Writing female characters has always proven troublesome for guys, not because women are ‘hard to understand’ or are helpless, but because nearly every culture teaches us that women are trophies under our possession and control.
The tale of Saint George slaying a dragon is an excellent example. Saint George saves a princess by slaying a dragon, right? What most people don’t tell you about this story is that before he slew the dragon, he asked the princess for her corset and put it on the dragon. The dragon immediately became calm and subservient so that Saint George could parade it around the city and show it off before he killed it.
All other damsel-in-distress narratives have followed in close suit. Even stories that attempt to flip that narrative usually end up painting the ‘strong female lead’ as a corset-wearing beauty who eventually still pines over a ‘good man’ she wants to belong to.
I recently watched Jupiter Ascending (2015) with my sister. Partway through the film, the ‘strong’ female lead named ‘Jupiter’ is shown a statue of a past queen who looks just like her because Jupiter is a genetic reincarnation of this aforementioned queen. At this point in the movie, I thought ‘You know, you could replace Jupiter with that statue and this scene would still work. You could even replace her with a cheeseburger.”
After mentioning this to my sister, she and I wondered how long this particular story could maintain a cheeseburger-swap without breaking any scenes.
Turns out, it was the entire movie.
The two most active roles Jupiter ever plays in the film are to shoot a man in the leg (a man who dies ten seconds later to other causes) and making out with some dude (which killed us, because a dude could totally make out with a cheeseburger).
We now call this “The Cheeseburger Test”, and it’s my standard litmus test for passive characters.
Consider this short narrative. Each time you read the word ‘princess’, try replacing it in your mind with ‘cheeseburger’.
Once upon a time, a beautiful princess, the most sought-after and beautiful princess in all the land, was stolen away by a vicious dragon with a particular taste for princesses.
Sir de Franz, a handsome knight of noble birth and notable deeds, rode to the king’s castle and offered to slay the dragon and save the princess. The king told him that the princess was his only love in the world and to please save her. In exchange, he promised that if the handsome knight brought the princess safely home, the Knight could marry the princess and inherit half the kingdom.
And so the knight rode to slay the dragon.
The dragon, upon seeing the knight enter his cave, took the princess between his claws and threatened to devour her.
The knight tossed aside his sword and promised not to harm the dragon if it would only let his princess go. The dragon replied that knights were tasteless beside the delicacy of such a beautiful princess.
And so the knight offered the dragon five princesses in exchange. He led the dragon out of the cave to where five scarecrows dressed to look like fair princesses, but filled with poison, awaited the dragon.
The dragon, never intending to honor any deal with a knight, immediately devoured the five fake princesses, and died.
The knight, victorious, returned to the cave and gently kissed the princess. And they all lived happily ever after.
Characters without physical effect on plot can still be valid characters. Edward Tulane, a china rabbit doll from Kate DeCallio’s “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane” is a very emotional cheeseburger that you care a great deal for.
Kate’s award-winning story works because although Edward does literally nothing—he can’t, he’s a doll—every character that wraps their heart around him is changed by their choice to love something, anything at all, even if it doesn’t love them back. Edward works as a POV character because his journey is internal and he has only one choice: Whether or not to love back.
Most of the time, however, a cheeseburger is just a husk of a character who serves as a trophy or a foil for another character.
Long-time writers might recognize the cheeseburger test as a variation on the “sexy lamp” test invented by Kelly Sue DeConnick. The Sexy Lamp Test has a few limitations, however:
- Most people don’t covet a sexy lamp
- There is rarely cause to interact with a lamp
- A lamp can actually be useful
Personally, I prefer the cheeseburger because I relate to it better. It’s fragile, depreciating, single-use, dollar-menu value does a better job of highlighting my accidental objectification of a character when I need to see it most.
The other fantastic function of cheeseburgers is that cheeseburgers don’t just reveal thoughtless use of people. They betray thoughtless use of stereotypes generally.
For example, if you replace physical objects like Indiana Jones’s holy grail with a cheeseburger, you have an amusing Mcguffin test.
Look back at the dragon story one last time, and this time replace the dragon with a cheeseburger. I’ll adjust the story very slightly to accomidate the change.
Once upon a time, a beautiful princess, the most sought-after and beautiful princess in all the land, was swept away by a dangerous cheeseburger that was particularly tasty to princesses.
Sir de Franz, a handsome knight of noble birth and notable deeds, rode to the king’s castle and offered to destroy the cheeseburger and save the princess. The king told him that the princess was his only love in the world and to please save her. In exchange, he promised that if the handsome knight brought the princess safely home, the Knight could marry the princess and inherit half the kingdom.
And so the knight went on a crusade to destroy cheeseburgers.
The knight found the princess trapped in the cheeseburger’s clutches. The cheeseburger threatened to devour the princess everyone knew and loved.
The knight tossed aside his sword and promised the princess he wouldn’t harm her cheeseburger if only she’d return home.
The knight offered the princess an exchange. He pointed outside the cave to where five sandwiches dressed to look like cheeseburgers, but filled with vegetables, awaited them.
The princess immediately devoured the five fake cheeseburgers, and decided cheeseburgers weren’t to her liking after all.
The knight, victorious and never intending to honor any trade, returned to the cave and gently kissed the princess. And they all lived happily ever after.
This reveals the most interesting lesson of all: Stereotypes have the capacity to degrade characters, even good characters.
We all carry offensive biases. It’s human, so don’t worry too much, but do slow down and ask if the symbols, actions, and rewards match what you really want to tell your reader.