22 May 2011

Damsel in distress - believable characters and emotional balance

My writing drought unfortunately hasn't finished yet but I'm fighting it. I was going to write about learning on e-courses and online conferences but I was braindead for a several days and even looking at my keyboard made my eyelids go heavy and droop. I hoped someone would come and wave their magic wand and dispel the horrible thing, but I waited and waited and...nothing happened.

Then I read a very interesting post on Too Stupid To Live heroine on Heroes and Heartbreakers blog and thought Why don't I write about another post in Believable Characters series? It shouldn't be hard. I like writing about people I know. And who would I know better than a Damsel in Distress, since (clears her throat, embarrassed) I am a bit of one.

Key characteristic: Damsel in Distress usually lives a charmed, playful life, where there is no place for mundane problems. She has a strong sense of being special, and above and beyond rules and laws. She dances on meadows, picking flowers and chasing butterflies. She doesn't worry about paying bills, or what's for dinner. Whatever her age, she is always a little girl, who loves fun and have no sense of danger. She gets herself into trouble because she looks at the world through rose-tinted glasses or because she doesn't feel vulnerable, just like Sleeping Beauty who goes to a tower she's never known existed, speaks to an old woman she's never met before and tries something she doesn't even knows the name of (spindle).
DiD always looks young and her clothes usually emphasise this. Long, floating, flowery dresses, hats, long hair, a bunch of flowers in her hand - yes, you've got it right! DiD loves her freedom and being special. She's proud of being different.

On the other hand her youth, energy, enthusiasm for what's new, genuine curiosity for people and the world make her an attractive person. She makes friends easily and has many of them. She is a great listener, can 'read people' and is gentle. Since she needs people to support her, she avoids conflicts, keeps her opinions to herself and is a great peace keeper.
She doesn't care about the future, often she would not have a concept of future beyond the next week. She doesn't plan her life beyond the weekend. Forget marriage, children, commitments. Some Damsels in Distress forever remain damsels fading into spinsterhood with a wilted daisy chain on their head.

The black side of a DiD is a Troubled Teen (again: whatever her age) - out-of-control, ignorant, angry young woman who would get into trouble with the police, gangs, or unwanted pregnancy and expect her parents to turn up and rescue her. This type is even more selfish and manipulative than her more innocent sister. With her lack of sense of danger, feeling of being special, invincible and entitled she wastes her life away on proving (or rather not proving) her point.

Relationships: The key word is dependence. Damsel in Distress can't make decisions for herself and needs other people to lean on, feed her, entertain her, organise the life for her. She has trouble committing to one relationship and will happily jump from one to another. And since she can't live by herself, she goes from one relationship to the next straightaway, without reflecting on what went wrong with the previous one. She comes across as being innocent and vulnerable, and attracts men who want to take care of her, or who feel she's easy to domineer.

Typical backstory: Damsels I've met in real life were of two types. First one- with overprotective (or even controlling) parents, never had to grow up and take responsibility for her life - there was always someone to rescue them (usually Daddy, hence Damsels are often Daddy's Princesses). They grew up being special, for whatever reasons - be it being the only child (daughter), the youngest one, or maybe the sick one? Although they may (intellectually) know the world is a scary place, they never had a sense of it since they have always been protected.
Be mindful, there may be a serious child abuse lurking behind these lovely pictures of caring parents. The worse the abuse, the stronger the connection between the abuser and the child, and 'coming to her rescue' may be part of the game.

The other type is a child who experienced abandonment at an early stage (usually in the first 2 years); the abandonment didn't have to be of the scale of abuse or even purposeful. A typical scenario is a single full time working mother, a mother who became sick for a longer period (e.g. had to go to hospital, or was depressed) and couldn't take care of the child. The girl then had to 'fend for herself' - she's mastered how to make people look after her, but hasn't learnt the sense of real danger, or worse - since she knew how to make people do things for her she's gained a (absolutely false) sense of omnipotence, just like toddlers have.

Typical jobs: DiD loves their freedom and would hate mundane 'nine to five' jobs. She has short attention span and needs constant stimulation. DiD loves variety and hates making decisions. She is often an Eternal Student, moving from one course to another and collecting certificates, diplomas and other academic trophies. If you want to add external conflict, give your DiD a boring, repetitive office job, leaving which would require far too many decisions to make and a few people to upset.

Motivations: safety and security, but also freedom to be herself and lead whatever lifestyle she likes. She enjoys being different and would go to great lengths to emphasise it.

Biggest fears: being abandoned (yet again), left to fend and make decisions for herself ; loosing her freedom; not being special; boredom

Potential for growth: Although Damsel in Distress seems to be a little passe these days, I believe that she can be an interesting character to have in your romance novel. Not only she can be likable (unless it's the Troubled Teen you have) but there is great potential for growth!  Just imagine this sweet, helpless, spineless flower girl meeting a man who hates damsels in distress. Imagine that journey she embarks on to become a strong, assertive, independent woman and win her man's heart. All you need to do is to help her realise the world isn't as safe place as she thinks, get off her backside and start taking responsibility for her own life and future. So much room to grow.

More about Damsel in Distress in media here.

Examples from film and literature: Persefone, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, Jane Austen's Emma, Jane in Tarzan, many of Bond girls or my favourite DiD - Abby Harper from My Family comedy series.

Do you think there is still place for Damsels in Distress in contemporary romantic fiction? Do you like them? Or rather feel like teaching them a lesson on danger and independence?

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