Agency and How to Give it to Your Characters

Have you ever read a book where it felt like the character was being dragged along by the story? Where maybe the character felt like less of a hero and more of a bystander? Or maybe the character even felt like a damsel always in distress (Is there a male term for this?), waiting to be saved?

This is what happens when characters are not given agency.

What is Agency, you ask?

Agency is when a character is given the room to make decisions that directly or indirectly effect their story.

While it may seem easy to give a character agency because they feel real as you write, this isn’t always accurate. A character that simply reacts to events going on around them will never create a more compelling story than the character who has caused the events around them and then must deal with them.

There are times when things need to happen to keep the plot moving. The spaceship abducts the heroine. The car veers off the road. The corrupt government comes knocking on their door. Events like these are huge turning points in a story. You might ask how events like these could take agency away from a character. It often feels like these big moments should happen no matter what.

Well, when they happen without any influence from the character, the protagonist or any side characters, then it has less impact. The vacuum of character agency before the event will dull the emotional impact. All the reader will see are bad things happening. The character should feel the weight of what’s happening because their actions and decisions caused this big event. This will show itself in not only the physical effects, such as kidnapped parents or failed exams, but in the emotional fallout.

Well, it would suck if she got abducted by aliens, but what if she broke into a space station and flipped the Do Not Touch switch? What if that caused her entire family to get abducted and now she has to save them? Not only that, she has to deal with crippling self doubt and guilt because she knows she caused this. It forces her to rise above it.

See the difference?

Let’s talk about how to give your characters agency.

The best way to ensure that your characters have agency is to start at the very beginning. If you’re the type to create any kind of plot before you begin writing, there is a simple step that you can take during that process. At each event add a small section that reads like:

Character’s Action:

By adding these two lines to your plot each time something happens, you are ensuring that your character is in one way or another to blame for whatever happens. These should revolve around the characters central to your plot. If you’re writing with one protagonist, every event should be relating to an action of that protagonist, big or small.

When writing with more than one protagonist, the chain of agency will begin to feel like ripples. Every time one character does something, the other protagonists will react and create the next ripple. Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo is a great example. Each time Kaz Brekker decides to hold information back from his fellow criminals, the others are forced to react. Most of the time, they react with eventual trust. Sometimes, they react in other ways and cause a new event.

You don’t have to record all of these ripples, but you should spend time considering how one character’s actions effect the others. This moment of reflection can help even when writing a single protagonist. A book is almost never a stage for one. There are often whole casts of characters who will need to react to the things going on around them. Each will react differently not only because their motives are different, but because their backgrounds are different.

If you’re not a plotter, the process is still very similar.

Each time you feel the need to write an event, big or small, stop and consider what led up to that event. Was it the machinations of the author? Or, are there threads of story that lead up to it? You are stealing agency from your character when an event is in no way caused by them.

Don’t worry. You can fix this.

If you edit as you go, try to work backwards from the event. If the corrupt government has come to break down the door, who sent them? Is it a general? A senator? Once you have that figured out, then decide what came before that. Who told the government official to storm the place? Why did that person feel the need to tell the government official?

If you follow the threads backwards, they should lead to your protagonists.

Are you ready to give your characters agency?

No event in your story should happen outside of the actions of your characters. It is up to the author to place the mechanics of the story for the characters to interact with. If a character hears news of a fleet of ships coming around the southern side of the country and does nothing about it, then that’s still an effect of character agency when the fleet eventually invades.

Writing can be tricky when it comes down to the threads of the story. Getting them to connect can often feel like one of those hipster string art things, where you wind string around a bunch of nails to create an image. While you’re knee deep in the tiny details, you don’t see the image as a whole until you pull back. Connecting these threads will help your story have a clearer and more compelling image when you pull back.

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