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Damsel in distress: How and why to write about her

Damsel in distress. Can you think of a more clichéd, out-of-date, and cringeworthy plot device than that? Flipping it around to show the man in peril isn’t much better.

However, a damsel in distress, when done right, can be an emotionally stirring storytelling tool. It can also provide a powerful commentary for our times. Here’s why I think the damsel in distress trope is so powerful and how to avoid the problems that come with it. (We’ll keep it clean and leave out the kinky stuff.)

We All Feel Like Damsels in Distress

The damsel in distress is a strong symbol because all of us — men and women — feel powerless at one time or another. It’s especially true today as we feel like victims of economic and political problems beyond our control. Compare the fantasy scenes of the mustache twirling landlord tying the poor woman to the railroad tracks for failing to pay the rent with the real-life scenes of families getting thrown out of their homes from foreclosure. So when we see the Pauline (or Paul) in peril, we can feel for them. Not all of us have been in physical danger, but we all have felt trapped and helpless at one point in our lives.

We All Want to Be the Hero

Superheroes are all the rage these days. The problem with superheroes is that you can never become one. You’ll never be strong enough, be a Norse god or Greek goddess, get exposed to gamma radiation, come from another planet, or have infinite amounts of money to spend on crime-fighting gadgets. You can muster the courage to help someone in need or to save yourself. You can be someone like Ashley Smith, the Atlanta mother who calmly talked the alleged courtroom killer who was holding her hostage into ending a standoff peacefully. When you are the damsel in distress, it takes mental and emotional strength, more than physical strength to survive. These are skills that any of us can learn.

We Want Assurance that Everything Will Be OK

The strange thing about a damsel in distress scene is that even though we see someone in danger, we know that she will likely be OK. That’s because she is still alive, even if it’s only for the villain to do horrible things to her. As long as we’re alive, we have hope. We have hope that she could talk the villain into letting her go or to delay him until the hero arrives. This is an important life lesson for us — learning to endure through horrible situations. This is why we feel such a rush of excitement when our damsel is finally rescued. If she could survive such a horrible situation, so can we.

The Daphne Trap and How to Avoid It

If damsel in distress scenes pack such emotional power, why do they seem so cliché? I blame Daphne, the hapless heroine of Scooby-Doo. (More precisely, she’s the example of decades of bad DiD.)

If you watch enough Scooby-Doo episodes without the aid of psychoactive compounds, you’ll notice the same thing happening: Fred splits up the gang and goes off with Daphne. Daphne lags behind and suffers the consequences for Fred’s poor strategy. Scooby and Shaggy see something moaning under a sheet and think it’s a ghost. Velma pulls off the sheet to reveal the tied-up Daphne (obviously reusing the same animation cels). This doesn’t hinder the “meddling kids” in solving the mystery. And since Velma usually figures out the mystery anyway, Daphne’s detour doesn’t usually help. Daphne doesn’t seem to suffer any ill effects from her ordeal, which may be why she keeps getting into them. It’s just another dumb pretty girl getting herself in trouble and needing someone to rescue her. This is why feminists hate the damsel in distress bit so much.

If you’re going to add a hostage or kidnap scene, it must have an impact on the story and its characters. A crisis reveals the deepest traits and flaws of all characters. These must come out in your story. Some things to consider:

  • How does your damsel handle her captivity? Does she fight it every second she can? Does she accept it passively? Does she accept it long enough to figure out an escape?
  • What is she willing to do to survive? What will she not do? What will she not do initially that she decides she must do?
  • What about her captor? Why does he want to keep her alive? What does he really need from her beyond just the ransom or to escape the police? What is he afraid of? What does he think of her? Does he have any sympathy for her? What would cause him to hurt or kill her? What would cause him to let her go?
  • What type of relationship does captor and captive have with each other? Hateful? Deceptive? Submissive? Romantic, even? How do they feel towards each other, and how and why do these feelings change during the captivity? How much do they trust each other? What similarities do the captor and captive have, and do they see them? How has their relationship changed from the time he took her captive till the time her captivity ends?
  • If someone is going to rescue your damsel, why does he want to do it? What are his feelings towards her? How would he feel if he fails? (Click for a spoiler example).
  • What does the damsel learn about herself from the ordeal? How does she change in its aftermath (for the better or worse)?

By delving into these deeper issues, you can rescue the damsel in distress from being a tired sexist cliché to becoming a powerful part of your story. You can also give your readers or audience comfort and strength to deal with their own times of helplessness.


Also published on Medium.

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