The Finkbeiner Test and Default Status Characters

One of the more interesting things I found online this week was the Finkbeiner Test. Inspired by the Bechdel Test, this is aimed at journalists who cover women scientists. It’s very nice for women to have articles written about their scientific achievements, but all too often such articles spend a few sentences on what they have actually done, and whole paragraphs on how amazing it is that a woman could have done this. So Christie Aschwanden proposes the Finkbeiner Test for stories about women scientists. To pass the test, the story cannot mention:

  • The fact that she’s a woman
  • Her husband’s job
  • Her child care arrangements
  • How she nurtures her underlings
  • How she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field
  • How she’s such a role model for other women
  • How she’s the “first woman to…”

This got me thinking about the way in which minority characters are used in fiction. It is all very well having characters who are representatives of minority groups, but all too often they only get in because their minority status is the focus of their story, if not of the whole story. We’ve all heard tales of how an agent, editor or reviewer has said something along the lines of, “Why does that character have to be female/black/gay/etc., it doesn’t add to the story in any way.” That’s because so often the assumed default of all characters in all stories is straight, cis, able, white male. If a character doesn’t fit that template then it must be remarked upon, in the same way that Chekov’s legendary gun on the mantlepiece has to be fired.

Obviously an equivalent of the Finkbeiner Test for fictional characters would be different for each minority group you can think of. Nor would such a thing be a hard and fast rule. Sometimes the story is about that character’s problems. But I think it is a useful start in trying to catch ways in which a minority character that you have created might be getting used in a tokenistic way.

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2 Responses to The Finkbeiner Test and Default Status Characters

  1. Sometimes the story is about that character’s problems…

    True, but it does not *have* to be. Especially in secondary world fantasy.

  2. Anne Lyle says:

    Definitely an excellent jumping-off point when thinking about characters. It reminds me of the TV series “Merlin”, where they chose a black actress to play Guinevere. At first I too wondered why they did it, because so often black characters are there to make some tokenistic point, but no-one within the show ever made a big deal of it and eventually it was clear that “oh, some of the people in Camelot happen to be black, same as in modern-day England”.

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