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Stories for many, many years made frequent use of the damsel in distress trope, where female characters are depicted as needing men to save them in big, dramatic displays. People eventually realized this was very sexist, which lead to an increase in the depiction of “strong, independent women” characters.

That said, although sexist the damsel in distress trope did show a useful narrative purpose: it allowed the (male) character to demonstrate how much they care about the female through some feat of heroism. As in “I love you so much I’d fight a dragon for you”. Additionally, while strong-willed female characters who have their own character arcs not dependent on male characters are good, when executed poorly results in a character who exhibits no vulnerability to make them sympathetic and grounded, and seemingly does not require assistance from others physically, emotionally, or socially (and to be fair, any human being is going to have moments of weakness where they need help from their friends and family), which makes them come off as a sociopath. It also has a tendency to make male characters appear bumbling and ineffectual.

This also ties into reader expectations. Male readers like to believe they’d be the type to drop everything and save the princess, whereas women like to believe they’d be capable enough to not need rescuing in the first place. Neither men nor women like to see themselves as incompetent. This leads to a paradox. If a female character is unable to save herself she is seen as weak and dependent on men to succeed. If the male character does not save her it makes him look incompetent and implies he doesn't care enough about her to rescue her. Men and women also like (both vicariously in fiction and in real life) partners that come off as competent.

Case Study

I have two characters who are in a relationship. The male is a very chivalrous type who values his partner deeply. If she was ever in danger he would drop everything and perform whatever heroic feat necessary to save her (say, Bleach’s “storming Soul Society/Hueco Mundo level” feat). The female, on the other hand, is very self-reliant and does not like to place her agency in the hands of others.

Right now, the male character kind of comes off as ineffectual because while he cares enough that he would do anything to help his partner (and that's supposed to be a virtue of his), she isn't the type to allow herself to be put in that position in the first place. She comes from an abusive background that results in her being scrappy and trying to avoid depending on others, but because of this the idea that someone would value her enough to risk their life to save her would be immensely touching. I've tried engineering situations where the man is able to show how much he cares by trying to save her life (this is a story with a lot of action), but nothing feels right. Even when I tried the old standby of "love interest gets kidnapped and partner rescues them" it made more sense given her skillset that the female would escape before the male ever shows up, making him look like an idiot (long story short, he's basically the paladin to her thief). The male character is very well suited to making big displays to show his affection due to his character (he's very socially awkward but when put under pressure he acts very heroically).

I've tried making them a battle couple (which they normally are), but it doesn't quite work. The statement usually made in such a gesture is "I love you so much that when you are vulnerable I can and will protect you". Which requires at least momentary vulnerability on the one character's part and competence on the other's. I've tried making the male support the female emotionally, but due to the plot she ends up going to other people to find emotional support. There are also plenty of scenes in which the female saves the male physically (and the same message is present there), but writing the opposite is hard. Both of them are supposed to come off as competent and caring about one another.

Given this, how to I deal with the paradox of allowing a male character to save a female without making the female character seem incompetent, or vice versa?

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  • What is your setting? Modern world, for example, is so "safe" that an author has to be very inventive to create a situation in which one person saves the other - a situation which the audience did not see a dozen times before.
    – Alexander
    Aug 9 at 17:58
  • I skipped that problem, and made my bisexual female character save the socially repressed princess. You still get the romantic and heroic elements, without implicit gender bias, and add commentary on gender-repressive societies where the princess's role was to die for the benefit of her family. It also set up a nice, complicated love triangle later in the story.
    – DWKraus
    Aug 9 at 22:22
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Honestly, I feel like you haven't fully understood why this is a sexist trope.

That said, although sexist the damsel in distress trope did show a useful narrative purpose: it allowed the (male) character to demonstrate how much they care about the female through some feat of heroism.

There are so many ways you can use to show one character caring about another. A whole realm full of someone going out of their way to do something nice for the other person, supporting them in a time of trouble (note I said "supporting" not "swooping in to fix"), taking them and their opinions into account when making decisions, etc. Why, given that, do you think damsel in distress is necessary?

If you want to demonstrate a female character caring about a male one, do you think you have to write a scene where he's in trouble and she rescues him to do so? If not, why the double standard?

Additionally, while strong-willed female characters who have their own character arcs not dependent on male characters are good, when executed poorly results in a character who exhibits no vulnerability to make them sympathetic and grounded, and seemingly does not require assistance from others physically, emotionally, or socially (and to be fair, any human being is going to have moments of weakness where they need help from their friends and family), which makes them come off as a sociopath.

You're equating ever needs assistance from anyone with damsel in distress. But you can write scenes where a character gets help from someone else without verging on the more toxic elements of that. The keys are agency and respect. The character needs help - but she gets to make that decision, she gets to decide what form that help comes in. Maybe the male character sees she's in trouble and offers his help - but she gets to accept or decline, or say "this wouldn't actually be helpful but it would be great if you could do Y." (Maybe Y is "give me some cheerleading and emotional support while I fix this my way".) This avoids most of the toxic elements of damsel in distress.

And, again - do you apply the same "must exhibit vulnerability" standards to your male characters? Do you have any situations where your male character needs help from the female one? If you do, does it look like the female character just jumping in to fix everything for the male character? If you don't... why not?

In general, I would seriously reconsider your framing of a male character who never jumps in to rescue the female one as incompetent. Frankly, the scenario you describe - independent, capable female character, chivalrous male one who super super wants to show how much he cares about her by saving her - actually makes the male character come across as disrespectful. He doesn't trust her to be able to take care of herself. He doesn't respect her enough to give his aid on her terms. He's not willing to put in the work to demonstrate love and care in the way she'd prefer instead of via grand sweeping gestures - which require her to be vulnerable in a way she doesn't want. Ick. Instead of treating this as a character flaw, you're trying to work with this so that he's in the right. Double ick.

Especially when a truly amazing expression of love and care which you get to see disturbingly rarely in fiction would be for the male character to trust that the female one can take care of herself. She gets kidnapped but they both know she has the skills to get out of it? What if, instead of the male character jumping in guns blazing to perform a totally unnecessary rescue, he makes use of the distraction she's making to further their mutual goals. "Hey honey, while you were kicking the bad guy's ass I went and grabbed his financial records! What do you think, let's order Chinese while we go over his bank statements?" If female character is a self-reliant sort who has had trouble with men not respecting her and treating her as incompetent before, this is spontaneous romantic first kiss territory.

Or, y'know, you can try to force a situation where she needs rescuing despite her competence and the male character can come swooping in as a knight in shining armor. But don't be surprised if people call that sexist, because it is.

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  • There are actually plenty of scenes in the story where the male character has a moment of vulnerability and must be saved physically by the female. And there are many, many scenes where the male respects the female's agency or provides moral support and lets her solve her problems on her own. The problem is the relationship comes off as lopsided because the female comes off as allowed to save the male but the reverse isn't true. The question I'm having is how do I write a scene where the male protects the female, given in context it's not a trend of her being a damsel but a unique situation... Aug 9 at 4:53
  • in the sense of "everyone falters and needs help once in a while" (again, she does the reverse and saves him...at least five times in the story). The other issue is the guy is awkward and often hesitant. He needs a push to act and show who he is on the inside (because he'll never say what he feels without a push), and putting someone he cares about in danger is a surefire way to do that. Aug 9 at 4:57
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Here are a few things that could be done judging from your case study.

Does he have to save her to prove his worth?

The first question I'm having is, does he have to save her to show his worth?

Maybe he's not an action hero but rather a master at baking, bureaucracy, dog training, or something else? Maybe he is an "idiot" when it comes to action, shootouts, and car chases but instead, he has something else to offer her? Something that she needs to live a full life? (More on this below...)

This is as much about defining him as a character as it is about letting go of stereotypical gender roles...

While it might sound like I'm suggesting to turn him into, I don't know, "a dude in distress"? I think that would be as problematic as a damsel in distress.

Put them in action scenes together

I understand you've created situations where the characters are separated and you wanted the male lead to save the female. But she always turns up taking care of the situation on her own.

How about, instead putting them in action scenes together? And give them more problems than one person can handle? Maybe she picks a lock while he has a shootout with the bad guys, or the other way around, or any other variant?

This way they can both be phenomenal and they can tackle some problems together that one person would not have been able to handle on their own.

It will, if nothing else, answer why these two are staying together. It could also be used to show a message/theme about cooperation.

Use the internal, character-driven story

I understand your story is about a lot of action, but you could also add internal, character-driven elements to your story.

Maybe she's independent and strong when it comes to the external, action-driven part of the story? Maybe he's inept in this department?

However, in the internal, character-driven part of the story, the roles could be reversed. Maybe her background has made her emotionally stunted? Maybe this is where he saves her? By breaking through her emotional armor and heal her from her emotional wound of having been an abuse victim?

This way he might save her when it comes to emotion and character development and she might save him when it comes to action and surviving in the physical world.

It would be a different story. And if the emotional conflict became the major conflict it would even start moving into the territory of romance. (Although, I wouldn't dare even a wild guess if that would even be possible to sell as a bonafide romance novel...)

Or, if you want the internal story to be a subplot, you might get some tips for keeping the action front and center by looking into advice on writing romance subplots (or any subplot for that matter).

Character arcs

It is also possible that they are both capable when it comes to the external story, but one of them is following a change arc.

This is either the POV or main character in a positive change arc story, or, in a flat/testing arc story, this is one or several secondary characters.

Maybe the female character is the one going from believing in lies she's come to embrace from her past to embrace a new truth?

If so, either she's the main character and the male character is a catalyst for her change, or the male character is the flat arc character that causes the change in her.

Or, both characters are following a positive change arc and are each other's catalysts. It would probably make it easier to not look at either one of them as some kind of damsel/dude in distress...

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  • The issue I'm running into is that not only does she save his life physically numerous times, the male also is unable to support her emotionally in her moment of need because of the plot. Which makes him look incompetent, because he doesn't seem to offer her anything in the relationship. There's also a lack of show, don't tell in how the male feels because he's awkward, but he would definitely show it if given a push. I prefer the "mutual saving, when needed"; problem is having a male character help a female with anything is kind of taboo nowadays even if he respects her agency. Aug 9 at 5:07

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