Plot and Motivation: The tired trope of Distress

With the second edition of my first books in the process of getting out the door and the editing wrapping up on the second round, I’ve been spending a fair chunk of time setting up the finale to my two trilogies.  That’s led me to spend time thinking about plotting, motivations, and the associated tropes with them.  I want there to be some hard choices made by the protagonists in both series on the course to the finale, to up the tension both for the characters and the readers, so my mind turned to death and danger in regards to the cast as a means of increasing that tension.  I’ve talked about the idea of death as motivation before, so I decided to write about my thoughts on the classic trope of the Damsel (or Dude) in Distress.

Now, you may be saying, ‘Now, wait, shouldn’t this be a Looking at Character article?  The Damsel in Distress is a stock character, not a trope.’ and to that I respond, ‘HA!  Most Damsels (or Dudes) in Distress aren’t characters, they are plot devices!”.  In fact, that is the main problem with their use in media: Male or female, the D-in-D trope turns a potentially compelling character into an object.  A prize to be fought over, a piece of property to be reclaimed, however you want to look at it, the character is clearly objectified.  Why dignify the D-in-D by calling it a character when all it is is a plot device?

If you are willing to make that concession and identify the problem of the trope being in the objectification, you’re still left with an important problem.  The fact is that the plot action defined by the trope (putting a loved one of the protagonist in jeopardy) might make logical sense in line with the motivations and abilities of the antagonist at work.  Why not use the most logical course of action in regards to the antagonists when to do otherwise could risk breaking the suspension of disbelief?

I think one way to help elevate the D-in-D trope out of the objectification gutter (someplace neither men or women need to be tossed into) is to present the incident and it’s after-effects without destroying the agency of the character put into harm’s way.  Even a simple passage as the protagonist finding the signs of an extended struggle from a kidnapping and evidence of escape attempts later can add some dignity and agency back to the D-in-D.  Another important point is to emphasize and flesh out not only the D-in-D-to-be before hand, but to emphasize the motivations of the protagonist outside of the obvious ones caused by this trope.  The distress caused to the Dude or Damsel should NOT be the sole motivation of the protagonist or else it further enhances the objectification caused by this trope.

Those are just a few ideas as to ways to make the D-in-D trope a bit more palatable.  Of course, the best way to avoid that pitfall is simply to find better and more complex ways to provide motivation for the protagonist and tension to the conflicts, but if you can’t, your duty as a writer is to find as many ways as possible to reduce the objectification caused by the trope and try to raise it beyond mere rote recitation of the story device as we so often see.  Fill out those motivations and characterizations and make sure never to fully deprive your characters of their agency.  Once the illusion of free will is shattered for the reader and they can see the rails on which the story runs, you can be sure they are a thousand times more likely to simply put the book down for some other kind of media.

Do you have any more ideas about how to use distress to characters as part of the plot without reducing them to objects?  Do you disagree with any of my ideas?  All debate is good, so feel free to speak up in the comments below!

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10 comments

  1. I pantsed my first book, which has no classic antagonist, per se, although there are a couple of characters that readers have reported disliking intensely. It’s a psychological novel about relationships, so there are multiple sources of conflict (internal, interpersonal, societal, paranormal). The two D-in-D episodes (one for the Dude, one for the Damsel), although not having unusual premises, don’t have neat and tidy motives or aftermaths, either. I don’t know where any of it came from, because I don’t read the genre to which it seems to be most closely related.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

      1. Something else about those two un-likables: one is the character who changed the most (both in personality and motivation) and the other is the character who changed the least (in neither personality or motivation).

    1. As I have run to the end of the reply chain …

      That’s a very fascinating observation. I could figure the second: often a stagnant character can be uninteresting to a reader and hence unlikable. The first is interesting though. I wonder if there’s more to that?

      1. I know I started out not liking that first character and the way he behaved, and for the longest time I didn’t want to work on the scenes he was in. Then, I figured out what had made him be the way he was, and while I still didn’t like how he behaved, I felt some sympathy for him. When I got around to analyzing the four important characters, to see how each had changed, I was stunned to see that he had changed the most, which, theoretically, could make him the hero, although he had been written as a strong secondary character.

        The character who changes the least (also a strong secondary) is immature and abrasive, and acts out in ways that were difficult for me to write about. A third of the way through writing the book, I realized that there was not going to be a “satisfactory” resolution for her problems – and BOOM – a that moment, a sequel was born. I took a day off to write about 6,000 words of it (the beginning, the end, and a few impressions of scenes), and then went back to finish the original story.

        Incidentally, one MC changes only in personality, and the other MC only changes in motivation. This combination of outcomes was not at all what I’d expected, according to what I’d learned in reading about the subject, after the fact.

        (BTW, if you want, you can change the length of your reply chain, via Dashboard > Settings > Discussion. You can go as deep as 10 to a thread.)

        1. There, now we can comment pyramid for much longer.

          Interesting look at that character structure. Could it be that readers disliked the first character simple because they were wedded to an initial impression? We humans can be bad at that!

          1. You’re right about that first impression. Even among diehard fans, probably nobody will re-read it often enough to get to know him as well as I did, by the time I was done with editing and proofreading. I even wondered what happened to him in his later years, but although the Muse told me, and there’s a brief hint in the other character’s sequel (which I haven’t picked up again – my WIP is a prelude historical novel), there’s no story in his ultimate fate.

              1. LOL, I’ve got a lot of stories bubbling around between my ears, but the Muse swore me to secrecy about him. All I could say when I found out what happened, was “Aw, gee.” Other than that, my lips are sealed. 😉

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