Hey Mythcreants, my current plot has the female love interest get captured by the villain as part of a plan to lure the protagonist into a trap. I’m worried this will rob the love interest of agency. Any advice?-Anonymous
Hey Anon, thanks for writing in!
It’s good that you’re thinking about this now, as the female love interest getting kidnapped is basically the gold standard when it comes to a character losing agency. Some storytellers try to fix this by making the lady a badass before she gets kidnapped, but that doesn’t really help. If anything, it emphasizes the problem and can create the feeling of a capable woman being pushed aside so a dude can do things.
Instead, there are two useful options at your disposal. First, does she have to get captured? It’s surprising how often the answer is “no.” So many classic stories kidnap the leading lady that it’s easy to feel like that’s the expectation. If the goal is to lure the protagonist into a trap, is there anything else the villain can use as bait? Can they dangle information the hero needs or threaten to cause damage unless the hero shows up in the trap to stop them?
If abduction is your only option, then you need to look at ways to give the heroine agency despite being kidnapped. The simplest option is for her to break out on her own and help the hero, but there are other paths. Maybe she charms a guard and convinces them to carry a warning to the hero, so the villain’s trap fails. Or she might have a conflict where she learns the villain’s secret weakness, which she then gives to the hero. Of course, this can also tempt authors to add more POVs than their story wants, but that’s another subject entirely.
We also have a few posts on the subject:
- Character Agency: It’s What the Sexy Lamp Is Missing
- Five Stories Where the Hero Lacked Agency
- How Do I Give My Character Agency?
- Podcast: Agency and Productivity
Hope that answers your question, and good luck with your story!
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Comments on How Do I Give a Damsel Agency?
One subversion I’ve enjoyed is to have the “damsel” deliberately get herself kidnapped as a ploy to get closer to the villain – perhaps to learn some valuable information, or to steal a MacGuffin the villain has, or to set up a trap for the villain, for example. This gives her all the agency in the world, since the whole thing was her idea in the first place – and presumably, she’ll have plans for what to do once she’s “kidnapped”.
I have a story where the best friend of my main character, who happens to be a woman, gets kidnapped and my main character (a woman who pretends to be a man in her vigilante identity) will save her. Admittedly, the friend isn’t kidnapped to lure in the main character (but to force her father, the GA, to release four of the kidnappers men from prison), but despite being very afraid of her kidnapper, the friend manages to at least pass along information that aids my main character finding her – she can put information into the message she’s forced to record that she’s kept in an underground place that is moist in mid-summer, leading the main character to the right place.
In another series, I have professional damsels, as it were. My main character there refused to become one (like her mother) while the love interest is one (the damsel of the main character’s brother and nemesis). In this case, of course, being kidnapped by the villain is part of the job description and the damsel is doing her job every time she gets kidnapped.
In general, I’d say any way a kidnapped damsel makes life harder for her kidnapper or does something while kidnapped (even if her try to break out fails, for instance) is better than her just sitting around and waiting.
There is a really great episode of the Overly Sarcastic Productions Trope Talks series on Youtube that covers the damsel in distress and largely changed my mind about it. The biggest point Red makes is that the problem is not really that of a character being captured, it the way this trope dominates who they are in one of two ways. In the first camp, you have the more or less classic damsel, whose entire character revolves around the fact that they existed to be captured and they have little narrative purpose otherwise. In the second version, you have the damsel mindset, in which an existing character is unable to do anything once they are captured and are no longer allowed to be the same person they were before.
Another useful point in terms of the reason for being captured is that a character should be captured largely because they are not entirely self sufficient, which is a situation that realistically applies to everyone. This would only be a narrative problem if this trait was applied to some characters and not others, especially along gender lines.
For the rescue itself, if the character being rescued is competent enough, they can just be given an opening to escape on their own instead of getting rescued outright. One fun way to subvert expectations would be that the rescuer winds up also getting captured but in the process manages to create enough of an opening for the person they were trying to rescue that the situation becomes reversed.
There are many ways to kidnap characters without making them appear helpless and useless.
The most obviously non-damsel approach of making them escape on their own might be implausible for many combinations of characters and kidnappers, but there’s a vast spectrum of ways to wait for an opportunity to escape without despairing, displaying strength of character without excessive competence.
The enemy can suffer from external problems (e.g. they release the hostage and run away because some threat is approaching) or internal incompetence (e.g. they leave doors open), with varying proportions of blind luck vs. hostage patience and ingenuity, and the kidnapping episode can be used to introduce other plots and situations (for example, the hostage could be brought to an interesting place and meet interesting characters).
Escaping might not even be an objective for the hostage, who might feel safe and comfortable (they are the love interest of someone who dives into traps, after all), fall in love with someone they had never known well, reconsider their current lifestyle (possibly in rather dramatic terms, such as discovering by comparison that the protagonist doesn’t really love them), and many other twists.
You could switch genders. Have the main character female and the kidnap victim e her rescue male
Even if you don’t finally go that way, considering it could help you flesh your characters and situations out
One thing that bores me about the damsel scenario is that it says nothing about the hero that he’s motivated to save his love interest. Of course he is. Can you create a more character-specific irresistible lure by the villain that the hero will be compelled to walk into even though he knows it’s a trap? If he’s a paladin or Superman type, any random person will do; he’ll be compelled to help (and feel responsible for) anybody. Or perhaps he’s a misanthrope and a random stranger would be more compelling than anyone he actually knows. Maybe he owes a debt of gratitude to someone who saved his life. Maybe he has a special relationship with the villain a la She-ra and Catra and the villain can take himself hostage! What drives your hero and what does the villain know or suppose about him? Romantic love is so overused as a motivation that almost anything else would be more interesting.
That’s a good point. “Save the love interest” is so lazy, and it can and does slip into really noxious crap like the plot of “The Rock” and the unspoken assumption that “if 4.7 million people in San Francisco get gassed, that’s no big deal. We have to threaten THE HERO’S GIRLFRIEND.”
I wanted to write something similar. Even ignoring the sexism, the sheer ubiquity of the damsel in distress trope makes it such a lazy plot device.
In the worst cases, it becomes the entire motivation for male protagonists. I mean, you have a villain who wants to take over the world and create a brutal system of oppression and the hero has no reason to oppose it other than that his love interest is in danger? Do so few fictional guys believe in Truth, Freedom, Justice, and the American Way (or love and friendship or whatever)?
I admit, these days, fridge loved ones to avenge are a bit more common motivations than distressed damsels, but still.
I guess the point to consider for the example here would be to find out what’s motivating the hero and if the villain could use something related to that to tempt them.
Damseling the love interest can be a valid move though in case it develops the relationship between the two characters in a meaningful way. Or if it gives the love interest something to do (assuming she has agency in her rescue).
Part of the reason it’s over-used is that people don’t understand the original purpose. In fairy tales and Medieval stories yes, the hero loved the damsel–but they both were typically powerful members of the nobility, and their relationship had large-scale geopolitical consequences. An example of this is Lancelot and Guinevere–she was kidnapped in an attempt to hurt/control Arthur (common in that time period), Lancelot saved her because he loved her (courtly love and all that), and the relationship had rather serious consequences for the kingdom.
A Medieval person listening to these sorts of stories in the tavern would have known those political implications, the way we know the implications of a lost election or a scandal in office–imperfectly, but it’s such a part of their world they’d need no explanation. But it’s alien to modern readers and writers. The idea that a country can be brought to ruin because two people had an inappropriate relationship simply isn’t part of our world-view. Courtly love is also alien to us. The idea that a man and a woman can have a sort of romantic relationship that was entirely chaste, and that this would be not only allowed but encouraged by society, doesn’t fit our world view. There’s really nothing to compare it to.
So writers focus on the aspect that makes sense to us modern people: Romantic love. And the stories are cheapened by it as these stories are iterated ad infinitum.
It would be interesting to see an example that went back to the original spirit, minus the romantic love. The hero storms the castle and defeats the villain, then the damsel hands the hero a token of her affection, and they both go their separate ways on friendly terms but not in any way interested in one another as lovers.
All those “arranged” marriages that one generally sees in history were all there pretty much for the purpose of political alliances! Everyone knew it; it’s even in the Rules of Courtly Love (as memory serves) by Andreas Capellanus (1185 or so) that Love and Marriage are two separate things. Yes, the prince was allowed to have plenty of mistresses and dalliances on the side….but if the princess had her own “Master of the Horse” or some other euphemism, who cared?
There’s a cool take on the trope in the movie “Krull”. Two kingdoms are finalizing an alliance to help defeat the villain. One kingdom has a princess, the other has a prince. They are both the perfect age to get married and cement the alliance. The usual thing, right? But the princess’ father says that the marriage isn’t necessary! The princess wants it anyway, since she actually *likes* the big lug!
Men could have many lovers, women could not and even powerful women were punished extremely in medieval history for adultery. Men were never punished for adultery although a man who slept with another man’s wife was punished. In fact a queen committing adultery and trying to pass off an heir might be seen as treason to the crown (but that usually was more common later). Not to say they didn’t commit adultery, many did, even somewhat openly, but their affairs were as political as their marriages and rarely romanticized.
Most people feel Andreas was being cheeky. He said Marriage was never an excuse for a woman not to love a man, as in it was wrong to tell a man she wouldn’t love him because she was already married. He also said women were hateful, viceful creatures incapable of love and unworthy of it.
More interesting, it was not unknown for a noble woman to stage a “damseling” or kidnapping as a way to elope or leave her husband, but that always caused severe political strife.
In mediaeval stories, damsel didn’t imply distress either. A damsel *might* be in distress, but she might also be a random encounter, a quest-giver or clue-dispenser (young women in Arthutian myth seemed to be quite well informed on errantry-related matters) or even saving the knight via some cunning scheme.
I feel like this misunderstands medieval history and the tales often told in that time.
First of all, “courtly Love” was coined in the 1800s by prudish Victorians. The very first story that features Guinevere and Lancelot include them very clearly having sex as a plot point. In Le Morte d’Arthur, which is the famous one, Lancelot sires Galahad because he is made to believe another woman is Guinevere. Later, the other knights catch Lancelot in Guinevere’s bed and surround him.
Before that she was either a poor damsel, or an evil woman who happily betrays Arthur, not counting the even earlier versions where it is mostly about her relationship with her sister or when Arthur has three wives.
The medieval book that the rules of “courtly love” is so often based on is cherry picked. De Amore by Capellanus speaks often of lust and its fulfillment and consummation. It mentions sex often and even declares a lot of people incapable of love due to the constraints it puts on sex and physical attraction ie: being too old, blind (because you need to fantasize all the time what she looks like), gay, or poor (More unworthy and makes them distracted from work). It basically equates Jealousy and love as the same thing. And it ends saying he wrote about the rules of love to advise his nephew but love is terrible because it makes you do bad things, sex is unhealthy and women are so awful and incapable of love it isn’t ever really worth it.
Really early texts tend to treat the queen of a country as a metaphor for the crown with her love and “ownership” going to the strongest, sometimes willingly, sometimes not. But whoever has the queen as the land/country.
It is very clear that courtly love was never encouraged by society, adultery is punished far too severely for it to be encouraged, and while the poems and songs were sometimes able to keep the lovers from being carnal, they usually failed and often ended in terrible results, which was the point, if you cheat on your husband, you will die and take the country down with you, if you are lucky you might end up as a nun confessing your sins for the rest of your life.
It was romanticized but not idealized. Think of the movie “Love Actually”. Most people find the idea of two people who can’t speak the same language until a marriage proposal as romantic, but no one I’ve ever met would recommend it, and most people think it is romantic, but also very dumb.
That said, I love modern interpretations of the damsels where they are friends. Black Widow dedicated to save hawkeye in Avengers, and their whole general relationship was one of my favorite things about the MCU because of this trope actually.
I definitely like the idea of having the man get kidnapped in that scenario and the woman has to save him. We can have that situation complicate things for our heroine while she’s involved in the bigger-scale plot.
I have something similar in two of my novels. Once it’s the love interest and my main character knows he’s going to be killed if she’s not fast enough, once it’s her mentor and she doesn’t only go to rescue him, but also to find out more about the faceless enemy.
On a related note, is there a way to show the downsides of lacking combat prowess, that doesn’t come off as disempowering? (e.g. being captured, wounded, or killed, or needing to be protected, or having to stay away from dangerous scenarios)
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with showing any of those downsides, as well as you also show the positive aspects. If your fighters are not only the best at fighting, but also the best at strategizing and logistics and recruiting and everything else that needs done in your story, your noncombatants are going to come across as completely useless. But showing your fighters in situations that are outside of their comfort zone and giving your noncombatants time to shine helps balance everything out.
There’s also no reason to divide your characters along gendered lines. If all of your male characters are strong fighters and the one female is a noncombatant who must be protected, that’s not a great look. But if both your fighters and your noncombatants are diverse, you avoid making statements about people’s identities based purely on their skill sets.
That seems reasonable. Thanks for the response!
I would try giving any non-combat characters a more supportive skill that doesn’t require them to go into dangerous situations. Maybe your character’s a researcher but doesn’t have combat skills, so they stay on base to conduct that research. Or maybe your character’s got medical skills, so they generally work in the hospital to heal injuries the other characters may sustain during missions.
Maybe your non-combat character’s really good at surviving in a desert, so they’re a guide to the other characters. For further inspiration, I would read Chris’s article called “Eighteen Ways for Protagonists to contribute.” That article should give you some useful ideas.
Pretty much what Michele and Ronald DeMitchell said. Just because a character is not a great fighter doesn’t mean they can’t be useful. Find them another niche to inhabit which the story needs. They could be the strategist who doesn’t fight. They could be a healer. They could be a diplomant. They could be a researcher. They could be a mage who doesn’t have combat spells. They could be a guide. They could be a translator. They could be an engineer.
It’s important, though, that you don’t only pick that one person who is from a minority (women, POC, etc.) for that role. If the only woman you have in your team can’t fight but all men can, it’s not a good look. If you have two women, one who fights and one who doesn’t, it’s not that much of a problem. Same if you also have a male character who isn’t good in a fight.
Thanks for the responses!
I actually had the opposite problem – I wanted to balance out the contributions of a major character by punishing them for their shortcomings and mistakes. A logical way it’d manifest in the context of the story would be capture, but I was wondering if there were other options to consider instead. It seems I should be fine as long as the character isn’t just a helpless victim.
Yes, it should be fine – every character can be captured, even the hero. Of course, it is easier for the enemy to capture a character who has little to no training in fighting, which could easily explain why this character was targeted.
Thank you very much for your feedback, as always! I really appreciate it!
On a side note, I actually got inspiration for this after thinking back to the hypothetical scenario I brought up in the latest topic on character karma, when considering how I needed to balance a major character’s successes with failures.