I am female. That means, in theory, that I can say whatever I want about my own gender and get away with it. At least, more so than any male writer.
That said, please read this post with the assumption that I am not a terrible person, or taking a position on either extreme of male-female relationship spectrum. In other words, no memes could be made satirizing my view. No one can accuse me of hating/persecuting/undervaluing either gender. I am not particularly bigoted or culturally repressed or feminist or anti-feminist or anything like that.
I make this disclaimer because this post is about how to make a damsel-in-distress-type character work. This is not the only kind of female character you can ever have, not by a long shot. But it is an archetype, and probably the reason people have such strong reactions to it is because it has been done so badly.
So let’s fix that, shall we?
Here are a few things to keep in mind if you’re ever writing a female character who might be considered by some readers as a bit of a damsel-in-distress.
1. Don’t make her helpless. “Wait,” you might be thinking, “isn’t that the entire point of a damsel in distress? A beautiful, helpless woman in danger for the sole purpose of showcasing the strength and heroism of the man?”
Nope. That kind of damsel in distress is no longer a compelling character.
I’ve been working with a character recently who is intelligent, good-hearted, and articulate. She’s great at reading people, understanding motives, and solving puzzles. In some situations, though, she has no applicable skills, such as going into battle.
When two other characters, both male, rush in to defend her, does that mean that she’s helpless? Not really. Readers won’t sneer at the poor girl and label the two guys who came to her rescue as chauvinistic pigs. She is a perfectly able and interesting character. She just happens to be in a situation where her abilities are of no use, and must therefore depend on others. Her résumé is much better suited for figuring out the cause of the surprise attack after the battle is over. So let the other characters keep her alive until then.
The general principle is simple: make your damsel in distress good at something. Maybe even brilliant at something…but something that doesn’t happen to be needed at that point in the story. The readers knows that she’ll end up using her own skills later on, even if she needs to be rescued this time.
2. Don’t go too far to the opposite extreme. It’s cliché to have the hero swoop down and carry the girl away from the very teeth of the dragon, yes. But it’s now also cliché to have her resist help and claim that she can do it herself, and then proceed to slay the dragon on her own, thus beginning a love-hate relationship full of tension with the hero that will probably be resolved into happily-ever-after by the last page.
Face it: when someone saves your life or assists you in any way, it’s natural to be grateful. If you’re female, there isn’t the same stigma of I’m-a-man-and-need-to-take-care-of-myself that is often enforced by our culture, so your female character would need a deliberate and believable reason to resist such help or complain about it after the fact. And again, even if it is a justifiable reaction for your character, consider whether you can do anything more original.
Most people think there are only two options with damsels in distress: make them the fawning, flirtatious, submissive beauties who can barely file their own fingernails, or the neo-feminist, independent, bossy heroines who save the day all on their own.
Middle ground is more fun…and more original. Have a female character who’s not independent…but who’s dependent on a group of people and not just the romantic lead. Make your damsel in distress not think she’s worthy of the help, or have her accept blame for things she shouldn’t feel guilty about. Maybe your damsel in distress isn’t a romantic interest at all, defying the conventional reasons of why the hero might risk his life to save her. In my opinion, any of these options are more interesting, and more true to the variety of personalities I see in real life, than the two extremes we normally think of.
3. Resist the temptation to make the damsel in distress a plot device. Sometimes, the romantic interest seems thrown into the story only because of the way she affects the hero.
Try something new. Have her interact with other characters, and not just in order to get a reaction out of the hero, but because she’s a person, and that’s what people do. Give her a backstory and motivations that are just as complex as your hero’s. Understand the way she thinks and why she acts, and not just compared and contrasted with the hero.
A burning building is a plot device. A ticking time bomb is a plot device. A battle of the bands is a plot device. They exist to be described to the reader, encountered by the protagonist, and eventually overcome. A character is not a plot device and shouldn’t be treated that way, especially a character who is important to the hero.