Damsels, BAMFs, and the Gap Between.

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Hey all.

Can we talk about something?

Damsels. Those often-in-distress fair maidens. Not just Damsels, but their opposites, the ANTI-Damsels, too.

There’s this thing. A gap, if you will. A gap where there should be a spectrum. At one end, we have the
Damsel-in-distress. At the other, the Anti-Damsel.

One end – helpless/dependent/clumsy.

Other end – total BAMF/cut-you-with-the-knife-hidden-in-that-fashionable-boot.

One end – broken.

Other end – will break you.

Now, lately — and perhaps in response to earlier damsels — there have been MANY an Anti-Damsel. I automatically think of Cashore’s female leads, Katsa and Fire, as anti-damsels (I almost put Katniss Everdeen here, but I actually wouldn’t put her at the extreme end of the spectrum due to the way she changes over the course of the series).

But what about the gap? That space between for a more HUMAN breed?

My main character in THE NEAR WITCH is not a full-blown BAMF Anti-Damsel. She is maybe a 7.5 on the Damsel Anti-Damsel spectrum.

I think of the lead in Lauren Oliver’s latest novel, DELIRIUM, as a really wonderful 5 on that same spectrum. Right in the middle. She definitely has Damsel-like qualities, and yet she EVOLVES.

And I love it.

That’s something I want to see more in books, or maybe I’m just not reading the right books (I’m trying, to be fair, I’m VERY behind on my TBR pile). Because I think that Anti-Damsels are much more uncommon than Damsels in life.

Some people (and we’d like characters to resemble, at least mildly, people, yes?) start out sheltered, or lost, or weak (in one way or another) and BECOME stronger through experiences. I think it’s far more interesting when a Damsel evolves beyond those weaknesses and dependencies. Instead of just growing toward a LOVE INTEREST, I like to see Damsels growing out of their shell, growing toward a healthier, stronger version of themselves.

Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE the BAMFs. Readers want to be them, to disappear into them.

But to me, they are like superheros.

People love a superhero, and end up playing with action figures of them, or wearing their outfits as Halloween costumes. They don’t aspire to actually BE them. Probably because superheros, like BAMF Anti-Damsels, are too far removed (yes, it’s escapism). But when we as readers find a main character who LEARNS — and not only how to defeat the bad guy and save the day, not only how much they care about their love interest — but learns more about THEMSELVES and their world, and adapts, becomes stronger because of it…those are the characters I read about and want to be.

To me, they are even more compelling.

Anyway, just my thoughts…It’s Friday, so who knows how coherent they are.

Do you have any leading ladies you love? Where do they fall on the spectrum?

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19 thoughts on “Damsels, BAMFs, and the Gap Between.

  1. Danya says:

    Really agree with this post – while it’s nice to read about super strong anti-damsels in fiction, in real life they aren’t all that common. Most people are a mix and like you said fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum (and change position on this spectrum throughout life). That character development is great to read about in a book, and can be even more awesome than a heroine that starts out as an extreme anti-damsel and has nowhere to grow towards. Glad to hear your character isn’t so black-and-white!

    • veschwab says:

      Yes! I really, really enjoy those heroines that have room to grow, as long as they make use of that room and don’t just grow toward a boy. Finding a crutch isn’t the same thing as healing a bum leg. And that’s not to say that a love interest is always a crutch! Only that they shouldn’t inhibit the heroine’s growth.

  2. Ainsley says:

    You’re my superhero. I’ve been pondering this a lot lately. I’d like to write a MC who doesn’t necessarily run at full awesome from the get-go, but evolves and grows and learns about the world and herself in profound but realistic ways. This is agency, yes? I mean fire doesn’t start out as fire. There’s a spark. It catches in the wind and becomes a flame that burns brighter and brighter till it’s blazing. Ok, that needs work, but you get the gist of what I’m saying. 😉 I dig your spectrum concept.

    • veschwab says:

      PRECISELY.

      Agency, and evolution. Sometimes I think what we take as evolution/growth isn’t really, not in the internal sense. We watch our characters adapt to changing forces, and to new people, but self-possession, as wonderful as it is, is much rarer than an ability to mold to one’s circumstances. And as much as I LOVE strong heroines, I love seeing them learn to BE strong.

  3. Leigh says:

    So totally agree with this, although I have to say that I lean more towards a BELIEVABLE character, which makes her sympathetic, regardless of where she falls on the spectrum. (I don’t mean believable as in “doesn’t have superpowers because these do not exist” but as in “has realistic growth as a person and is therefore relate-able”.)

    I think sometimes the BAMF characters come across as TOO strong and I just can’t get into their heads. So I’m VERY pro-middle-spectrum. And if they ARE a flat-out BAMF, well, tell me WHY.

    • veschwab says:

      I agree, believability is paramount. And I think a BAMF can be believable, but it’s much harder to pull off, and almost impossible to make realistic, PARTICULALRLY in YA, where the hero/heroine are at a time of change and development, and almost certainly in physical and emotional flux.

      I am pretty anti-ends-of-spectrum. I’ve read a few total damsels, and I have a LOT of trouble tolerating them, just as I would have trouble with a real-life one. But at the same time, unless the story is VERY specifically geared toward archetypes, I take issue with a too-strong/too aware character as well. I want the growth over the book to be emotional as well as physical.

  4. THANK YOU. THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU.

    You said this so very eloquently. I’m all about the fives.

  5. Jen says:

    This is a great post! I must admit I am not a fan of weak damsels however they do exist. I agree that the Anti-Damsel has taken center stage in most of the novels I have read lately. I think what the Anti-Damsels are missing are the reasons they are BAMFs. Most people, even in works of fiction, do not come out of the womb as a BAMF, there are reasons, a history that make a person who they are and so many times that part is glossed over or left out of the story. I love growth in a character and too often we don’t get personal growth.

    • veschwab says:

      YES. Reason! If the story starts with the heroine in full BAMF mode, it really has to reveal along the way how she became one. I have no problem with working backwards and learning the path to BAMF-hood. Veronica Mars (which Elizabeth brings up) is a GREAT example of this.

  6. It’s a question of artistic integrity: do you really want to write a cartoon character girl-who-has-it-all-together? And a damsel-in-distress is never the heroine. She might be the main character, but she’s not the protagonist. She’s a foil.

    I’ve been watching Veronica Mars for the first time on Netflix. I like how she starts out a BAMF and by the end of the series you see her start to crack as the truth comes out and she’s put in increasingly horrible situations. But she never loses her strengths. It’s just that the “defense mechanism” aspect of them balances out.

    Good post!

    • I meant by the end of the first season.

    • veschwab says:

      YES. This comment pairs really well with Jen’s. VM is a perfect example of working backwards, of learning a BAMF’s weaknesses and strength, or a complex character, etc. And EXCELLENT point on the damsel not being the heroine, IF she doesn’t evolve.

  7. Linda G. says:

    Fantastic post, V. I’m totally a mid-spectrum gal myself, both as a writer and a reader.

    • veschwab says:

      My favorite heroine is the one who moves across the spectrum, but yes, I think they need to be somewhere in the middle. I have VERY little tolerance for those who start at the extreme Damsel end of the spectrum, but I like the BAMF end, IF we learn the why and how of the BAMF-dom.

  8. Lia Keyes says:

    Hell, yeah! Let’s have characters that move up and even down the spectrum a bit before they zoom up for an awesome finish! It’s called growth, people, and the boy is an accessory to that, not a means.

    • veschwab says:

      “the boy is an accessory to that, not a means” <—YES. This might currently be my BIG BIG BIG pet peeve in books, the notion that in finding a boy, the heroine is made stronger, or safer. Carrie Ryan put it best at a recent conference when she said that her mc and her love interest were both WHOLE. That it wasn't a matter of two halves coming together, but of two wholes.

  9. Love, LOVE this post!! And the comments! Leigh and I often go back and forth on this subject (especially Katsa – don’t get the two of us started on Katsa – it could result in hair-pulling and name-calling), and you have nailed it! Fives! We need more Fives!

    • veschwab says:

      I am just fascinated by it!! Middles for the win. Or Movers for the win, I think. Those who move (hopefully up) the spectrum.

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