The most obvious example of the plot puppet is the damsel-in-distress. They are usually a woman who exists for the hero to rescue and often to fall in love with him. This doesn’t mean we can’t have a woman who is rescued by and falls in love with the hero, but the damsel-in-distress is often devoid of any other agency within the story. This is the problem.
From this lack of agency arises the most common problem with tackling the damsel-in-distress where the writer creates a hard as nails heroine who never needs saving and never needs anyone. This version is problematic because everyone needs help sometimes but, primarily, it presupposes anything less than this is weakness. Once again, it doesn’t mean we can’t write characters like this but we have to be aware of the risk of making them too perfect and indestructible.
In both the examples it’s not strictly the plot they’re following that’s the problem but how they follow it. The damsel-in-distress often gets kidnapped by walking into dangerous situations repeatedly without learning from them. Perhaps if we took this element and it became that this happens once but she learns and adjusts her behaviour then we immediately have a character who is more complex than the classic damsel, she might get in trouble but she’s learning to save herself. Think of Sarah Connor in the Terminator films; in the first movie she begins as a waitress who’s never had to deal with a threat like the Terminator, so she needs help. In the second film she’s learned and adapted, she’s a capable fighter which is what the situation requires. This doesn’t mean all damsels needs to become fighters, it’s simply one example of progression.
Instead of needing a rescue our would-be damsel could also think her way out of the situation. A common trope is the male hero is a soldier or similar and the woman is a scientist, in such a case, why have the soldier save her when she can use her science skills. Think of all the times male action heroes have used things around them as weapons or traps, why doesn’t our scientist come up with a science-based plan using the things around her?
If we look at it another way there are other characterisation issues with the trope of the damsel-in-distress where they’re a woman but they don’t behave like a woman. With the rise of the #MeToo movement there’s been a lot in the news about the way women’s behaviour differs from men’s. Glaring things include things women do that men don’t think about, like parking their car near the shop under a light. Often the damsel-in-distress will do things that ignore this logic such as park in an empty carpark at night away from a light, something a lot of women won’t do because of the potential danger. Here is a moment that is clearly a woman doing something to allow a plot to happen. It’s entirely possible this character could’ve taken logical safety precautions but it wasn’t enough, the fact they took them would point to a deeper characterisation. We can argue that women shouldn’t have to do these things but that doesn’t change the fact that a lot of women do because it feels necessary.
In the end what we really need to do is think about why our characters are doing things and if it has a logic within the story and their mind. This logic doesn’t have to be the same as real world logic but it should fit with the logic of the story. For example:
- If our character got kidnapped and rescued why are they doing the exact same thing fifty pages later?
- Are they waiting to be rescued or are they trying to think up a way to get out of the situation?
- Is it believable that they got themselves into this trouble to begin with?
Often the best solution isn’t to try to write something simply to avoid creating a damsel but to try and think through what this character we’ve created would do. Often a character that makes sense, even if it’s their own particular sense, is the best way to avoid writing a plot puppet.