Stop Putting Your Damsels in Distress: Tropes that Could (And Should) Be Reimagined in Fictional Worlds

Consider for a moment this famous photo taken for LIFE magazine in 1963.

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No, they aren’t celebrating “Free Ice Cream Day.”

They are watching a puppet show which is retelling the classic tale of “Saint George and the Dragon.” Have you heard this story before? The brave saint finds a way to tame the mighty dragon and slay him, thus rescuing the princess who was doomed to be sacrificed to the creature. The villain is killed and the princess is saved. Oh, you have heard that story? Sure you have. It is the foundation for so many fantasy tales both young and old.

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Seen here.
Image result for the hobbit smaug and bilbo
Here if you substitute the princess for piles of gold.
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And here is one of my favorites. Plot twist: The princess was actually the dragon!

Now what I love about the LIFE magazine photo is how excited the children get when hearing the classic story. Despite the fact that this story is older than dirt and lacks very little shock value by today’s standards, there are many people (including myself) who would have a similar reaction to this story. Why? Well there is something so wonderful about the way these tropes come together to tell a story. And with the right storyteller (as evidenced by the children’s reactions) these stories can feel exciting.

But how do we make them fresh? Especially in today’s world.

Image result for A dragon wearing sunglasses and a hat
Ok, not that type of fresh.

Why not reimagine these tropes to convey more popular messages of the day? For example:

Trope #1 In Need of an Update: Damsels in Distress

It is 2019 after all. With the success of movements like #MeToo , and women’s marches on the rise, it is truly a decade where women have shown how powerful they are, especially when united.

So why do so many fantasy writers still write the about the princess locked away in a tower waiting to be rescued?

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Apparently picking the locks is out of her skill sets.

We’ve seen this trope done so many times that it’s grown tiresome. It is time for an update.

How to update:

It’s a crazy idea, but hear me out. What if we have the princess save herself? Sure she could be in distress. But let her find the sword and slay the dragon, warlord, possessed monkey, whatever.

In my novel Overpowered: Book One of the Triplets of Terkia Series, I have my female protagonist Trinity placed in an all too familiar situation that many princesses face in novels. She is arranged into a marriage without her consent. It turns out Mr. Prince is sort of a villainous beast himself. Trinity thus has to take it upon herself to save herself from her distress. Oh, there are brave knights who want to help her. But Trinity takes charge and works alone, thus setting off the events of her particular plotline.

Could the damsel be saved by a dashing knight? Of course, it’s been done to death. But what if the damsel saved the knight?

Trope #2 In Need of an Update: Evil Villain Brooding In their Lair

Every villain needs a lair, right? Whether it is filled with weapons of mass destruction…

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And a Mini Me. Every villain needs a Mini Me.

Or whether it is a place where they can look upon the hero and plot their next steps…

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Which include smudging windows apparently.

The villain has to sit in their lair and brood until the hero comes to save the day. This is why the dragon is in his cave when the brave saint (knight) comes to slay him.

However, what if instead they took the fight to the hero.

How to Update:

It is understandable in mediums like video games why the villain can’t just show up and kill the main hero. The hero hasn’t collected the appropriate materials, wisdom, and or skills necessary to best the villain. But that has never translated well for me in book and movie format. Why does the villain have to wait until it is too late to make their move?

Why can’t the villain be out there bettering themselves also? Or, why can’t they place themselves in a position closer to the protagonist so we get to learn more about their motives. Maybe they are a complex character. Maybe, they could even be a potential ally.

One of my favorite anime movies subverts this trope in a unique way. The movie is called Ringing Bell and deals with a young lamb who seeks out the wolf that killed his mother.

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Rather than having this villain retreat to his lair to plot his next meal, he instead agrees to train the little lamb to learn how to be more like a wolf. Though the wolf understands that the lamb wants to kill him, he still trains him. The lines between protagonist and antagonist become blurred, and we get to know a better side of this villain. There is even some pity felt when the lamb finally does get his revenge.

All because the villain didn’t just sit in his lair and wonder, “Gee, when will the hero come to finish me off?”

Trope #3 In Need of an Update: Brave Heroes Seeking to Save the Day

We are all familiar with this trope. It extends far beyond the fantasy genre. The hero comes to save the day, slay the dragon, get the princess. End. The problem though is that it’s been done so many times.

Image result for superman and lois lane
Why the trope is older than Superman himself!

How to Update:

Why does the hero need to save the day? He or she needs a better motivation other than for the honor, glory, and princess. What if instead the acts of heroics were nothing more than circumstances of that person, creature, or entity just being who they are.

Remember Die Hard?

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Alan Rickman remembered. R.I.P.

One of the greatest things about this film was that the protagonist John McClane is just an ordinary police officer. He is in the wrong place at the wrong time, and thus does his job. His only motivation is to get home for Christmas, but this motivation works for him. We are not left with the ambiguous nature of what happens to heroes once they achieve their goals, because his simple character has been so well developed that we already know: he will probably still be miserable, but at least he can add killing terrorists to his resume.

Could you imagine a post office employee who saves the day by delivering the one letter the president needed to stop the next nuclear crisis? They were just doing their job, and didn’t seek the glory. Only the next day of their life.

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She’s the hero we needed most.

I’d like to leave you with one of my favorite quotes by Stephen King, which he mentions in his On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft book. On the subject of characters he says, “It’s also important to remember that no one is “the bad guy” or “the best friend” or “the whore with a heart of gold” in real life; in real life we each of us regard ourselves as the main character, the protagonist, the big cheese; the camera is on us, baby” (King 190).

Why then should these tropes develop the characters? It should be these relatable characters we create that help to adapt to and (if necessary) redefine the tropes.

Write strong, write long, write on friends!


Works Cited

King, Stephen. Stephen King On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. 10th ed., SIMON AND SCHUSTER, 2000.

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