WIHM: Just Sit Down and Bleed: On Writing Female and Diverse Characters
By EV Knight
If you’re a writer or a film buff, you’ve probably heard of The Bechdel-Wallace test. If you haven’t—or if you’re like me and are thinking “yeah, sure, I know the Bechdel-Wallace test…what was that for again?”—let me give you a quick summary. And if you do know, stick with me, I promise I am not going to get all academic or critique the test, I have a point, really.
The Bechdel-Wallace test has been utilized since its creation as part of dialog in the 1985 comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For” by Alison Bechdel. In the strip, one female character tells her friend that she won’t see a movie unless it passes a three-point test: 1. That it contains at least two female characters (Preferably named) who 2. Talk to each other about 3. Something other than a man. Since then, the test has been used to evaluate works of fiction as a measurement of its gender bias/depiction of women in the work.
It’s such a simplistic test which was never meant to be anything more than a talking point, but quickly became the measurement by which many movies and books are judged. The sad thing is, despite the simplicity, time and again, fiction fails us. When the test was used on modern films, something worrisome was noted. Women in the majority of fiction were nothing more than tropes themselves. Female characters were created to further the male character’s arc; they were the damsel in distress, the Mary Jane, the manic pixie dream girl, or an easy victim that then gives the male character a reason for revenge.
But it’s 2020; do we still need to worry about the Bechdel-Wallace test? We’ve embraced female superheroes and hailed Disney’s Frozen movies for depicting independent sisters saving themselves. Women are writing and directing amazing fiction. We’ve come a long way, baby. We know how to write well-rounded female characters. Except, have we learned? Why are women superheroes still not wearing pants? What’s with the skin tight, low-cut suits? And doesn’t Frozen still end happily ever after with the princess in a heteronormative relationship? And remind me again which female director got nominated for Academy Award this year?
So, who am I to preach? Just another angry female writer. Nah, I’m not angry, just disappointed. (I’m also a mother, can you tell?) I wrote a novel called The Fourth Whore, currently available for pre-order from Raw Dog Screaming Press. Some might call it “feminist horror” but I never set out to write a “feminist” book. I had a story to tell, I had some anger and rage inside of me and forming those emotions into characters helped me through it. I was inspired by real life events and using the old adage of “write what you know,” I forgot all about the Bechdel-Wallace test and in doing so, I managed to create authentic female leads with actual lives and goals separate from men.
Now, I’m going to tell you my top secret, behind the scenes method of writing female characters and then I’ll try to extrapolate this method to other underrepresented human beings.
I began writing a story about a young woman with the ability to see demons and angels. She lived a tortured life in the slums of Detroit, a consummate victim who dies and is given a chance to return to life by Death if she is willing to go to purgatory where half-human, half demons have begun some sort of hostile take-over of the afterlife. I was happily writing my own version of a failed Bechdel-Wallace test novel because I thought it would sell, being of interest to the general public who, at the time, was really hung up on the show Supernatural. I figured I had a great idea on my hands. Maybe I did, but then something happened in my life that changed everything: the 2016 Presidential election. I was devastated. I mourned, I worried, I stressed and I wanted to say something but had no idea how or what. I marched on Washington DC in January of 2017. Somewhere between November 2016, and January of the March, the name Lilith began popping up in articles or in conversations about equality.
Lilith has a history that dates as far back as the Sumerians and is often depicted as a demoness or succubus, a baby killer, a murderer of pregnant women, and a seducer of men. In Jewish mythos, Lilith was the first wife of Adam, formed from clay or dirt just as he was, and therefore, she believed that they were equal. She refused to lie beneath him and be sexually submissive. So, she left Eden (either by God’s will or her own) and fled to the Red Sea. God replaced her with Eve, created from Adam’s rib thereby making clear the expectation of subservience. Meanwhile, Lilith, it is said, met up with a bunch of demons and started having tons of demon babies that she sent out upon the earth—just like the whore history decided she was. Take note, we were warned, girls demanding equality are evil. They seduce good men and try to destroy the good women who are out there submitting to their husbands and raising a family. Lilith served as a warning to women who dared to ask for equal treatment.
An idea came to me, a “what if” question: what would Lilith do, if she returned to the modern world and discovered what mankind had done to her reputation all for asking to be treated equally. What if she was marching on Washington? Lilith, in my mind, became the poster girl for #nastywomen. Because that’s what happens isn’t it? Women who want the same pay for the same job, women who say “no” to a man, women who ask not to be touched, not to be patronized, or hell, even women who dare expect sexual satisfaction, are “nasty” or “whores” or “irrational, too emotional to get a big job done right.” Lilith represented my angry side, my desire to fight that system. I let her loose and quickly realized that seeking revenge often turns one into the very thing they’re fighting against.
As Lilith became my antagonist, I knew I would need an equally tough protagonist to balance the story. As a woman raised by a single mother, and a survivor of a sexual assault, I wanted to write a protagonist who’d lived through Hell but kept going because that’s what you do. That’s the only choice life gives you. So Kenzi Brooks was born. I put Kenzi through the wringer but she took every punch and never lost herself in the process. I felt a kinship with her and I knew she had the ability to save herself and ultimately make the right decision. Kenzi was the fourth and final piece in Lilith’s plan for revenge. Two other strong, take-no-shit women who’d found themselves chastised and judged by society for their choices and lifestyle joined Lilith. Would Lilith succeed in creating The Four Whores of the Apocalypse? As I neared the exciting conclusion, I received another blow to my personal life. I discovered my husband of fourteen years was having an affair. The small town we lived in coupled with our very public jobs made my life miserable. And if you think the election made me crazy, I went full-Lilith, bent on revenge. Life put me through the wringer and suddenly, I didn’t know if I was the good-girl victim or the vengeful whore. I was both and I was neither, just like Kenzi and Lilith. I revised, rewrote, and carried on.
Did The Fourth Whore fail the Bechdel-Wallace test? Had I gone too far in the opposite direction? There were plenty of strong women, with names, with different lives and different experiences. They all talked to each other, but about what? How much they hated men? Well, yeah, sometimes, but also, they talked about their lives, the choices they’d made, and the experiences that shaped them. I discovered that I’d written women as I knew and experienced them in real life. And my own experiences and feelings helped me to empathize with them. It’s that simple. When Hemingway said, “There is nothing to writing, all you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed,” I think that’s what he meant. It’s write what you know, what you feel, what you experience and observe. By the way, there are men in my book as well. More than two with names, they talk to each other, they’re ethnically diverse. There are good guys who do bad things and bad guys with regret—you know—like real people.
And that, my friends, is the secret to writing female characters, or LGBTQ, disabled, diverse ethnicity characters for that matter. You treat them as people. And you don’t do it to meet some statistical requirement. You don’t “throw in a colorful gay character” or simply change the gender of the superhero (and remove their pants) to appease the diversity gods. You tell an authentic story about life as you see it, and if you need to, get to know someone like your character or remember that we are all humans and we’re all here together experiencing life’s victories, set-backs and pain. When you approach writing in this way, the characters will be just as diverse and real as the people you see every day.
In the age of #metoo, EV Knight’s raw debut novel turns horror on its head. The time of helpless, scantily-clad female victims is over. Oh, there’s still gore and sex and terror to be had, but women villains and heroes alike are now free to break the mold and go off-script. Unpredictable, challenging, harsh and violent the new apocalypse isn’t brought on by four horseman, it’s four whores instead.
Fans of Sarah Pinborough and Ania Ahlborn will appreciate this new, twisted, female voice in Horror.
Back Cover Copy –
Kenzi Brooks watched The Scribble Man collect her brother’s soul after a hit and run when she was seven. He gave her a present that day—a lucky rabbit’s foot. Sixteen years later, she no longer believes in The Scribble Man, she believes in survival and does what she has to in the slums of Detroit. When thugs kill her mother and beat Kenzi to near death, she accidentally releases Lilith from her prison within the time-worn keychain.
And Hell hath no fury…
Lilith is out for revenge. Revenge against God, Sariel (Angel of Death and Kenzi’s Scribble Man), and all of mankind for relegating her to nothing more than a demoness for refusing to submit to her husband. She’s put together an apocalyptic plan to destroy everyone who has forsaken her. Forget the Four Horsemen, Lilith is assembling the Four Whores.
Advanced Praise –
“Death falls in love and all hell breaks lose, and the repercussions are deadly…a soul-sucking mind-bender of a debut. A cutting and explosive feminist text of revenge and redemption, with blood spilled on every page.” —Lee Murray, two-time Bram Stoker nominee, and author of Into the Mist
“Extreme and extremely ambitious, Knight’s first novel is heretically horrifying and satisfyingly sick on every page. Knight revises biblical myth, unleashing female sexuality as apocalyptic revenge in a way I’ve never seen done before, and I’ll probably never see again. An unforgettably twisted and powerfully driven novel that brings extreme horror to gender politics in a devastating way.”—Michael Arnzen, Bram Stoker Award-winning author of Grave Markings
“…a sharp, violent beauty through an original Lilith tale, but also with the story of womankind’s revenge…singeing our curiosity with hellfire and inviting us to dive deeper into darkness. Knight’s debut novel centers on titillating horror where the revelations lure you in and refuse to let your soul float away without a price. If you think you know the story of Lilith, think again, and let Knight take you on an unforgettable journey into the underworld.”
—Sara Tantlinger, Bram Stoker Award-winning author of The Devil’s Dreamland
“Betrayal is a bitter pill to swallow, but when you’re the mother of all witches you might want to exact some revenge while mending your broken heart. Lilith is back with a vengeance and she’s assembling the girl gang to end all girl gangs—literally—to kick-start the Apocalypse. EV Knight’s debut novel kicks you in the nards and leaves you breathless. But, if you’re anything like me, I was secretly hoping to be invited to the end of the world celebration where women reclaim their power and bring mankind to its knees.”
—Michelle Renee Lane, author of Invisible Chains
Pre-Order Now! Available March 15, 2020 in e-book and print
EV Knight is an American author of horror and dark fantasy stories filled with bad-ass females. The Fourth Whore is her debut novel—the story of a young woman’s fight to find the truth in time to save her world after she accidentally releases an ancient demoness who has a vendetta against God Himself. EV is currently working on her second novel which takes place in her beloved home in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Raised on Grimm’s Fairy Tales in a country home near the woods, EV inevitably developed a whimsical imagination and lifelong interest in the macabre.
These days, when not writing something spooky, EV spends her time taking long walks through graveyards and visiting haunted houses. She collects skull art and death-related oddities. When she is feeling adventurous, she enjoys road trips to unusual roadside attractions. Yes, she has, in fact, been to see the biggest ball of twine in Minnesota.
EV is inspired by mythology, fairy tales, and history such that there are often kernels of truth in her fiction. No scary thing is off limits. And she doesn’t shy away from gore. Like Frankenstein, she likes to experiment and piece things together until her creation breathes on its own. EV hopes you’ll love her monsters as much as she loves making them.