My main character is injured, having been shot earlier. This injury renders him much slower to respond and reduces his agility. Because of this, two of his colleagues are with him to protect him.

His colleagues are a young woman who is his protégée and a man who is a good friend of his.

She never had an instructor like him before and knows that the longer she is with him, the more she will learn and the better she will be. She needs his knowledge, but likes him too as a teammate and there is camaraderie between them.

I see the scene: the protegee notices signs of danger and, at the moment every instinct tells her to evade, she leaps into the line of fire, taking a bullet for her mentor. Danger is neutralized.

He carries her away. She is being driven away to receive medical care, but he follows to clear the way, protecting her because she is a valued teammate, his protégée and just saved his life.

How best to balance their actions so as not to overshadow the woman’s courage?

  • Why do you think they would?
    – user18397
    Nov 1, 2018 at 22:46
  • 2
    I don’t want to take the spotlight off of her courage. I think it reasonable of him to respond as I envision, but it is so rare that women get to come to the rescue that I would rather let the reader enjoy that without having his response blur it.
    – Rasdashan
    Nov 1, 2018 at 22:51
  • 1
    How would you make this question more general? I mean, at the moment you're kinda asking for plot criticism. What's the more general question - how not to undermine a woman's heroic act by a man's act to protect her? Basically, balancing those two elements? Nov 1, 2018 at 23:29
  • Is that better?
    – Rasdashan
    Nov 1, 2018 at 23:31
  • @Rasdashan This seems like a non-issue. Taking a bullet for someone is inherently more memorable than helping a wounded teammate to safety. Nov 4, 2018 at 3:11

7 Answers 7


You're in a tricky situation here: there's been so much written about women needing protection, that responding negatively to it is almost a knee-jerk reaction, whether justified or not.

One way you can address this is by acknowledging the problem. If you're telling the story from the man's POV, he can acknowledge that the woman would hate him being all protective, but he'd do it anyway because... If you're telling it from the woman's POV, she can hate the situation, even if she (maybe) acknowledges the necessity. This is the route Jim Butcher routinely takes in his Dresden Files series.

Another approach is to change slightly the focus of the scene. Instead of the man "protecting the woman because she is a valued teammate, his protégée and just saved his life", he is impressed by her performance, appreciative of what she just did for him, and of course he's going to watch over her now, just as she's done for him a moment ago. The events are the same, but you're telling them in a way that builds the woman up, and downplays the man's role as protector.

  • 1
    Considering she is the kind of character who gets angry at being called ‘girl’, she is apt to become livid when he carries her to safety. She may be a wounded assassin, but she’s no damsel in distress.
    – Rasdashan
    Nov 4, 2018 at 2:46
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    @Rasdashan very well then. As long as you don't present her anger as laughable or ungrateful, as long as she cannot be dismissed as "crazy woman", you're fine. Nov 4, 2018 at 10:32
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    @Rasdashan - there is a difference between "a damsel in distress" and a trained professional realizing when they are not currently capable of operating at peak proficiency and require assistance. Being angry at herself for getting shot is understandable, being angry at a companion carrying her to safety instead of letting her bleed out on the floor is not. That would be doing a gross injustice to her.
    – user18397
    Nov 8, 2018 at 23:22
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    This obviously depends on where and how badly she is wounded, too. If it's just a graze, then yeah - she should walk it off. If it's a gut shot, or there's major blood loss however...
    – user18397
    Nov 8, 2018 at 23:23
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    @Thomo In addition to being angry at herself or her companion (I agree with your analysis there), a character might also be angry at the situation. She might hate needing help (I know I do), she might hate that there are enemies at large while she isn't able to do anything about it... Nov 8, 2018 at 23:32

I can imagine the moments after (the escape with both injured) could be milked for camaraderie. Rather than him stepping on her valor, you could play it with a little irony and gallows humor, making them equals in the moment with mutual ribbing.

"You weren't suppose to try the advanced stuff, until tomorrow."

"But you made it look so easy." "But you're such a good teacher." etc.

It's a backhanded compliment, but legitimate. He is saying she has just leveled up, and assuming she survives she will have combat experience you can't train for. Milk the scene for more than a moment of valor, into an opportunity for her to have to keep it together while they get to safety.

At the same time he is still more experienced, so there would be a balance between him testing her humor as a quick assessment of her condition, and the seriousness of the situation.

  • There will certainly be some good naturing ribbing between them,
    – Rasdashan
    Nov 6, 2018 at 0:56

The way I see it, the problem is this - the MC is injured, vulnerable, and still he jumps into the fray, chooses to fight. The reader's sympathy is with them here. He and his protegee are in a dangerous situation, and the protegee saves him by taking a bullet for him. At that moment, the reader's sympathies switch to the girl - she is the more heroic of the duo.
But the problem is, her injury has put her out of action, and cast her into the damsel-in-distress role. She's no longer center-stage - she can't be - and the MC gets the spotlight again by carting her to safety. The reader focuses on him again.
There's a clear two-to-one advantage the MC has over the protegee, so I think the best bet at this point would be, give her something else to do. Maybe she has some brilliant insight about the situation and the (presumed) enemy they are facing, that would help in any further situation. Or maybe she makes the hero leave her and go back to where he is needed, even when he doesn't want to. Or maybe in the scene after, she decides that she won't remain in the hospital (despite her obvious discomfort) and stay at the base (not necessarily out in the field - you want brave, not stupid) to provide support to the MC.
Make her more than her injury, or the fact that she needed saving. Make it so that her courage is not seen as spur of the moment, but rather a part of her makeup.

You have written a situation that makes the reader come to some decisions about both the characters and that's all fine, but what I think will decide the attention the girl's heroism will receive depends on what she will do next, not on the response she gets from the MC or anyone else.

  • 1
    Are you suggesting that provided I shift emphasis to her courage in later scenes she will appear less of a damsel in distress? Injured comrade is an injured comrade and the other colleague is too far, requiring the MC to act to carry her to safety lest he be a shmuck .
    – Rasdashan
    Nov 4, 2018 at 19:42
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    I guess that is what I'm saying. You have a scene well-mapped out here. Unless you want to change the scene to make the girl's injury not debilitating so that she can still remain in the field, her role there is done. There are no more actions for her to perform, only words, and I don't know how effective they can be. So I think its a good idea to have a later scenes emphasize her courage in this scene, as well as courage as inbuilt in her character.
    – Bumble Bee
    Nov 5, 2018 at 2:20
  • Of course, I gave that answer under the assumption that you want to highlight the woman's courageousness as a whole, you know, for the entire book. If that is what you are going for, then you need more scenes with her being brave (kind of like she's accumulating courage points with the reader). Or is it that you want to emphasize only the woman's courage in this particular scene?
    – Bumble Bee
    Nov 5, 2018 at 2:49
  • This is something that she is discovering about herself. Before, she was never really part of a team, just a replaceable cog in a machine. She sees more iin herself now and understands that fighting for something is different
    – Rasdashan
    Nov 5, 2018 at 7:55
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    In that case, you could add some introspection into the scene, I guess? When she is being carted away from the scene by the hero, she asks herself why she did something so dangerous and reckless. And then she decides that at that point, to her, there was no other option. She saw a team mate in danger. She saw a way to neutralize that threat. She went for it. To her, doing nothing wasn't an option. This way, there is some self-discovery, as well as establishing her courage to the reader.
    – Bumble Bee
    Nov 6, 2018 at 17:39

Don't make it about him.

If it works in your story, switch to her point of view.

If you need to stick with your main character's point of view, then focus on him describing her actions as a narrator would and don't focus on what he's feeling. Some feelings will come across and that's fine. Just make it about her.

If you have a narrator that moves around, then keep the narrator with your hero and not with your main character at this point. You can move back later, or intersperse.

  • No, I don't see how that would work. The heroine's injured, being carried away to safety at the moment. At that point, the only person with her is the MC. She'll be looking at him - he's saving her at the moment. Adding to the fact that she already admires him, all his actions will take a heroic tilt to her eyes because that's what he is doing - rescuing her. And because the reader is in her eyes, the MC's heroism would be prominent to them as well. Unless you make the heroine think about the dangerous situation even when injured, and not of the MC's actions - it would work then, I guess.
    – Bumble Bee
    Nov 4, 2018 at 14:48
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    Exactly. You just made it all about him. He saaaaved her. In fact, your description of the scene is a small portion of what the original poster described. The way to tip the balance to the woman's actions is to spend more time on them and a lot less time on what the man did to help her after she was injured. Because it's not all about him!
    – Cyn
    Nov 4, 2018 at 14:51

Let's get something straight.

This woman is not your main character. So this means she is a vehicle to progress the plot of your main character. This means the actions of this character should impact the charactergrowth of your main character in some meaningful way.

In your story the main character is defended by this other character by some heroic feat of strenght. How did that impact the main character? How did it make him feel? How will this impact further decisions that he makes in the future?

Will he remember the sacrifises that were made to defend him? Will it make him feel different in situations similar to the one that he was in?

If you are scared that the act of courage is overshadowed, then it means you are not using this storypoint to progress the charactergrowth of your maincharacter. Which means this scene was unnecessary.

In short, if you want to make a scene important. Make it so that the maincharacter(s) learn something, contemplate the actions of that scene.

  • She is a strong secondary character, but recurring and certainly not a walk off. Her motivation does matter and her actions will certainly have an effect on the MC
    – Rasdashan
    Nov 5, 2018 at 18:48
  • @Rasdashan so show that effect on the MC. All characters are a means to bring over a message or an emotion. If your action has consequences that are important for the reader to empathize with. Make sure it has an lasting effect on the maincast. Make the possible overshadowing event be effected by this act of courage. So that this act is part of the event and not seen seperately. Nov 6, 2018 at 8:57

As @Galastel mentioned, that kind of situation elicits a knee-jerk reaction, so let's try to get the sex out of the equation for a bit:

A is the mentor, B is the pupil.

This very relationship means that B is inferior to A, whether it be in terms of skill, knowledge, experience, strength or something else. In fact, the more of those terms B is at a lower level, the more B is seen as inferior to A and, as such, the more need there is for that character to proof their worth.

A being superior to B, it means that A will typically be the one saving B (whether literally - eg. in a fight - or metaphorically - eg. through teaching new skills). In the rare occasion where that role is reversed, one can expect...

1) B teaches A a new skill, imparts knowledge, etc: expect such skill/knowledge to be something of minor importance in survival, but important in social aspects (eg. A is a loner and must learn the joys of having a companion).

If A's a protagonist and the skill/knowledge is duly assimilated, this will allow A to grow as a character.

If B is a supporting character, either the skill/knowledge is duly assimilated, allowing for B to mentor A in a role reversion, or the skill/knowledge might not be assimilated (eg. it's too difficult for B to change ingrained habits) and B is shown to be superior to A in at least one level, which is typically highlighted as of being fundamentally important (eg. socialising, showing empathy, etc). In the last case, expect A to finally appreciate the importance of said skill/knowledge at the moment B has learnt all there was to learn and is ready to move on independently.

2) B literally saves A's life but, being underskilled, gets seriously wounded (or is taken captive) and must be helped / rescued by A, thus making sure the role reversal is:

a) if A is the protagonist: a relatively hollow example of B's importance as a character, and I say hollow because the status quo is not really meant to be challenged

b) if A is the protagonist: nothing more than a token example of B's bravery, but underlining how B cannot possibly stand alone

c) if B is the protagonist: a proof of B's bravery and a foreshadowing of successful deeds to come, underlining how B is on their way to stand alone

Since the question is about heroic life saving deeds, let's focus on that scenario.

If the mentor is the protagonist, any heroic action the side-kick may undertake will typically be overshadowed because the protagonist mustn't be overshadowed. This means that A will be saved by B, but then B must be saved by A in some way so as to restore the status quo.

In the case where B is the protagonist, the sequence 'B saves A and A saves B' can be played as a signal that B is not yet ready to move on, and it will probably lead to a sequence where B saves A with no need of further rescue, or B fails to save A and must do the last part of their growth on their own.

Since the question poses the mentor as the protagonist, let's focus on that.

Even if the author does no wish to do so, the sequence 'B saves A and A saves B' will typically overshadow B's actions because it doesn't challenge the status quo, it just inverts it temporarily. A is the protector, gets protected once, and quickly resumes their protector role.

How to avoid this?

Making sure the status quo is not wholy reverted to is one way.

Another way is ascertaining that A isn't really a protector, but just a mentor. A shows the way and opens B's horizons, but B is capable of standing on their own in most situations.

A yet different way is making sure that even though A is stronger, B is strong too and maybe even in similar ways. After all, just because a world-titled boxer is a great fighter, doesn't mean his opponents are weaklings.

This last point leads me to yet another one: strength. So B saved A and got critically injured. Even if B is bed ridden, B can still show fortitude in dealing with pain and making an effort to recover as quickly as possible. It doesn't even mean resenting A's help in aiding the recovery. However, A cannot have a paternalistic attitude, quite the opposite. A must feel renewed or strengthened respect for B. If, before, A felt himself a bit superior to B, due to the difference in skills and abilities, A may now recognise a degree of equality, at least in terms of bravery.

Reinserting the sex, I think that a good way to find balance is to compare different combinations in the same scene: Both A and B as men, both A and B as women, A as a man and B as a woman, A as a woman and B as a man.

If two or three of the combinations elicit overshadowing of the heroic deed, then the problem isn't the knee-jerk reaction to a possible 'damsel in distress' and the scene (or its follow-up) should be reviewed and adjusted. If the sense of overshadowing is only present in the A-male B-female scenario, then it's a knee jerk reaction and the scene in itself is fine.

Nevertheless, one can try to diminish the knee jerk reaction:

  • strengthen the feel of respect of A for B,

  • make sure that even though B is out of the fight she is still actively doing her best to help and/or recover using skills that were not affected,

  • frame her being 'out of battle' as positive rather than negative (eg. she decides to stay put not because she's a liability or a burden to the others but because that is what she needs to recover),

  • play down A's saving (eg. he's not saving her; he's just helping her... even if that boils down to saving her)

  • use the camaraderie to ascertain nobody feels she's in need of special protection,

  • use the camaraderie to focus the characters on her deed rather than the fact she needed saving afterwards (eg. not 'you were great despite having got hurt' but rather 'that really took guts' or 'you're the kind of person I want to have around in a bind')


I think it depends from who's POV you're writing it in more than anything. If you were writing from the woman's perspective, then maybe mention that she sees him protecting her, just like she was protecting him. If from the man's POV then try constantly reminding himself why he is protecting the woman and that he wouldn't be able to do this if he had been shot and she had not taken the bullet.

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