The World’s Most Thorough Stereotypical Female Character Flowchart

I came across this awesomely playful Female Character Flowchart and wanted to share it.

I found it on a site called OverthinkingIt.com thanks to Alana Mlawski and Carlos A. Hann Commander. Click this link above for a larger view. I’m placing this here merely as a representation so you can get an idea of its fantastic scope.

Courtesy of Shana Mlawski and Carlos A. Hann Commander, OverthinkingIt.com

Courtesy of Shana Mlawski and Carlos A. Hann Commander, OverthinkingIt.com

It’s so thorough that you may chuckle while also feeling intimidated about ever writing a female character who is not a stereotype. But keep in mind, learning to get away from the crutch of stereotypes is a study that will keep paying off, so it’s worth facing and delving into.

This is a fun way to do so! It’s enlightening to trace along if you’re writing a female character, but it’s pretty funny even if you aren’t. Great examples from film or tv are included, some of which are of course also book characters.

Special bonus–you can even buy this as a poster if you feel so inclined!

You may also be interested in similar posts from my How to Write Well-Rounded Female Characters series.

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Why Bechdel Testing Your Novel Shows Business Savvy

It turns out Alison Bechdel gave creatives not only a recipe for becoming more enlightened human beings, but a way to be more business-savvy as well. The test bearing her name helps quantify the representation of women in film, novels, and other creative works.

Dykes to Watch Out For, the Comic Which Articulated the Bechdel Test

Dykes to Watch Out For, the Comic Which Articulated the Bechdel Test

Bechdel Test 101

So what is it? In case you can’t view the image above, in her comic Dykes To Watch Out For (1985), Bechdel presented a rule about only seeing movies which have:

  • At least two named women
  • Who talk to each other
  • About something other than a man

As you might imagine, the Bechdel Test gets mixed responses from cheering to sneering. Some see it as a helpful standard. Others see it as oppressive or limited.

I personally see the Bechdel as a bare minimum for creative works. Male-dominated stories are half-told stories (thank-you, most of the world’s history books; thank-you, scriptures–that’s right, I’m Christian and I still went there; thank you, much of classic literature and modern speculative literature). I know things are getting better but we definitely still have ground to cover here.

Even if your story’s main action features male characters, adding well-rounded female characters makes it an even more realistic and rich story, and what writer doesn’t want that? Show me any amazing story featuring mostly males and it would have been even more amazing with well-rounded female characters in there as well.

Movies that Pass the Bechdel Test Earn More

Writers are part of the entertainment industry as a whole so paying attention to film trends is just smart. That said, it doesn’t mean you should necessarily follow Hollywood.

Walt Hickey wrote an intriguing article on FiveThirtyEight called The Dollar and Cents Case Against Hollywood’s Exclusion of Women wherein he outlines a study on erroneous beliefs about Bechdel-passing movies and box office earnings.

“We did a statistical analysis of films to test two claims: first, that films that pass the Bechdel test — featuring women in stronger roles — see a lower return on investment, and second, that they see lower gross profits. We found no evidence to support either claim.”

Wait. You mean, people respond to well-rounded characters? This is big.

Doesn’t Hollywood Know This?

They know. They just don’t care yet. In Metro’s The Bechdel test and why Hollywood is a man’s, man’s, man’s world, the demographics of film decision-makers was illustrated by Stuart Barr and Nikki Baughan this way:

The problem lies on the other side of the camera. According to research carried out by the University of Southern California, just one in six of the directors, writers and producers behind the 100 top-grossing movies at the US box office last year were female.

‘Women are under-represented in English language films, but it’s not surprising when you look at the dominance of men behind the camera,’ said film writer Stuart Barr, a contributor for movie websites Screenjabber and Chris And Phil Present.

Baughan added: ‘Male screenwriters write from their own perspective and experiences and that usually – though not always – results in female characters that are either absent or entirely unsatisfactory. It’s a sad fact that, for various reasons historical and financial, the mainstream film industry remains the enclave of the straight, white, middle-class male.’”

Which makes me wonder, when it comes to directors who make poor decisions regarding female characters, why am I handing over 2+ hours of my time and several dollars to sit immersed in their world view?

As a Writer, You Can Be Smarter…and Awesomer

I think it’s smart to not play the writing game entirely parallel to Hollywood’s behavior because they may have more money to speculate with than the average writer does. That’s the generous view. More forthrightly, allowing that the industry has exceptions, Hollywood is in general infiltrated by decision-makers with terribly limited perspectives and agendas.

Hickey explains so many interesting points that his full article is worth a read, but to sum up, he discusses a few possible reasons Hollywood isn’t buying in to the data, including disparity between the number of women and men in creative or investment roles on these films.

He points toward a recent animated blockbuster you are probably familiar with:

“The animated film, “Frozen,” passes the test since two central female characters, Anna and Elsa, discuss the isolationist policies of Arendelle, plans to build a snowman, and the time Elsa locked their civilization in an eternal winter.

In a larger sample of 1,794 movies released from 1970 to 2013, we found that only half had at least one scene in which women talked to each other about something other than a man.”

In reference to this, NYMag.com’s Kat Stoeffel pointed out how Movies that Pass the Bechdel Test Perform Better, including that Frozen has made more than 1 billion internationally (so did Iron Man 3).

For some perspective on how awesome this is, check out Ben Lane Hodson’s interesting writeup: International Box Office and What It Means for the Future of Books. Many on this list of international top performers pass the Bechdel Test (fails include The Hobbit and Man of Steel). 

While I Value the Bechdel Test…

While I see the Bechdel test as important for increasing consciousness, it’s not hard to see its limitations. Just to name a few:

  • I’ve always thought it should ask for a percentage of characters to be female, not just ‘2’.
  • Movies can still be outright sexist in themes and still pass it.
  • Presence and dialog among women are a good start but character development can still be lacking.

Still, the Bechdel has been an instrumental step in the right direction. On some level, what good does it do to point out that this bar is too low when our creative industries still haven’t cleared it, overall?

Change Can Take Time, But…

Here’s a secret. It doesn’t always have to! It could start with one female superhero movie, for example. I love how Sophia McDougall put it:

“My despair that the film industry believes the world is more ready for a film featuring a superhero who is a raccoon than it is for a film led by a superhero who is a woman is long and loud.”

When I get called out for caring so much about this kind of stuff, I want to say, “Right? Who thought someone in 2014 would still have to champion gender parity in our cultural narratives?”

It does get old, doesn’t it?!

How to Write Well-Rounded Female Characters in Speculative Fiction

I was recently on a few Comic Con panels about women in speculative fiction (fantasy, science fiction, and other genres). One of my favorites was titled, “Women Warriors and Female Shamans—How to Avoid Stereotypes in Writing”. I loved hearing from my fellow-panelists as well as audience members. It was super cool!

This week, I’m publishing a series of blog posts about how to write whole or well-rounded female characters in speculative fiction.

Yes, I will get sassy on this topic. But I do realize it is a point of real concern for some writers. To that I say, good on ya. This is a really important topic not only for writing but for life!

In fact, I’d like to just start out sassy.

Women Aren’t Flat

If you immediately thought I was talking about boobs, this exercise might be for you! (Okay, actually I would have thought the same thing).

The next time you look at the people living in your house, take notice. Are the men three-dimensional, thinking, emotional, decision-making beings while the women act like flat pieces of paper? No? Interesting.

If the women in real life aren’t one-dimensional, why would you write female characters in science fiction or fantasy that way? It’s so weird how often this happens. No human should be written as a paper doll!

fairytale-paperdoll-graphicsfairy009c

Women Aren’t Easy

Again, if you immediately thought. . .The next time you are at a bus stop and start imagining life stories written on all the people around you, take notice of how you do so.

Are the men covered with words belying the fully-developed, complex stories of their upbringing, financial situation, health concerns, temptations, obstacles, and responsibilities, while the women get only easy, terse labels? Gorgeous. Bitter. Young. Old. Desperate. Sweet.

Art reflects life. Your art reflects your inner life. Please tell me you don’t think of women so simply.

Women Aren’t All Things Nice

The next time you are in a conversation, take notice. Are the men’s statements showing a range of emotions, motivations, complex outlooks, and life decisions while the women are focused on the approval of the men, making the men feel good about what they’ve said, or being sweet at all costs?

If so, you might consider finding some more interesting female friends! Or at least honest ones. Because even those women who behave as if they are all things nice (or all things relative to men!) are actually whole characters and will manifest themselves as such at some point even if they bottle it up now.

And by the way, being a whole character makes women authentically human, not broken versions of what some people have decided women should be.

Most if not all readers have experienced well-rounded female personalities in their real lives, so mere sugar and spice will not a believable female character make.

You don’t want your readers having the same reaction I hope you have to this 1902 poster I found in the Library of Congress:

02926r

For That Matter, Women Aren’t Missing Entirely

The next evening you find yourself thinking about your day, take notice. How many women did you see? Was there one token female arbitrarily placed somewhere in your day with very few lines and even fewer distinguishing character traits? And yes, she was unbelievably smokin’ hot. Naturally!

Even if some scenes in your novel are comprised mostly of men, the overall story should reflect the reality that people generally see a more equal distribution of women to men in a given day. Some stories are exceptions to this based on plot, but not many. Especially in genres as progressive as sci fi or fantasy!

For example, marketing for the 1953 work “The Space Pioneers” invited girls along, but the actual story itself did not reflect their presence. Sound familiar?

The Space Pioneers

Calling All Boys and Girls

How to Write Well-Rounded Female Characters

So I’ve had my little rant, that after thousands upon thousands of years, humans are still having trouble with what to do with women as a concept. Oy vay!

But ultimately, you may still find it elusive to write well-rounded female characters and that’s a legitimate quest.

As a quick aside, notice I did not say ‘strong female characters’ because even though I personally favor ‘strong female characters’, I do not think every well-written female personality has to be a kick-butt man-with-boobs.

To the contrary, I think a lot of ‘traditionally feminine’ qualities are super strong. I personally subscribe to the idea that a man or woman can expand their life by embracing both the ‘traditionally masculine’ and ‘traditionally feminine’ qualities.

But whatever your personal philosophy or taste, you know what your female characters can’t be? Written flat as paper, with simple labels you lazily slapped on rather than getting to know them, and devoid of realistic depth of motivation. Or non-existent.

As always, feel free to comment!

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