Damsel in Distress

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!