The Big Idea: C.G. Volars
There are tropes in literature that we all know, and, well, maybe not always love. For Static Over Space, author C.G. Volars thought about the tropes and what might happen if you flip them… and them flip them again, in an entirely different direction.
Here’s a bit of irony for you: I first started thinking about Static Over Space—my gender-bending Scifi debut featuring a flying Latinx—while enrolled in an Honors Seminar in Gothic Literature.
It was one of my favorite courses, taught by a brilliant and fascinating professor who exposed us to niche classics and delightfully nuanced terminologies that, once understood, had a funny way of sneaking into every literary essay and conversation from then on.
It was in this class during an especially high-spirited debate that the initial idea came to me. We were arguing about archetypical roles in The Castle of Otranto when a young man in a pink polo shirt, khaki shorts, and penny loafers began ranting over Damsels in Distress.
“They’re so annoying in any story,” he groused. “All they do is get in the way and scream.”
“Isn’t that their job?” I remember replying. “The damsel in distress is supposed to be helpless. The story falls apart otherwise.”
He didn’t look appeased. “I’m just saying, they could try and act a little tougher.”
A Tough Damsel in Distress?
I remember walking back to my dorm, head swirling with wild story beats and reversed character tropes. Was it possible to write a tough damsel in distress? I began imagining an ornery, fiercely independent person who’d absolutely refuse to recieve help from anyone else, no matter how bad they needed it. They would be tough, surly, sarcastic, and utterly helpless.
The absurdity of the idea expounded as the character came more fully into view. Not only would they refuse help, they would be in complete denial about their role through the whole story. It would be a comedy of stubborn-headed missteps. The plot would push the damsel further and further into situations maniacally out of her control. The villain’s hold would be absolute. Every nearby person would be logically aligned against her. The entire society—no—planet—no—UNIVERSE would be in deep conspiracy to keep her from success and safety. But still, she would never accept help! She would be far too caught up in bullheaded pride and her own self-image to even begin to admit she was 2,000 leagues over her head in shit.
Which is when it hit me—she obviously needed to be a man.
Years later, a dear Beta Reader helped me realize it would be even funnier if it was a Latino man because, well duh, who would hate being a damsel in distress more than a macho Latino dude? The entire endeavor would be one string of continuous frustration and torture for him. And it would be hilarious.
A Male Damsel in Distress
The story quickly became a study in purposeful irony. Every major character was soon flipped inside out:
-The archetypical caregiver? He was actually an manipulative trickster, capable of changing people’s emotional states at will and convinced he was only “doing what was best” for his victims the whole time.
-The villain? He’d think he was a romantic, a creator, an artistic soul who couldn’t help but be obsessed with finding and fostering beauty all across the universe. The fact that he needed control over everything and everyone around him? A minor personality flaw in his eyes.
-The outgoing, inter-galactic popstar? A victim of low self-esteem, forever put-upon and filled with constant guilt and self-questioning. Famous beyond description, she would have suffered a dismally lonely childhood that grew into an unfillable hole for companionship as an adult.
-The supernatural mentor and sage? A morally-gray pimp looking for a pay day with all the shadiest connections.
-The Wookie? A sensitive female working as a bodyguard to send money to her sickly Aunt.
-The Hero? Well, wasn’t it obvious?
He would be our Damsel in Distress.
What about Theme?
There’s no doubt, I was having a lot of fun subverting every known character stereotype out there. But it occurred to me that I still didn’t have a central message (other than snubbing Penny Loafer).
What was the moral of the story? Again, I had to come back to the root of the issue. What’s the point of a Damsel in Distress? Plot-wise, the job of the Damsel is to get in trouble, right? But thematically what do they actually teach anyone?
Lost, confused, and scared of dying? Find a big, strong hero to come and save you!
Hmm. It wasn’t terribly inspiring. It eventually occurred to me that the Damsel often functions as a moral exemplar for accepting love, particularly where you thought least likely to find it. The nerdy guy at school? Secretly a super hero! The uncouth, tempermental werewolf-looking-dude who kidnapped your Dad? Turns out he’s a total keeper!
So okay, fair enough. My damsel-dude just needed to fall in love with a seemingly mismatched love interest. I tried to make it work with a couple of romantic arcs: first there was an electric-powered female whose temper could only be matched by the latent heat between them. But she kept saying stupid stuff at exactly the wrong moment. Then there was a laid-back male with high emotional IQ and a supportive streak as long as the Nile; he would have worked, except I had a hard time seeing him taking on anything directly. Finally, I tried an clasically Big Hero type, a person equally matched with the villain in size, strength, wealth, and access to power. But then his main attractive quality seemed to be incidentally being “large” enough to take on the Bad Guy. Not exactly the stuff of true love.
Truth was, none of them felt right. Or, more accurately, it didn’t feel right pushing my damsel-dude towards anyone romantically for the sake of being saved. Would my damsel need help from others? Of course. But why did he have to fall in love with whoever helped him the most? Why couldn’t he fall in love with (excuse my crassness) whoever he happened to fall in love with? Did being saved HAVE to amount to romantic feelings?
As a fastiduous egalitarian, I decided no—men don’t have to fall in love with whoever saves them from certain death. It simply isn’t necessary for the story. With that, I decided to leave the romantic arc open-ended. It would be up to Izo to sort out his feelings as a young, bisexual damsel-dude lost on the wrong side of the universe. Would he need all of these character’s help to defeat the villian? Yes. But he’d decide who was most attractive based on other things.
So What Do We Learn from Damsels Then?
After all these years, what’s the conclusion? Was Penny Loafer right—are Damsels in Distress useless characters, forever relegated to cowering at the mercy of larger forces? Are they nothing more than pitiable screamers whose purpose is mainly to entice villains into being villainous and heroes into being heroic?
Or did the strength of a Damsel’s character lie in unrealized virtues: Perseverance. Graciousness. The ability to accept and support those offering help.
If so, weren’t these actually universal qualities necessary for everyone? After all, how many heroes need help at some point duing their journey? According to Joseph Campbell, isn’t it all of them?
So where’s the line? When does someone go from being a Hero who needs help to succeed to a Damsel who can’t save themselves alone? After all, how many times has a secondary character chosen to sacrifice themselves for the hero just in the knick of time? Wouldn’t that automatically make the Hero a Damsel then? Could most Heroes be portrayed as Damsels and most Damsels be depicted as Heroes with only minor tone adjustments?
Is it possible they’re not that different? That we’re just used to accepting the help Heroes recieve as negligible and the agency of Damsels as non-existent? More to the point, if so, are we creating false distinctions simply to reinforce gender norms?
I don’t know. I suppose it depends on which Damsel and which Hero you’re talking about. But after flipping the idea around in my head over the last few years, there’s one thing I do know for sure.
There are times in everyone’s life where we have to play the Damsel. There are other times when we get a chance to reach out be the Hero. We all need saving sometimes. We get chances to selfless sometimes. There’s nothing inherently shameful in being either.