Friday, August 22, 2014

The Disposable Woman: A Trope That Really Needs to Go

Motivation is one of the central parts of a story; if your main character doesn't have any motivation then chances are good you can't really call him a hero. If you're having trouble lighting a fire under your lead's nether regions though, relax, there's a simple way to get it done.

All you have to do is kill a woman who's important to him.

Instructions are on page 24.
A wife, a daughter, a mother (all three if you're time-traveling in Alabama); it doesn't matter who she is as long as she's important to your main character. Her death will act as the springboard for whatever it is your main character needs to do in your story. Maybe that thing is to put on a cape and cowl to prowl the streets at night, maybe it's asking the woman he loves to marry him, or maybe it's throwing his badge out the window to go on a blood-soaked vengeance spree, but whatever it is all you need to do is drill that special lady in your lead's life.

Or is it?

The Disposable Woman

I swear I'll avenge you... you... shit, I knew your name a minute ago...
This trope, appropriately labeled the Disposable Woman (here's the page for it at TV Tropes), is perhaps one of the greatest examples of lazy writing that no one questions. We see it in video games like Final Fantasy VII (it's Vincent Valentine's entire back story), and in comic books like The Punisher and Batman. It's a favorite in action movies like Mel Gibson's Edge of Darkness, and  it's the entire point of the first Deathwish film. The female character in question is not a vibrant, living part of the story that our audience gets to fall in love with. She isn't someone whose death truly affects us. She's typically just a ghostly, haunting reason for whatever is going on; she exists solely as the catalyst for our hero's (and it's always the hero, never the heroine) actions. If we get to see her at all it will be for a brief few flashes until something awful happens to her.

What's The Problem?

To explain what's wrong with this trope I'll give you an example of how it's done right. In Stephen King's novel Bag of Bones we meet up with author Mike Noonan. Mike's life changes dramatically when his wife Jo dies (but she maintains a ghostly presence throughout the book, making her a Lost Lenore rather than a Disposable Woman. In short, we actually see how and why she's important to Mike). Mike goes up to his summer home where he meets and falls in love with a much younger woman named Mattie Devore. This embroils him in her custody battle for her daughter Kyla against her father-in-law. For more than half the book we learn about Mike, Jo, and his new lady love, before a man with a gun shows up and kills Mattie. In a piece of meta-criticism Mike remembers how when he would get stuck writing a story he'd just have a man with a gun come in and kill the woman, something he's horrified by with his lover's blood all over his hands.

That right there is why this trope is such a problem; the shallowness of how it's typically used.

In Bag of Bones we're invested in both of the women that Mike loses. His wife is more than just a convenient reason for him to get out of town, and his new lover's death is something that rocks Mike and the audience to their bones. They're both given depth, and a continued presence in the story. In short the author worked to be dynamic, rather than just relying on a trope crutch to prop up the narrative.

Why Does It Matter?

On a professional level the Disposable Woman is lazy. Just as, if not more lazy, then throwing in a rape scene just to add drama or to spackle over a plot point to your story (more on that here). It's quick shorthand for a motivation that readers have seen a hundred times, and it absolves the writer of doing the hard work of pulling the reader in. For a recent example look at the character of Drax the Destroyer from the film Guardians of the Galaxy. He's a hulking brute who's murdered hundreds of people trying to get to the man who killed his wife and child... but should we feel for him? Is a man (using the term loosely) capable of such wanton brutality someone who was ever a good father? A good husband? Or was he always like this, and the death of his family simply gave him the excuse? We don't know; we're just supposed to take that tragedy at face value and accept that it made Drax who he is now.

Secondly using the Disposable Woman is sending a message to readers. A message that as writers we should really, truly consider before we put it down on paper.

Don't be that guy.
Stories carry messages. If your story is about a modern day knight with a machine gun off to slay the dragon because it kidnapped a princess, then that sends a message. It tells male readers that violence is an acceptable solution to problems, it tells female readers that they shouldn't struggle when taken captive, and it tells dragons they're horribly evil fucks who deserve to be shot.

The problem with the Disposable Woman is that she sends a message to women just as surely as Rapunzel or Sleeping Beauty does. First off, it tells women that the only role they can have to motivate a story is to die, and that's not the way anyone wants to be represented. Secondly it tends to show women that women only have importance when they're connected to men; mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts, daughters, and girlfriends. Even if there are other female characters in the story that stigma is going to be sitting over the hero's motivation.

That is not to say that you can't use the Disposable Woman in your story. The next time that setup occurs to you though, ask yourself if that's the only way. Does your FBI agent's wife have to be murdered before he starts playing hardball with the mafia? Instead, why not have her leave him because he's too dedicated to the case? Why not have him driven half-crazy because he keeps seeing men he knows are guilty go free? Why not give him a particular mad-on against the crime that a particular organization is committing and getting away with?

There's always multiple sources of motivation. If you sidestep the neat and easy way to set up a story you're likely to discover more about your characters, and to create a richer story than you might otherwise have written.

As always thanks for dropping by The Literary Mercenary. Follow me by putting your email in the box on your right hand side, or by going to my Facebook or Tumblr. If you'd like to keep me, and this blog, going then check out my Literary Mercenary gear by clicking the link above, buy a book, make a one time donation by clicking the "Shakespeare Gotta Get Paid, Son" button on the right hand side, or by dropping by my Patreon page and becoming a patron today!


  1. Well done sir. Wish I had something to add other than a golf clap. But its true, it is lazy to kill off a woman; although my exposure to this trope was through the trope of women in refrigerators, vis-a-vis comic in general. It feels inherently negative toward women as characters and could be avoided in favor of far more interesting fare.

  2. Well done, indeed! It just so happens that my latest draft of a novel features a DW early in the book. I'll have to rethink this. Thanks.

  3. This is one of those tropes that will make me abandon a book midway through, and there's very very few things that can do that. It's so beyond played out and so beyond lazy.