On Writing Empowered & Empowering Characters
Many, many people are interested in stories featuring empowered and empowering characters, but for some writers, just what entails these sorts of characters isn't always clear. So here's a look at how characters can be empowered and empowering, based on what sorts of things can really and truly empower people in real life, a few things that have a history of not working out so well for creating these characters, and a few misconceptions people have about what it means for a character to be empowered and empowering.
Table of Contents
- Traits that can lend to a character being empowered and empowering.
- What can undermine a character's perceived empowerment.
- Myths about empowered/empowering characters.
Traits that can lend to a character being empowered and empowering.
Skills that can be used to protect oneself or others, that exist in real life or have positive real-life analogs. This can include martial skills, the ability to engineer or build a defense, or even the ability to treat illnesses or injuries. It can also include having the nerve and ability to mount a verbal defense in an argument.
Practical/everyday life skills, or skills that are analogous to practical/everyday life skills. All too often, these skills get overlooked in fiction, but having the skills necessary to pay the bills or otherwise get by on a day-to-day basis are pretty important, too. It's pretty hard to look after oneself or one's loved ones or manage one's own affairs without them.
Good coping skills. This one is overlooked far too often! Without good coping skills, we all end up wrecking ourselves sooner or later. Good coping skills can include anything that helps a character blow off stress - exercise, reading, singing, going out on a walk, etc. They can also include being willing and able to work through one's emotions.
Good social/interpersonal skills. This is vital to winning friends and allies, sweet-talking people into doing things, mediating arguments and settling disputes, and negotiating treaties or compromises. It includes being able to keep calm and civil even when tensions are high, being able to appreciate other people's perspectives and views, and being a good listener. It also includes being willing and able to assert oneself and one's own opinions or desires in a diplomatic manner.
Living life on one's own terms and conditions, even if the occasional compromise has to be made. This means refusing to give up one's dreams and identity, and defending them against those who would try to destroy or steal them.
Taking initiative to tackle the main source of one's grief or troubles head-on. This means getting up and doing something about one's troubles rather than just sitting around and waiting for a savior or a stroke of good luck. Essentially, being proactive rather than passive or reactive.
Wait, why must the skills exist or have real-life analogs? you might ask. Skills that don't exist in real life, nor can translate to anything that exists in real life, can't really inspire people to take real-life action, and therefore cannot empower them. If you want to write a character that real people might find empowering, ask yourself how these traits can inspire real people to take the bull by the horns. There's nothing empowering about getting wrapped up in impossible fantasies indefinitely - if anything, it's just the opposite, because then you're fantasizing about being empowered instead of genuinely empowering yourself.
What can undermine a character's perceived empowerment.
There are some tropes and traits that can potentially undermine this character being perceived as empowered and empowering by audiences. Some issues to watch out for include:
The character never uses any of the empowering traits or skills to solve anything or move the plot forward. Your warrior princess's ability to hack and slash monsters to bite-sized chunks only count if she actually uses that skill in a way that matters to the story.
The character only uses the skills for the benefit of others. For example, a female character who only uses her "empowering" skills to help a male character get what he wants while never using it to get anything she wants apart from a relationship him (which also happens to be what he wants).
The "empowering" traits are obviously just cosmetic. For example, a character whose "empowering" trait is wearing an outfit considered scandalous or unusually revealing, even though it doesn't connect to any meaningful conflict (IE, the character could wear something else entirely without the story changing at all), nor does it actually help the character overpower anyone.
The "empowering" traits come from something that happened without the character's consent. For example, by being forced to undergo experimentation or training that gives the character new powers or skills. It's important to note that this isn't always bad, especially if the character uses these traits to gain freedom. However, it can still leave a bad taste in some people's mouths, especially if what happened to the character was especially brutal or torturous, or if the character isn't actually responsible for getting free.
The "empowering" traits are not actually within the character's control, or they even cause the character to lose agency. For example, if the character's powers only manifest under high stress whether the character likes it or not, or only manifest at random or at the whim of another, or if they force the character to into an mindless berserker-like state, or are just generally too unstable to have proper control over.
The empowering traits come packed along with significantly disempowering ones. For example, a procedure that gave a character awesome powers also caused such severe mental damage that near-constant supervision is required to prevent the character from doing something disastrous, or the character's powers often end up causing severe weakness or a loss of consciousness.
The character ends up losing control or agency in a contrived way. EG, a character who always just happens to need rescued by a love interest, or ends up getting stuck in a situation that the character should be able to get out of alone. Simple Tips To Avoid Making Your Character A Damsel In Distress article has more on this subject.
The character uses the empowering traits to bully or abuse others. There's definitely a line between standing up for oneself and just plain being mean or petty. A character who crosses this line, especially if ostensibly intended to be heroic, may be perceived as just plain nasty or extremely insecure rather than empowered. Protagonist-Centered Morality: What It Is, And How You Can Avoid It) can help you avoid this problem.
The character gains the empowering traits with ridiculously improbable ease, or the traits make the character seem overpowered. Such characters are likely to be perceived as shallow wish-fulfillment. Also remember, empowerment is not about being able to do or get anything effortlessly, but about persevering despite the difficulty. Showing people that they can only have nice things or get awesome things done if they're so amazing that they never have to put any effort into it or suffer any setbacks at all can be very despiriting, because no one can live up to that in real life.
The character's foes and obstacles feel inauthentic. If the challenges the character faces feel contrived somehow, it can also make the whole thing look like shallow wish fulfillment.
Myths about empowered/empowering characters.
And there are a few misconceptions about what makes characters empowered or empowering, or about what characters must be in order to make the grade. Let's take a look at them and clear them up.
They can never be weak or vulnerable, nor can they ever need to rely on anyone else. In real life, we all have our bad times and we all have to rely on others now and then. If we show others that strong, empowered people are never thrown off their game and never need anyone but themselves, we're only setting people up to feel like weaklings and failures when they face these times themselves. And sometimes, working up the nerve to ask someone qualified for help can be a form of strength in itself.
They must always be in control at every moment. This is another one of those things that just doesn't happen in real life, so why should we hold our characters up to it? We certainly don't want to set people up to feel bad if they themselves end up out of control now and then. What's important is that the characters are not constantly put out of control, nor end up losing control for contrived reasons, nor need bailed out from situations that they really should be competent to get themselves out of.
They can never fall in love. This essentially teaches people that falling in love makes one weak or a failure - a horrible message! Relationships are fine - what's important is that they have these relationships on their own terms and are not forced to give up their dreams or identities.
High rank or position of authority = empowerment. A character who has a high rank or position of authority, but doesn't actually do anything to progress the plot, isn't much of an empowered character. When it comes to empowered characters, power over is less important than power to.
Powerful always equals empowering. Characters can be extremely powerful, yet still fail to show any of the characteristics mentioned in the first section, or never actually use them in a way that matters to the plot. It's not how much power a character has that makes the character empowering, but rather, what the character gets done with it. Ordinary mortals who take their fate into their own hands will always be more empowering than superpowered beings who only act passively or reactively.
Empowered characters must be physically strong or able to fight in combat. This is certainly one way to be empowered, but there are many other ways, too! Characters might be also empowered through their wits, their charisma, or their knowledge. As long as your character has the ability and courage to get things done, it's all good!
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