Friday, 2 January 2015

The Damsel in Distress Dilemma

There are quite some topics that might turn up sooner or later in every writer’s work. One of them is the story device known as the “Damsel in Distress.” Don’t misunderstand me here, even the strongest girl (or the most heroic man) can end up in a situation in which they need help. They can get caught and thrown into an absolutely escape-proof cell. They can find themselves heavily injured and facing an army of foes who are armed to their eyebrows. The problem isn’t having such a situation in your story, it’s about resolving it.

The most classic damsels in distress are fairy-tale princesses. Usually, they are kept somewhere (in a tower, in a castle, under a spell, under the sea - kidding here) and then the hero, who usually is a prince, comes over and saves them. He gets to carry them back home and they get married and live happily ever after (unless you’re reading the “Fables” comics or playing “The Wolf Among Us”). Those are precisely the mechanics that make the Damsel in Distress Dilemma. Because, you see, you could take out the princess and add a trophy cup instead and the story would still work. Okay, the prince might not marry the trophy cup and they probably wouldn’t have kids, even if he did, but the main part of the story would be the same. The hero comes, vanquishes the main foe, and takes the price. Whether the price is a woman, a country, a trophy cup, or two tickets for the Super-Bowl (put any great sports event of your choice in here) doesn’t really matter.
If you can exchange the leading female character of a story for an inanimate object and the story basically still works (apart from a few scenes), you’re doing something wrong. Exchanging a character for an inanimate object should never work. Whenever it does, you have failed at creating either the character, the story, or both. If all your female lead does is standing around waiting to be rescued and, perhaps, afterwards bickering with the hero a little, you’re not writing a female character, you’re writing a trophy cup with a wig and a voice.

That doesn’t mean you have to skip the whole ‘rescue’ business. In the first “Star Wars” movie (yes, I refuse to accept the existence of the prequels), Princess Leia gets rescued by the hero of the movie and a guy who could be a hero, if he were reformed, at some point (I’ll leave you to sort out who is who). Does that make her the Damsel in Distress for the rest of the story? Hell, no. Leia is one of the Strong Women Of Star Wars (a group that also includes Mon Mothma and Mara Jade, among others). Everyone can be captured. Everyone can get so deep into trouble they need a snorkel to breathe. The hero and his allies getting into trouble basically is a necessity for every story - it’s often called the Dark Moment or the Point Of No Return.
Or take Fiona from the original “Shrek” movie. At first glance, she’s the typical fairy-tale princess: locked in a tower, cursed, supposed to be rescued by her Prince Charming, fated to marry him after True Love’s First Kiss. But the writers of the story didn’t do things the regular way for a fairy tale. They started with making the hero one of the traditional baddies. Ogres aren’t well-known for heroic deeds, they’re more well-known for being a reason for heroic deeds. And Shrek isn’t going around saying ‘hey, I don’t want to be your regular Ogre, I want to be a hero instead.’ All he wants, is getting the other fairy-tale creatures out of his swamp, so he can continue his dull, but comfortable life. That’s where both Fiona’s long time in the tower, which she had to spend somehow, and the curse placed on her as a child do come in. Fiona didn’t spent all her time stitching, she learned some smooth martial arts moves. And the curse doesn’t make her go to sleep for a hundred years or some other regular fairy-tale stuff, it turns her into an Ogress at night. True Love’s First Kiss is supposed to turn her fully human again - or so she thinks. What the curse does, though, is making her assume True Love’s True Form. In other words: if Fiona finds true love with a human, she’ll become fully human. But she finds true love with an Ogre, with Shrek, so she becomes an Ogress 24/7 instead. Fiona is no Damsel in Distress, she is a female lead.

What can you do to avoid the Damsel in Distress Dilemma when you write a story? Question your characters. Test them by trying to replace them with trophy cups. Give each character their own agenda, not just the villain and the hero (they always have clashing goals, otherwise the story won’t work), but also the support characters. Everyone has something they want to accomplish or want to get their hands on. ‘A husband who saved me from my tower’ should not be the goal of the female lead, though. Ideally, Hero and Heroine (say: main character and ally) support each other and each of them is doing the saving at some point.
Leia is instrumental in saving both Luke (in Cloud City when he’s hanging on that weather vane and she senses where he is and that he’s in trouble) and Han (when she infiltrates Jabba’s palace and gets him out of the Carbonite), so you could say she returns the favour. Fiona saves Shrek from Robin Hood and his Merry Men in the first movie.

Remember that every person in your story is a character, not just a piece of scenery or a piece of furniture or a piece of decoration that happens to breathe. Treat them accordingly and give them something to do.

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