Do you know Mako Mori and Bechdel? No, they’re not hot new publishing houses, or editors, or authors. They are standards/tests meant to rate the gender inclusiveness of a book or film–and some agents are starting to mention them in wish lists.
The Bechdel Test is very simple. It asks whether a work of fiction
- features at least two women
- who talk to each other
- about something other than a man.
It all started with a cartoonist, Alison Bechdel, her friend Liz Wallace, and these words from Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own:
All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple. […] And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends. […] They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen‘s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. [emphasis is mine]
Once the test idea was proposed, discussions popped up all over social media and news outlets. Some critics added that the women must have names.
Starting in 2013, some European movie and cable TV companies began to incorporate the Bechdel test into their submission guidelines. Similar tests were suggested, including the Finkbeiner Test for journalists and the Sphynx Test for theatre scripts.
MAKO MORI TEST
The Mako Mori Test goes a step further, analyzing whether a movie has
- at least one female character
- who gets her own narrative (story) arc
- that is not about supporting a man’s story.
WHY ARE THESE TESTS IMPORTANT?
The practical aim of both Bechdel and Mako Mori is to ensure the presence of fully fleshed-out, “realized” female characters who contribute significantly to the story, thereby drawing in a larger audience of women to the work [my take]. (And no…. Movies, such as Name of the Rose, which takes place in an all-male monastery, do not have to pass these tests!)
I’ve seen an increasing number of agents mention one or both of these tests when discussing what they’d like to see in fiction submissions. Just today, I read an interview with Laura Zats of Red Sofa Literary, a boutique agency with clients all over the world. Zats is very particular. Reacting to a glut of certain plotlines, she outlines what she DOESN’T want in Young Adult fiction (no paranormal romance, dystopia, or Chosen One stories). For Middle Grade, she is “looking for books that are heavy with STEM and will appeal to girls and boys.” In traditionally male-dominated Science Fiction and Fantasy, Zats says submissions “Must pass either the Mako Mori or Bechdel tests.” Overall, she includes “diversity (in all forms)” among her criteria. And she’s not alone in this.
WHY ARE THESE TESTS IMPORTANT FOR ROMANCE NOVELS?
I think most feminists would agree that creating strong women characters and gaining a larger female audience are not the only goals of such tests. Writing strong, fully developed female and male characters just makes for good storytelling.
Everyone knows that manuscripts with stereotype characters for the romantic male lead won’t make it out of the slush pile. One way to flesh out that male character is to give him a chance to demonstrate his personality, show off his professional skillset, reveal his softer side, or unleash his anger in scenes with other characters–particularly other men. Even that old standby plot, Two Strangers Trapped by a Snowstorm/Hurricane/etc., relies on the addition of offscreen cast members to flesh out the troubled pasts of the main characters.
Showing how a person acts and interacts with his/her own gender can reveal information that is harder to portray in man/woman interactions. Male buddies (and female best friends) talk freely about things they have to be pushed to discuss with the opposite sex. They enjoy a different level of intimacy from what lovers do. They often enjoy different activities and entertainment, too.
The trick here is to reverse the criteria for the two tests when writing a novel with a female Main Character. Ask whether your manuscript
- features at least two men
- who talk to each other
- about something other than a woman.
And/or whether the story has
- at least one male character
- who gets his own narrative arc
- that is not about supporting the woman’s story.
Use these opposite criteria to create stronger male protagonists in romance stories.