In Which I Fail the Bechdel Test

What has come to be known as the Bechdel Test first appeared in 1985, in Alison Bechdel’s comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For. In order for a film or other work of fiction to pass the test, it must contain the following: (1) At least two female characters, preferably named, who (2) talk to each other about (3) something other than a man. Bechdel credits the idea to a friend, Liz Wallace, and to the writings of Virginia Woolf, in particular the 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own, in which Woolf notes of women in fiction that ‘almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men’.

It’s a surprisingly tall order (full disclosure: although some of my books pass with flying colours, at least one fails the test entirely, and I’m on fairly shaky ground with several of the others). According to the media industry press and websites such as the user-edited database, approximately 50% of all films meet all the requirements. I suspect, although I have no data to back this up, that the score for books would be about the same – or possibly lower, given the number of sci-fi titles in which entire worlds are entirely, bar one or perhaps two token women, populated by men. Advertising, by the way, does rather better, mainly thanks to what the sensitive souls in the industry refer to as ‘Two Cunts in a Kitchen’ – adverts in which two women squeal with delight over yoghurt, air freshener, shampoo and the like.

When I started to read grown-up books, I wondered why there weren’t (with some notable exceptions, of course) more women knocking around in the adult fictional universe. While I realised that, as in life, everyone exists in relation to someone else, I often thought it would be nice if more of these made-up female characters were a bit more than just ‘the mother’ or ‘the girlfriend’ or (God help us) ‘the femme fatale’.  That’s why I was thrilled when I discovered Cagney & Lacey on TV – two recognisably three-dimensional women with realistic lives, serious jobs and a strong friendship. They talked to each other about lots of stuff (including men, obviously, although quite often this was because the men were suspects in a crime they were solving). There have been other female crime-solving duos since, but Cagney & Lacey are, and always will be, my favourite.

Of course, part of the reason that it’s comparatively difficult for a book, play or film to pass the Bechdel test is the sheer dearth of female characters. Actor Geena Davies has suggested a remedy for this: ‘before you cast something, just go through and do a gender check and change a bunch of first names to female. Voila!’ That would certainly be a start, although, to be fair, I think that crime fiction (but not including the kind of thrillers that have men running away from explosions on the cover) doesn’t actually do too badly in this regard, with female protagonists ranging from Miss Marple and Vera Stanhope to Clarice Starling and Modesty Blaise, and a fairly decent number of women amongst the subsidiary characters as well. However, a lot of the time they are talking either to men, or to other women about men – and I’m guessing that, taken as a whole, domestic noir novels would rack up fewer passes than female-led police procedurals.

Part 3 of the test is the most difficult. For those keen to write a realistic type of fiction (in as much as fiction ever can be realistic – but that, of course, is a whole different subject), the fact is that we are on a bit of a hiding to nothing here because it has not been determined how often real life passes the Bechdel test in its entirety. As a micro-experiment, I have, for the past fortnight, kept a log of the subject matter of all my conversations with other women, some of which have taken place in a work context, others not. Topics have ranged from crime fiction, literature in general and current issues to gardening, dogs and – yeah, I know – shoes. However, I estimate that at least 50% of the time the subject matter has been men, covering all bases from partners and male relatives through politicians, actors and writers to the chap who runs the corner shop and the noisy gits on the scaffolding next door. My life, has, of late, been fairly dramatic, and, were it told as a story, with all of the above boiled down for the exigencies of plot, it would be a resounding fail.

There’s a big question mark (in my mind, at least) over whether the author of a work of fiction should be subject to any sort of orthodoxy, and of course the Bechdel test is has its limitations, but it’s certainly given me something to think about – at least where writing is concerned. Life, I fear, will have to take care of itself.

(c) Laura Wilson, 2015Laura Wilsonthe wrong girl

Laura Wilson is the author of twelve acclaimed and award-winning psychological crime novels, the latest of which is The Wrong Girl (Quercus). She is the Guardian’s crime fiction reviewer, and she teaches on the Crime/Thriller Writing MA course at City University, London.




Learning to Love Unlikeable Characters

Today I hit a sweet spot, the sort of which has been rare of late. I was elbow deep in plot, the cogs of my mind whirling and spinning, throwing out ideas faster than I could write them down. I was getting somewhere, and it felt buzzy and good. Then, I heard a voice from the future uttering the words; ‘I didn’t like this book because there was not one likeable character in it.’

I should say that hearing voices does not worry me one bit, it was what this particular voice was saying that turned my mood sour. I’m writing a book with a cast of characters who aren’t really that nice. Two of out three of the main ones are women and they’re not pretty (I’m not talking about their looks either.) I don’t have a problem with female villains. I wish there were more of them. But I know from experience that book clubs and Goodreads reviewers demand likeability, and it so happens my characters are lacking in that department.

Now, I don’t write for reviews. But I do want my books to sell. Mainly, I want people to enjoy them because if they don’t, the 690 cups of coffee, 100 packets of biscuits and general emotional angst that have gone into writing them are wasted. I don’t want to alienate readers by giving them characters they hate. But having given this a lot of thought, I’m with Lionel Shriver, who wrote a few years ago, ‘Goodness is not only boring but downright annoying… When fiction works, readers can develop the same nuanced, conflicted relationships to characters that they have to their own friends and family.’

The psychological thrillers I write are tethered in reality. And in real life people aren’t always that nice. Look around. In our workplaces, at our kids’ schools, even amongst our friends, there are people who enrage us from time to time. Women can be ferocious without even raising a fist. I am not nice all the time (not even half the time.) Are you?

Maybe one of the reasons we struggle with unlikeable characters is that we don’t just see the faults of others reflected in them, we see our own. We’re all part light, part dark. But it’s the dark side of ourselves that we work hard at hiding. Most of the time we succeed, we’re good friends, loving parents. But in the right (or wrong) situation maybe we too would be capable of anything. This is the job of a thriller writer, to throw characters in to nightmarish situations and see how they react. As readers we might take offence because they don’t act the way we think we would in same circumstances, but the point is how can we ever truly know until we’re there?

Far better, I think, than creating likeable characters is creating ones we care for, or failing that, those that lure us into their web despite our better judgement. We might not agree with their behaviour, but we understand their motivation. These are the characters that make the story real, give it texture and spark. They demand answers of us, prod and probe us. They expose our prejudices and force us to question our judgement. In fiction, bad can definitely be good.


*Colette McBeth was a BBC TV reporter for ten years before turning her hand to write fiction. She is the author of two critically acclaimed psychological thrillers, Precious Thing, and The Life I Left Behind.


5 Ways to Tell You’re In The Wrong Genre

Paula Hawkins, author of The Girl on the Train, reveals how she knew it was time to switch tracks

In another life, under another name, I wrote books with (relatively) happy endings; books about love and friendship. Two of the four ‘Amy Silver’ novels were moderately successful. The final one, over which I slogged for two agonizing years, sold around 1,000 copies, leaving me almost broke and almost broken. My confidence shattered, I started to fear that fiction was not my game.

Fortunately, my agent had no such fears: she was well aware of my highly-developed dark side and suggested I come up with a few thriller ideas we might chat about. I put together a list of four or five storylines, one of which was about a drunk girl who witnesses something shocking from her train.

Writing that book felt unlike writing any other. It felt like coming home. We connected, that book and I, in a way that I had never connected with the ones that went before, so it seemed right that when it was submitted to the publishers, it was with my name – the real one – on the title page.

I don’t regret the years spent writing my Amy Silver novels; I believe those books laid the groundwork for the one that came next. But finding my real home – the genre in which I feel I now belong – was a revelation. So if you’re finding that you and your books aren’t quite connecting, it’s probably not you; it’s them.

Here are five signs you might be writing in the wrong genre:

    1.  You find yourself wanting to do inappropriate things to your characters.

That sounds filthier than I intended: what I mean is, in commercial genre fiction, you need to consider your readership. Why did your reader pick up your book? What did they think they were getting? I suspect, in hindsight, that the people who bought Amy Silver’s books hadn’t bargained on car accidents, cancer and people being blown to bits with improvised explosive devices. My readers might not have minded a hint of darkness, but I piled tragedy upon tragedy, I wallowed in misery and delved into death. I wrote stories utterly at odds with the sunny and sparkly book jackets purporting to represent them.

    2.   You’re unfaithful.

You’re sitting at your desk, working diligently on your current oeuvre, but your mind is wandering, you can’t stop thinking about the other book and all the things you long to do with it.

    3.   You don’t speak the language.

Writing in the wrong genre is like trying to have a conversation in a language you’re still learning: you know what you want to say but you can’t quite express it, not the way you know you could in your own language. You feel duller, less incisive than you know you can be.

     4.  You are tempted to use a pseudonym.

The romantic fiction books I wrote weren’t bad – they had plenty to recommend them. But here’s the thing: I wasn’t proud of them. They just didn’t feel like me.

     5.   The ideas dry up.

When I moved from romance to crime, I was suddenly spoiled for choice: I’d gone from struggling to come up with one decent storyline to being overwhelmed with plots I’d been storing up, toying with and trying for size. Right now, if I open my ideas file, I’ll find dozens of grisly opening scenes and tantalising premises waiting to be teased out into something more substantial.

One final note:

There are many reasons to try a different genre, but chasing commercial success is not one of them. I’ve been asked many times whether I chose to write thrillers because I noticed that Gillian Flynn was doing alright for herself. It doesn’t work like that. You have to write the best book you can; it just so happens that the best books I can write invariably involve bloody murder.


Paula Hawkins worked aPaula Hawkins author pics a journalist for fifteen years before turning her hand to fiction. Born and brought up in Zimbabwe, she moved to London in 1989 and has lived there ever since. The Girl on the Train, published in January 2015, is her first thriller.




New Hardback Release: City Of Strangers by Louise Millar

city of strangers final jpegLouise Millar’s fourth novel, City of Strangers, is published in hardback by Pan Macmillan on 8 October 2015.

Amazon UK: Hardback | Kindle

Amazon US: Hardback | Kindle

She had the perfect life, until the perfect stranger broke in

Grace Scott returns from honeymoon to find her flat’s been broken into – and the burglar lying dead on her kitchen floor.

Three months later, the police still can’t identify him.

Then Grace finds a clue, hidden in one of her wedding presents.

Obsessed with finding out who he was, she heads across Europe, only to discover no two people describe the dead man the same way.

By the time she discovers why, she’s so deep into danger, there’s no way back.

Write a novel in an hour

Alison Joseph raids her kitchen drawers to demonstrate how to knock up a bestseller in 60 minutes…

The heading of this blog is taken from a writing workshop I run, called exactly that. Write a novel in an hour. So, can you? people ask. Obviously, the short answer is, no – given that a novel is about eighty thousand words. Even people famous for producing a crime book in a week couldn’t type that fast. But, the long answer is that it’s about story structure. And actually, by the end of an hour’s workshop, we arrive at a pretty convincing crime novel structure.

So, how does it work?

The point of the workshop is about unleashing the creative voice, the non-judgmental voice that allows the story to happen. And I reckon it could work just as well for an individual sitting on their own with a blank screen as it does for a group.

To give my workshop its full title, it’s called ‘How to Write a Novel with a Pack of Cards, a Kitchen Timer and a Piece of String’.

So, let’s start with the cards. The cards create character. Cards are picked randomly from the Kings, Queens and Jacks, and whichever three first come up, these are the starting point for the first three characters. People call out names, ages, occupations. The element of chance opens up all sorts of possibilities, that sense of listening to the characters, getting to know the people who are going to drive our story.

Having established the first three characters, we get to work on them, perhaps adding a detective character, too. I use the number cards to give motivations. Basic human drives work really well in a crime story – greed, vengeance, thwarted love. Then, about half way through I’ll use the cards to introduce another two characters, connected in some way to the three we’ve already got to know – partners, siblings, business associates.

And the string? A piece of string is a straight line. Like the story, it has a beginning, a middle and an end. A well-plotted crime story has a strong, sturdy shape; the line of the string allows you to see where scenes fall. So, we make a mark at a quarter in, halfway through, three quarters through, the final twist; four key points to structure the story.

The liberation of this is that you don’t have to just start at the beginning and plough on regardless. If you have a sense of a particular scene, anywhere in the story, you can write that bit. It’s all about waking up what we already know – prodding our subconscious to take that step, explore that character, see what happens – that leap of faith.

The kitchen timer is to mark the time. I give each scene fifteen minutes of discussion. And an hour later, there it is: a fully fleshed-out crime story. Our characters have acted out their destiny; the detective, we hope, has unmasked the killer. The structure is there, all in place. Now you’ve just got to find the words.



Alison Joseph writes the Sister Agnes series of crime novels, as well as the standalone Dying to Know. Her latest novel, Hidden Sins features Agatha Christie as a detective.






New Paperback Release: First One Missing by Tammy Cohen

First one missingTammy Cohen’s sixth novel, First One Missing, is published in paperback by Black Swan on 8 October 2015.

Amazon UK: Paperback | Hardback | Kindle

Amazon US: Paperback | Hardback | Kindle

There are three things no one can prepare you for when your daughter goes missing:

– You are haunted by her memory day and night

– Even close friends can’t understand what you are going through.

– Only in a group of families of other lost children can you find real comfort.

But as the parents gather to offer each other support in the wake of another disappearance, a crack appears in the group that threatens to rock their lives all over again.

Welcome to the club no one wants to join.

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