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Completely Helpless Female Character

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WackyMeetsPractical My teacher's a panda from Texas
My teacher's a panda
May 7th 2011 at 10:40:13 PM

I've always been proud of my ability to write female characters as believable and fully fleshed as my male characters, despite being a male myself.

Right now, I am developing a super hero series about a family who become involved in crime fighting. Out of three characters, I am discovering that two of them are brave and daring and capable in a fight, while the third character is completely helpless and always calling for help and relying on others. This third character is also the only female.

This is mostly because she also happens to be The Team Normal. The other two either have super powers or years of advanced martial arts training. My female character has nothing like that. I don't like to think of her as a weak character. In fact she can be quite strong and capable, perhaps even more than the other two, in more mundane situations. But as they are often placed in very extraordinary circumstances, she seems very weak in comparison. I don't think she's The Load, just yet, and I'm trying very hard to keep her from being a Damsel in Distress.

I'm a bit concerned that this might be considered a bit sexist, although it's not intentional in the least. Can I get away with creating a completely helpless female character as long as she's still a fleshed out character?

nrjxll Relationship Status: Not war
May 7th 2011 at 11:01:05 PM

In theory, yes, at least from my point of view. In practice? Depends on how you write her. A four line paragraph can't really establish anything.

WackyMeetsPractical My teacher's a panda from Texas
My teacher's a panda
May 7th 2011 at 11:55:38 PM

I know. I left a lot of stuff out, like her being a judge (Which I still have to do a ton of research on), and being the Team Mom of the group, as well as the actual mom of one of the members. I tried to keep it as vague as possible as the character is still a work in progress and I am mostly interested in the theory of the idea.

May 8th 2011 at 12:38:07 AM

Why does she have to be useless, couldn't she just be a 'war reporter' cum 'diplomat'?

Quoth Pink's alright, I guess.
Pink's alright, I guess.
May 8th 2011 at 3:54:58 AM

If she is a damsel in distress-type, does that mean she is safe at home while her brother are doing their heroics (without a secret identity) or does that mean she follows them in their endeavours.

Madrugada Zzzzzzzzzz Relationship Status: In season
Zzzzzzzzzz
May 8th 2011 at 9:49:30 AM

Two things to keep in mind:

  1. The Damsel in Distress trope (as we define the term) is a female character "whose only apparent purpose in the story is to get in trouble so that the other characters can rescue her." In other words, the trope you potholed to and the type of character you're describing aren't the same. If she's a fully fleshed-out character who simply has a different area of competence from the others, and is allowed to be competent in that area, she's not a Damsel in Distress.

  2. There will always be some people who will find something to be offended about, no matter what you write or how you develop your characters. Don't sweat it.

...if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you for it.
annebeeche watching down on us from by the long tidal river
watching down on us
May 8th 2011 at 10:00:37 AM

Some bullet points for you:

  • Unless your character has general anxiety disorder, severe depression or another relevant disorder, no character (even if their gifts are not combat-oriented) is completely helpless. Brute force is usually not necessary to get yourself out of a tight situation—sometimes it is charisma, or resourcefulness, or anything else the character has at their disposal.
  • If your character has the energy to struggle mindlessly, s/he also has the energy to find a way out.
  • There is a point at which an otherwise healthy or capable character breaks down and cannot get themselves out of a situation they normally can. This is an emotional state caused by the circumstances and usually not intrinsic (unless the character has a relevant disorder), and it can happen to the most physically strong human beings.

Banned entirely for telling FE that he was being rude and not contributing to the discussion. I shall watch down from the goon heavens.
WackyMeetsPractical My teacher's a panda from Texas
My teacher's a panda
May 9th 2011 at 12:46:35 AM

Thanks for all of the advice. I am feeling better about this character, and getting some great ideas. However I am thinking I like playing up her helplessness, if only to have that one character that keeps the other characters grounded in reality. That no matter how powerful their foes are, or how many odd situations they find themselves in, by the end of the day, they always sit around the dining room table and act like a family. I figure I want to keep her involvement in the supernatural affairs of the other members minimal, although she is fully aware of it and may even help out on occasion whenever she can.

I'm actually trying to work on a scene early on in the series in which I can play with the Mama Bear trope. Since this character is the mother of the main character, who is a super powered Kid Hero, I want to create a scene in which the child is in danger in some way, and this character gets enraged and charges towards the villain, only to get herself shot in the leg, or knocked unconscious or something. I really don't mean any disrespect towards mothers here, it's just that I really want to emphasize her normalness and her being completely unprepared to do anything in the extraordinary situations she now finds herself.

Granted, she will get her moments to shine, but she isn't going to get a Power Upgrade nor is she going to Take a Level in Badass. She'll likely just observe the family's adventures from the sidelines, give some helpful advice when needed, do the odd errand, or simply provide An Aesop for the episode.

edited 9th May '11 12:47:19 AM by WackyMeetsPractical

annebeeche watching down on us from by the long tidal river
watching down on us
May 9th 2011 at 6:08:38 AM

Try not to think of it as "helplessness" but merely as a disadvantage she has that she and everybody else has to work with. There's no reason why she can't be an emotionally strong, assertive, independent individual.

edited 9th May '11 6:09:11 AM by annebeeche

Banned entirely for telling FE that he was being rude and not contributing to the discussion. I shall watch down from the goon heavens.
RalphCrown Short Hair from Next Door to Nowhere
Short Hair
May 9th 2011 at 9:46:04 AM

If your "helpless female" is washing everybody's outfits, making them train when they'd rather not, drying their tears, supporting them when nobody else will, and doing the million other things a mother does, she's not helpless. If she's a judge, she is wise and even handed. She deals with criminals every day, so she can stay three steps ahead of them.

And if her teammates allow her to be captured, they will never hear the end of it.

Interesting situation: a criminal captured by the heroes comes into her courtroom. She can't recuse herself without revealing her identity, but she can't try the case without compromising her integrity.

Under World. It rocks!
WackyMeetsPractical My teacher's a panda from Texas
My teacher's a panda
May 9th 2011 at 9:57:01 AM

[up] Well, by helpless, I mean she can't really defend herself against a super powered baddie. But she does all that other stuff mentioned above. She's certainly capable of doing many things, but the one thing I find her doing a lot is calling for help, since that seems to be the only thing she can do in a lot of situations I place her in.

I certainly have tried to imagine what she would do if she had to try a criminal that her family had a hand in catching. I don't think there would necessarily be a danger element there, since she's hardly ever involved in catching the criminals, and if she does somehow get involved, she'd be wearing a mask, so very minimal danger of being discovered. But the question of integrity is a core part of her character and something she has to wrestle with all throughout the series. It's one of the reasons she tries to distance herself from the crime fighting activities of her family. She's a very Lawful Neutral type who thinks that the best way to handle situations involving crime is to go through the proper channels, so whenever she hears of her family catching another criminal through vigilante means, she tries her best not to hear the details. When in court, she tries her best to remain objective and fair.

jewelleddragon Also known as Katz from Pasadena, CA
Also known as Katz
May 9th 2011 at 12:55:50 PM

My main concern here is that you mention she's the only important female character. IMO, you should make a concerted effort to have an interesting variety of female characters in the supporting cast and then you'll be fine.

WackyMeetsPractical My teacher's a panda from Texas
My teacher's a panda
May 9th 2011 at 2:28:35 PM

[up] Out of the three mains, she is the only female, though my supporting cast are a lot more diverse, including a female reporter who is willing to do anything to get a story and puts herself in plenty of dangerous spots, yet manages to stand on her own and make it out of any situation she's in. I do plan on adding another female character into the main cast after they've been established as heroes for a couple of years who is also competent in combat. I'm taking measures to make sure that there is no shortage of competent and fleshed out female characters.

robintherose Brain Girl
Brain Girl
May 19th 2011 at 6:12:07 AM

I second the adding of more female characters. Is there any reason why your Kid Hero can't be the daughter rather than the son? :p

I think that there is absolutely nothing wrong with the character as you've described her. That said, with the tendency of all writers (myself included) to go for males as the default there is always the risk of making our female characters represent all or most women, whereas our male characters can be their human selves without worrying about disparaging the abilities of all men.

Making sure that at least one of your main/central supporting cast characters has powers and abilities that mean she does NOT need to be rescued from these situations (and can do some rescuing herself) might help. It would certainly get rid of the worry that when this particular character cannot do something it's because SHE can't, not because WOMEN can't.

Now I've got this image of Robin's secret childhood love affair with Mr. T. - Idler 20
nrjxll Relationship Status: Not war
May 19th 2011 at 3:20:29 PM

the tendency of all writers (myself included) to go for males as the default

Ahem. Most writers, maybe, but not all writers.

May 19th 2011 at 4:10:37 PM

I tend to have females as default, mainly because I'm a girl.

If I'm asking for advice on a story idea, don't tell me it can't be done.
robintherose Brain Girl
Brain Girl
May 20th 2011 at 5:01:45 PM

Fair point. All is never correct waii. But as a general rule people think of a genderless figure (stick figure/character design/genderless avatar and name on forums) as male until proven otherwise.

I think in my writing (where I make a real effort not to fall into that too much) it's still pretty obvious in the way I think about my background characters. Most works out there at the moment have more male characters than female, even though the population would suggest it should approximate a 50/50 (or 60/40 if dealing with elderly characters) split. Many have only one or two female characters versus an entire cast of males.

But you are right, all is (almost) always an overstatement.

Now I've got this image of Robin's secret childhood love affair with Mr. T. - Idler 20
Dragon573 Sanity not included from Sitting at a bonfire Relationship Status: Wishfully thinking
Sanity not included
May 22nd 2011 at 4:07:15 PM

She could use her apparent helplessness to her advantage... and don't worry if you aren't actively trying to offend people. As they say, 'haters gonna hate'. I'm writing a play in which one character is the type of feminist that most people hate, taking things to extremes, "men should have to go through everything women went through!", nit-picking, deliberately trying to find offense where none is intended. Are some people going to think I'm making fun of feminists in general? Yes. Am I sexist for pointing out in a parodic manner that some of them take it too damn far, or pointing out that a lot of the actual bigots are the ones who call others bigots? Not in the slightest.

In addition, the very fact that you are concerned shows you aren't actually trying to offend people or make a statement about women being weak. Go out there, do what you want to do, and let others make of it what they will. They'll interpret it however they want, so you may as well at least have fun.

[up]Actually, all can in fact be correct, it just depends on how you use it.

All who play Portal thought Glados's lines were annoying- incorrect.

All of Glados's lines were spoken like a robot, which irritated me- correct.

Also, I have a tendency to switch between male and female characters, just because I like the contrast.

edited 22nd May '11 4:15:14 PM by Dragon573

It's kind of funny. Sufficiently advanced stupidity is like sufficiently advanced science; eventually, you find something you can't solve.
robintherose Brain Girl
Brain Girl
May 22nd 2011 at 4:50:49 PM

Actually, all can in fact be correct, it just depends on how you use it.
Once again I am proven wrong tongue. Of course, I was speaking about all when used to make widespread generalisations about human behaviour/people/places/grammar. Not to mention even the most innocuous sounding alls can get you into trouble. At least I remembered to temper my "always" this time.

More on topic: I agree essentially that if you're worried about unfortunate implications you're already most of the way there to creating something that doesn't have them. Of course, when you notice them in your work it's still important to try to rectify them. A well rounded character who just happens to also have some stereotypical traits is rarely a problem, though.

[up] I'm often annoyed by those kinds of depictions of feminists. It isn't that they aren't sometimes true to life - we've all known someone with slightly strange views who makes a bit of an ass of themselves and it can be very funny. The problem is that a lot of the time when writers make use of stereotypes the only character in a work who has that designation (female/feminist/bisexual/transgendered/religious/atheist/whatever) also happens to fit the stereotypes. Most of the time, the Unfortunate Implications can be avoided simply by having a more diverse cast so that your "stereotypical" character is shown to be just one way a person of a particular category could behave.

So, in a story about an annoying feminist who comes across as a stereotypical man-hater, there are also feminist characters of varying importance who clearly have different ideas (some good, some bad, some neutral).

Perhaps not necessary or possible a lot of the time, but the stronger the stereotype and the more unfortunate the implications (especially if they're not the implications you want to make), the more I would recommend it.

The even simpler solution is to write completely stereotype-free characters...

edited 22nd May '11 4:52:25 PM by robintherose

Now I've got this image of Robin's secret childhood love affair with Mr. T. - Idler 20
Dragon573 Sanity not included from Sitting at a bonfire Relationship Status: Wishfully thinking
Sanity not included
May 22nd 2011 at 4:56:36 PM

[up]And I agree, which is why I have characters who handle the matters much more sensibly. I covered that angle for my own peace of mind.

Also, I put that character in there, becasue I'm making fun of one of the psychos who keeps yelling that at school. It's a Take That!, basically.

And she's not the main character.

edited 22nd May '11 4:59:02 PM by Dragon573

It's kind of funny. Sufficiently advanced stupidity is like sufficiently advanced science; eventually, you find something you can't solve.
robintherose Brain Girl
Brain Girl
May 23rd 2011 at 11:34:53 AM

[up] Even if she were, I think it could work. So long as she's not a Straw Man, basically. I like the sound of your play. :)

Now I've got this image of Robin's secret childhood love affair with Mr. T. - Idler 20
May 24th 2011 at 11:44:17 AM

So, in a story about an annoying feminist who comes across as a stereotypical man-hater, there are also feminist characters of varying importance who clearly have different ideas (some good, some bad, some neutral).

I've been watching the Justice League lately, and I really like the way they did that. One Villain of the Week was a rogue Amazon who wanted to kill all men - basically an extreme Straw Feminist. Wonder Woman varies between sensible and Straw Feminist based on her mood at the time. And Hawk Girl clearly wants men and women to be equal, one episode calling out Wonder Woman for her anti-male sentiments, and the other moment seething at an alternate universe version of the 60s when another female superhero wants them to Stay in the Kitchen together while the men talk.

If I'm asking for advice on a story idea, don't tell me it can't be done.
robintherose Brain Girl
Brain Girl
May 24th 2011 at 12:13:16 PM

[up] Now I really want to watch some Justice League.

Now I've got this image of Robin's secret childhood love affair with Mr. T. - Idler 20
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