Don’t Write a Damsel-in-Distress OR a Modern Super-Woman: Be Original

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I have a problem in my WIP novel, which is just in the outline stage. There’s a specific illness going around and to SHOW, DON’T TELL that the illness is really bad, an important character must become sick.

But then, I have this sick character, Em. And she’s, well, sick.
She’s become a Damsel-in-Distress, who has no active part in the story. She’s a weak love interest, whose only role is to be sick and provide motivation for the main character.

It’s a good motivator. Jake, my main character, really cares for Em, and he’ll do almost anything to find a cure. From that side of things, it’s working. But Em is still just a sick—and-convenient—character.

I’ve given Em some other character problems. She’s adopted and is looking for information on her birth parents. They’ll come into the story and the intersection of these characters will give Em some rosy cheeks of health. Her subplot will be one of discovering who she really is.

But the excitement doesn’t last long enough for her. She has a crisis in her health, which is necessary to get Jake moving. Again, Em becomes a sick, convenient, unappealing and placid character. How do I provide some sort of action around a sickly character?

There are precedents for sick or sickly characters.

Angelic character and how the illness and/or death affect the main characters. In Little Women, Beth dies from scarlet fever. While her health wastes away, she is active, though, knitting and sewing clothes for neighborhood children. Her death is a major impact on Jo’s life, the main character. By giving her selfless acts to perform, it elevates Beth. She’s angelic in everything, never complaining and dying without a lot of fuss. By elevating Beth’s moral character, we understand why her life was important.

Imaginary life. In Paul Fleischman’s Mind’s Eye, a paralyzed girl leaves the real world behind in an imaginary trip across 1910 Italy. Here, Courtney comes alive in her imagination. She and her nursing home roommate, 88 year old Elva, use a 1910 Baedeker guide to catch trains, to travel and to live. It reminds me of a Star Trek episode about Captain Pike, the original captain of the Enterprise, who is injured and in a wheelchair. There’s a forbidden planet, and we find out that it’s forbidden because the inhabitants live a virtual life. On that planet, however, Pike can live a happy and full virtual life, walking and climbing wherever he wants. Like Courtney, Captain Pike chooses the illusion of life over the reality of his paralysis.

Give the sick character an amazing POV voice. John Green’s character in The Fault in Our Stars is suffering from cancer, and indeed, the whole story is about living with a death sentence in your lungs. The narration is from her POV and it’s a distinctive voice.

Entwine the emotions. In My Sister’s Keeper, Jodi Picoult poses an interesting dilemma. A younger sister is conceived for the specific purpose of donating an organ to her sickly older sister. The sisters, though, are both active to an extent and the real success here is how the emotional lives are entwined, just as their fates are interwoven.

Writing Sickly Characters

Sick Character? Give them Bigger-than-Life personality. Here's how. | Fiction Notes by Darcy Pattison

Here are some take-aways for my own writing.

Sick, but not incoherent. A character can be physically challenged or sick, but there must be lucid moments where the character’s life and personality emerge. Em can be very sick, but the illness must ebb and flow. And develop her personality, hopes, dreams, fears, anxieties, dreams, etc. as possible.

No griping. Okay. Em feels lousy. But no one wants to read about a character who complains her way through the actual horrors of the human form when it’s sick. No explicity descriptions of throwing up, other bodily fluids, etc., at least in MY stories. Instead, the sickly person rises above those things and we see her character, not her illness.

Emotional impact. Sick or not, people are invested deeply in Em’s life. They want to be with her and they care about her thoughts, emotions, reactions, etc. Perhaps, she must be even more entwined than usual in the main character’s life.

Action when possible. When she’s feeling good, I’ll give Em as much action as possible. I’ll look for both major and minor actions. Maybe stealing a cell phone and making a forbidden phone call is enough of a physical challenge, while also moving the plot along in some way. Look for ways to add action, arguments, and conflict. Just because she’s sick, she doesn’t get away with an easy life emotionally. Otherwise, where’s the story? Story requires conflict and even sick people in your story must endure the conflict—or there’s no story.

Rescue. Well, it’s OK. Em might need to be rescued. I know, gender roles these days decree that she not be a Damsel-in-Distress; instead, she must be the conquering princess who fights the dragon herself and saves the poor, incompetent prince. But that’s a modern trope that is just as bad as the damsel-in-distress trope. The challenge will be to create a unique, living character without falling prey to either cliché.

In short, sick or not, Em must be a real character. She’s no damsel-in-distress; neither is she the modern woman who rescues the weak men in her life. Instead, she pursues her goals with the same fervor (and whatever physical strength she can muster) as the main character, Jake. It’s a plan.

2 Comments
  • Linda Andersen
    August 26, 2015

    Darcy,
    This is especially helpful to me right now. I am going to print this out to remind myself of things to avoid, as well as things to do, when writing about a sick character. I have been putting off my adult memoir project–overwhelmed with how to organize the material. This morning I got an original idea about how to do that. An organization idea and sick character tips from you all in the same day. Now, I’m ready! Hold me to it! ;)

    By the way, I’m rewriting my “Peek-a-Boo” story from PB&J. It’s come such a long ways. I am so happy I attended the Highlights workshop! A real blessing! Plus I got to meet you in person!

  • Darcy Pattison
    August 27, 2015

    Linda:
    So glad the tips came at a good time for you!
    And I can’t wait to re-read the Peek-A-Boo story!

    Highlights was fun–I hope we repeat next year.

    Darcy