” when I write my books. Writing the best story I can about the real people who are in it, does.
P.S. This blog post is somewhat inspired by conversations had during the writing group I am a part of, so shout-out to the members of our little Inklings group, who are consistently helping me grow and question and learn as a writer.
For more information on the Bechdel test and what it is used for (there is a lot I did not discuss here, there are a lot of great discussions on it online. Google is your friend, here.)