Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Handling the Damsel in Distress

The damsel in distress is a very old trope, dating back to Greek mythology and beyond. You have a girl that needs rescuing, and this drives the plot. Simple, right? Well, in modern media the unqualified damsel in distress has become less popular, due to the rise of various shades of action girl and self-rescuing princesses. Even Princess Peach, the quintessential damsel of the Super Mario Brothers games, has taken a role in ensuring her own safety from time to time (though she still gets kidnapped more often than not).

As a result, the modern damsel in distress must be handled very carefully in order to avoid accusations of one-dimensionality, bad writing, or misogynist subtext. However, not every female character can be Xena Warrior Princess and get herself out of a pinch. Let's explore the reasons why a damsel might be put in distress.

  • Simple Kidnapping. Yes, this old chestnut. The villain might need to take custody of your impending damsel for a series of reasons, whether it's for financial gain, to force another character's hand, or because the villain has a serious crush on her.
  • She Has a Plot Coupon. Some damsels might possess an item (or know how to access it) upon which the plot hinges. This could be a tattoo that happens to show where the thing that everyone's looking for is, it it might be a book with an encoded message that tells how to get to the thing. In either case, get the damsel, and eventually you get the thing.
  • She Is a Plot Coupon. The damsel has a certain ability or set of abilities that will allow her to get to the thing, or access the thing herself, or otherwise solve the plot's main problem. Or maybe she's the heir to the kingdom and everyone in the land is squabbling for the right to marry her--and then someone just cuts to the chase and makes off with her. (That someone might not even know she's a plot coupon when the absconding happens, only that she's pretty or important or what have you.)
  • She Happened to be Handy. The damsel of convenience in these plots can offer the perfect opportunity to set up epic amounts of ass-kicking if the villain grabbed the wrong damsel out of the crowd. Whether this is foreshadowed before the throw-down happens is entirely up to the writer.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of why a damsel might be in distress, but it covers most of the basics. Of course, now that your damsel is in distress, let's explore reasons that she might not be able to get herself out of distress.

  • Physical Restraints. Again, a classic. This might mean she's tied to a rock or locked in a room or tied up on the metaphorical railroad tracks. Barring any established skills as an escape artist, this is often a perfectly valid reason for the damsel to remain in her predicament and need rescuing.
  • Geographical Restraints. The next best sting to tying her up is putting her someplace secluded where the hero can't get to her right away. She might be locked at the top of the tallest tower or parked in a stronghold on a secluded island or in the middle of the villain's stronghold with thousands of guards between her and the hero. In many cases, the hero might have to find her to rescue her, and him finding out her location can make up the bulk of the plot.
  • Guarded by Something Scary. This could be anything from a trained Bengal tiger to the villain's trusted assistant Moe to a fire-breathing dragon, but in any case the scary thing provides a really healthy incentive to not try to run off.
  • Drugged or Hypnotized. If the damsel is not able to properly get her bearings, obviously she can't make a valid effort to get herself free. Part of the plot might be her trying to clear her head and meet the hero in the middle, bot not always.
  • Physical or Mental Handicap. This needs to be navigated carefully, lest one be the target of accusations of insensitivity. However, certain neurological conditions can make a damsel of either sex unable to properly defend herself from harm, or even recognize danger. A blind damsel might be able to use her senses to evade the bad guy, but that's still a form of distress.
  • She's Naive. DANGER WILL ROBINSON! You better have a really good reason to use this one (like a sheltered upbringing) and it must be handled very carefully lest your prospective damsel be branded an idiot. I know as well as any that there are dingbats and airheads in the real world who wouldn't know a dangerous individual if he pointed a gun at their face, but if this keeps happening repeatedly without her learning her lesson or taking measures to protect herself (that's called character development, for those of you following along at home), eventually the audience is going to brand her an idiot and throw your book against a wall. If your damsel seems to exist solely to have the plot happen to her, you might want to consider heavy rewriting.
While the damsel in distress may have waned in popularity in recent times, she can still be an effective plot point if handled carefully. Just watch out that she doesn't become nothing more than a cardboard cutout with "LOVE INTEREST" written on it in Sharpie and give her motivations of her own, and you will be well on your way to having an interesting, sympathetic damsel.

 And now, for something completely different...

This week's progress report for Sheep's Clothing sales continues my slow and steady trend. Next month I will propose regular book-signings at the St. Louis Bread Company to see if I can do better there with more advertising and an expected crowd, and in October I plan to sell my books at Archon 38!