We all know her—soft, svelte, utterly unprepared for the evils of the world, and waiting for a valorous prince or knight errant to come rescue her. The damsel-in-distress archetype is one of our most recognizable stock characters in literature… and one of the most contentious.
But does it have to be this way? Are all damsel characters cut from the same delicate, silken cloth? Let’s take a closer look at what this character archetype really means and how to effectively include them in your writing (with some helpful examples, too!)
What is the damsel archetype?
The damsel archetype is a classic literary character, often a young woman, who is in need of rescuing, protection, or other external support of some kind. The damsel character serves as a catalyst that propels other characters, like the hero, into action. The character archetype is often associated with myths, legends, and fairy tales.
The word damsel comes from the French demoiselle, which simply means “young woman.” While the word in itself isn’t derogatory, it’s come to be a controversial term because it so often refers to a helpless female character waiting around for a Prince Charming to rescue her. Now that we’ve reached an age where women can be their own heroes, this character archetype has become challenging to approach in a healthy, respectful way.
However! When we take a deeper look into this character below, you’ll see that the damsel-in-distress archetype can be more than a frail lily battered by the harsh winds of life. Through their eyes, you can show your reader a side of the world that’s still wondrous and good—even when so much of it is already crashing down.
Are damsel archetypes always women?
Damsel archetypes do not have to be women, or even necessarily human. They can be young, old, male, female, or even a beloved pet. While the term damsel does refer to a young woman, the archetype itself can be any wide-eyed, innocent character who finds themself in a distress situation.
Historically, however, it has often been the case that women fit this role well. That’s because the audience of these stories enjoyed tales of brave, stalwart heroes who went on adventures and faced unspeakable peril. And what better to motivate these stalwart figures to action than a beautiful woman in danger? Whether in fairy tales like Sleeping Beauty or in medieval romances about silver-shod knights, readers have always had a soft spot for this image.
In fact, one of the earliest examples of the damsel-in-distress archetype comes from Greek mythology: the tale of Perseus and Andromeda. Andromeda was a princess who got chained to a rock as an offering to the gods—by no fault of her own, but as a result of her mum’s big mouth—and was rescued from the literal jaws of death by the hero Perseus. Even today, this image reverberates throughout popular culture (the fact that Perseus saved her by using another woman’s decapitated head is often glazed over).
In contemporary fiction, damsels can take a myriad of shapes and forms—as long as they contain the core attributes which we’ll look at next.
Characteristics of the damsel archetype
Here are the characteristics that most damsel archetypes—regardless of age, gender, or species—will have in common.
1. They’re innocent
The damsel is sometimes called the “Innocent” archetype, and this is an essential part of your damsel’s characterization. This figure is often inexperienced and sees the world through a lens of wonder and hope. They’ve not yet been brought down by the realities of grief, hardship, or loss, and stubbornly believe the world can be a beautiful place.
2. They have a positive outlook
Because of this innocence, damsel character archetypes are usually a pretty cheery lot—even when they’re tied to various stationary objects (tree, stake, rock) awaiting devourment by various beasties (sea monster, dragon, hungry lion). They prefer to see the best in people, or the potential for redemption. In this way damsels can often be inspiring to others.
3. They’re impaired in some way
In a classic damsel character, this usually manifests as physical strength; they’re unable to free themselves from imprisonment or fight off their attackers. However, this impairment can manifest in other ways, too. For instance, they might be disabled in some way, or they might be strained financially, or they might be at a severe cultural or social disadvantage. This is why they need the extra support of a hero.
4. They’re aesthetically pleasing
It will come as no surprise that the damsel character from your favorite fairy tale is a hottie—classic damsels are beautiful and always effortlessly chic. However, a damsel character can enhance the overall tone of a story without necessarily being conventionally beautiful. Sometimes, their look or attitude towards the world will heighten the way a reader becomes immersed in the story, or enhance the feel of the setting.
Examples of damsel archetypes in literature
To see how this looks in practice, let’s explore some classic examples of damsel archetypes in our favorite stories.
Alice in Wonderland
The eponymous character of Alice in Wonderland is a perfect example of the wide-eyed damsel-in-distress archetype. She’s a young, beautiful girl with very little life experience who finds herself falling headfirst into a strange world beyond imagining. She gets shuffled about, making mistakes and facing all manner of nasties which she is completely unprepared for.
In Alice and Wonderland, however, there is no prince or knight who swoops in and rescues her. She eventually saves herself through a little bit of kindness and a whole lot of luck. This shows that even a classic damsel character can take their story in a different direction.
Tiny Tim, from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, is a flawless example of a damsel character archetype. Except, he’s not a charming young lady tossing her golden curls and crooning for the hero to save her. Say wha?
This character hits all the qualities of this archetype: he’s very innocent, physically disabled, he remains optimistic despite his hardships, and his charming appeal heightens the immersive setting of the story. Plus, the story’s flash-forward reveals that if the protagonist makes the wrong choices, the damsel character won’t make it to the end. This is a great example of how you can take this classic stock character and give it a fresh spin.
Aunt May from the Spiderman canon is another damsel-in-distress archetype who doesn’t quite fit the traditional mold. She’s an old woman (Marisa Tomei’s film portrayal notwithstanding) who is at a disadvantage because of her deteriorating health and finances.
Like a classic fairy tale damsel, she often needs Spiderman to come rescue her—from physical danger as well as financial straits. However, she often saves him in return by offering him encouragement and advice in his darkest moments.
Tips for writing an effective damsel archetype
Are you warming up to this polarizing character type? Here are some tips on incorporating a damsel character into your story.
1. Create a human, not a set decoration
Damsel characters fell out of favor in contemporary literature because they were often no more than set pieces, designed to be an empty love interest or motivating force for the hero.
The key to creating an effective damsel is to give them a real personality complete with goals, dreams, desires, self worth, weaknesses, and strengths. Consider what the story would look like if told from their perspective, and how they’re impacted by the events of the plot.
2. Avoid tired tropes
Likewise, look for ways in which you can take the common theme of a damsel-in-distress archetype and give it a fresh look. Audiences are so used to seeing a pretty, delicate, Princess Peach-type figure in this role, and rehashing the same imagery won’t offer your reader anything new.
If you do decide to incorporate a traditional damsel figure into your narrative, see if there’s a way you can subvert your readers’ expectations of what this trope can be.
3. Give your damsel archetypal fluidity
What do I mean by this? When you start with a pre-established character archetype, remember that you don’t need to keep these archetypal parameters consistent all the way through your plot.
Some of the most engaging damsels in literature are ones who grow and change throughout the story. What would your novel look like if your damsel grew to become a mentor, hero, or femme fatale villain? Allow all of your characters room to breathe, grow, and change.
Your damsel-in-distress can be more than a stepping stone
Of all the specific characters we see in storytelling, the damsel-in-distress archetype is one of the most polarizing. Some writers want to do away with it for good, while others will always have a soft spot for it in the romantic corners of their hearts. But can there be another way?
Try these tips next time you write a classic tale of love and adventure, and see if you can breathe fresh life into old tropes.