The only thing a character has to do to avoid becoming a damsel in distress is not sit and wait for rescue. Seriously, that’s it. They don’t have to succeed, they just have to try and keep trying. (Though… preferably not against characters who are willing to kill them for trying.)
The biggest issue with writing inexperienced female action characters (or any female action characters) is that there’s a tendency to overcompensate. From what I’ve actually seen in literature and media, this can be a bigger issue for female writers than male writers (though both suffer from it) because of the way the societal gender norms inform their perspective on what they can be. When you’ve been told your whole life that “you’ll never be as good” at X, or “you can’t beat a guy”, or all the other little stories and common wisdom littered across a thousand different television shows, books, media, and forum discussions then the specter of the Damsel in Distress can feel like an omnipresent and even unbeatable threat.
I’m going to launch into a deeper discussion about how losing and getting knocked down doesn’t make a character weak, but I’m going to leave the most important piece of advice here:
The Damsel in Distress is an object within the narrative. Defeat it by making your character a person.
The trouble with the “Strong Female Character” is that it’s a response to the regular female character and the regular female character is regarded as weak. By accepting the term, it means we accept that the vast majority of women out there are weak and by creating a female character who doesn’t begin with StrongTM stamped on their ass that they are inherently weak before they can become strong.This locks us in because in order for this female character to be “Strong” she must be everything the average woman is not. To even be on the same playing field as her fellow men, she must be unbeatable. By starting with a “Strong Female CharacterTM”, we begin with the mission statement that just being a girl is not good enough.
According to the media and the general perceptions presented by society, all boys are heroes while all girls are damsels in distress. If you’re worried about your character becoming a damsel then it’s because for you, the damsel is still the default.
So, below the cut, I’ll try to make some suggestions for how to beat this.
Do you define your hero as being a hero based on who they are or what they can do?
The average male hero is defined as a hero based on who he is. The average “Strong Female CharacterTM” is defined as hero based on what she can do. When working with female characters, we begin to revolve around not who a character is but what they can do as being important to their success.
We start to feel like any loss is a sign that they’re unworthy. They always have to win and the win must be effortless.
Say it with me:
“My character doesn’t need to be anything more than who they are to be the hero of my story.”
I know I battle with the omnipresent feeling of “not deserving the spotlight” or “not being good enough”. It’s okay to step back and say “yes, it’s all about me”. Your character isn’t going to win every battle. They are going to encounter enemies that they cannot defeat by force alone. Enemies they cannot fight head to head. It’s not a sign of them being weak or incapable, it’s just a matter of them having to solve their problem a different way.
I have a character who spends the vast majority of my novel running away. Well, really, running toward her enemy. She is more than capable of fighting head to head with most of what the setting can throw at her, but is also capable of assessing which fights are worth her time and risk. She’s working within a very short time frame. At the end of the novel, before fighting the main villain, she fights six guys. Instead of fighting them straight up, she runs from them.
Someone out there may be going: but running away is cowardly!
No, it’s smart. By running, she breaks them up and has a better chance one on one than fighting them all together. By running, she can lose them. When they lose her, they have to start searching for her, and so she can begin hunting them. The tables turn and the prey becomes the predator.
Take a situation that places the character at a disadvantage and have them turn it to their advantage. Take an action that may lead to the character being perceived as weak and turn it into an action that is strong. Strength can come from cunning and resourcefulness as much as it can from physical action. It can come from compassion, kindness, and the willingness to forgive.
Your character can be weak and strong at the same time.
Stop being afraid of how other people will perceive your character.
The damsel in distress is a fear of what other people will think. It’s a worry that you’re not doing it “right”. There is no right. People will think what they think. So, fuck ‘em. Write your story. Write it the way it wants to be written. Then, revise it to be what you want.
Just do it.
You’re not failing the Feminist movement. You’re not failing anyone by telling the story the way you want.
Trust yourself. You can do it.