What Makes A Female Character 'Empowering'? It's More Than A Buzzword

Warner Bros.

Now, more than ever, it's the perfect time to brush up on women's history and stories, support women's causes, and celebrate the incredible contributions of women around the globe and here in the United States. If you're a book-lover, it's also the perfect excuse to curl up with an empowering read written by or about a woman, but just exactly what makes a female character empowering? The answer is more complicated than you might think.

Like the phrase "strong female character" — one which we need to retire ASAP — the label "empowering female character" has become something of a catchall, a simple packaging for a book character that stands out from the typical, one-dimension supporting female role we so often see in books and literature. But empowerment is so much more than that. Being truly empowered, and thus empowering to others, means having the ability to make your own choices, the courage to stand up for your values, the courage to stand up for those less privileged, and the strength — emotional, mental, and physical — to stand tall in the face of adversity, no matter how big or small.

While it may have become something of a buzzword, "empowerment" is an important term that is essential to understand in any context, but especially in light of today's modern Women's Movement. It's more than a catchy phrase on a t-shirt or a protest sign, more than a clickbaiting headline online. It's the cornerstone to women's liberation and freedom, and it's essential that we understand and talk about it in the right terms, even when discussing fiction and literature.  

When books star empowered female characters, they have the ability to inspire readers to find the same kind of personal empowerment in themselves. And while there are a lot of different ways to feel encouraged to be more confident and self-assured, I think we can all agree that these 5 basic traits are what makes a female character truly empowering for every kind of reader.

1She has the ability to make her own choices.

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If a book character is truly empowering, she must have the ability to make her own choices. There are a lot of aspects to empowerment, but at its core is independence and free will, and the power to exercise individual choice.

This is not to say that an empowered character cannot face oppression — just think of Katniss Everdeen under the thumb of the Capitol. It means that, in the face of oppression, they make their own choices, for themselves and not because they are dictated to do so by others. Being empowered means having personal power: power to choose, power to decide, and power to dictate what happens next.

2She is representative of real women.

For a book character to be truly empowering, she must be relatable, and that goes way beyond having believable flaws. It means having characters that are diverse, inclusive, and intersectional.

What kind of character empowers a reader can depend a lot on the reader's identity. Everyone deserves to be able to find a book and see themselves in the story, no matter their race, religion, gender identity, sexual preference, or ability. Truly empowering book characters are different for everyone, but one thing is clear: we need them all.

3She is living out her own story, not someone else's.

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Empowering female characters are not tangents to a hero's story. Rather, they are the heroine of their own lives, and of their own books. Often times, we see female characters in books play supporting roles to male characters who are trying to solve their own problems, and the woman's story is used as merely an entertaining tangent, a contextual aside, or even a plot device to move the male character's story forward.

For a female character to be truly empowering, she must have her own story, one where she makes the decisions and drives the plot forward. The story can involve other people — her family, friends, and yes, even her love interest — but she must be the one writing the next sentence and calling the shots. She is not a part of the story to serve another character, but rather, to serve herself and her own narrative.

4She is self-assured, stands up for her beliefs, and stands up for those less privileged.

This one may seem like a no-brainer, but it's important that empowering female characters are brave, courageous, and determined in their own beliefs. Too often in literature, and in real life, do we see men calling all the shots, and women coming along for the ride. Not in empowering female stories, though.

If a book character is empowering, then she is self-assured and unafraid to stand up for what she believes in. Often times, in the context of the story, those beliefs are controversial, even forbidden, but no matter what the characters around her say, an empowered protagonist forms her own opinions and stands by them, no matter who is telling her to let them go.

5Her life is self-determined.

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Empowered female characters all have one thing in common: their lives are self-determined. They are free to make their own choices, at least in the context of their circumstances.

From Offred to Tris, we've seen dozens and dozens of female characters living under repressive regimes, controlling families or husbands, restrictive dystopian futures, and much worse conditions that make it seem impossible for them to determine their own fate. But it's what they do within that context that makes them inspiring: they chose what happens to them next. Despite the danger, despite the oppression, despite the simplicity of not doing it, empowering book characters make their own decisions and fight, sometimes to the death, for the ability to be in control of their own lives.

Because that's what being empowered is: being the one with the power over your own life.