Character agency refers to a character’s ability to make decisions that affect the outcome of a story. But it also refers to a character’s freedom to be themselves in the story world. They’re going to want to walk their own path, wherever that leads them.
It’s possible for you as an author to violate a character’s agency in this sense and not even realize it.
I’ve done it myself. See my previous post about Character X here. (We all have that one project that has issues, but we keep coming back to it because we know there’s something there, am I right?) I’m revisiting this manuscript in the wake of giving several presentations on character agency. And you know what I realized? The OTHER problem is that I wasn’t letting this character be himself at the beginning of the book. I wanted to create a steep character arc, and play with the trope of the reluctant hero, so I had artificially handicapped his character growth and self esteem. I didn’t give him space to explore his own emotions, because I wanted him to be holding back his true depth until later on. Which is why while changing the starting point of the book helped, it wasn’t enough. I still made him come across as more impulsive and less brave than he was later in the book, and that wasn’t fair to him, or to the reader.
(So sorry, dear Character X, I promise to do better by you in the future. If it brings any comfort, I started my latest presentation on Getting the Reader Attached to an Unlikeable Character with, “I did everything wrong that we’re going to talk about on these slides to poor Character X. He deserves better.”)
What about your characters? Are you letting them drive the story, rather than putting them at the mercy of the plot, either to make an artistic statement, or because you need certain events to happen?
I like to give my student writers an exercise. Take your WIP’s protagonist and write a scene (which doesn’t necessarily have to wind up in your manuscript) in which we get to see that character’s decision-making process when faced with a dilemma that will have a permanent impact on the plot. Give the character at least three viable options for what to do in this situation.
For example, teen protagonist Mike gets kicked out of school over a prank-gone-wrong where a fellow student dies. He could:
Steal his parents’ credit cards and run away, hopping a plane to Japan in an attempt to escape the consequences.
Start investigating the death, believing there is more to it than what he actually saw happen, that his classmate was murdered.
Show up at the grieving family’s house and apologize, only to be slapped in the face.
Attempt to re-enroll in school, using an altered appearance and a fake name.
Whatever choices you give your character, keep in mind the following:
- This dilemma must have weight. (Hmmmm . . . should I skip lunch today so I can be on time, or should I stop at the grocery store and buy an apple, or maybe get fast food for everyone so they won’t mind me being late? . . . This dilemma is unlikely to have a lasting impact on your book. Even if the character spends the next nine chapters complaining that they’re hungry because they didn’t eat before being whisked off on an adventure, that hunger doesn’t change the outcome of any of the plot events. Unless, of course it does. If this causes the character to get fired for being late, which snowballs until it causes your character’s death, and that’s the point of your story, you can use this example. But otherwise, if characters are only being allowed to make real decisions on this scale, you’re not giving them agency.)
- Doing nothing does NOT count as a choice. Protagonists by their very nature need to be taking action, especially at turning points in the plot. Waiting for others to make decisions also does not count as a choice. Neither does telling someone else to go off and figure out the plot problem.
- Giving two untenable choices and an obviously correct one defeats the purpose of the exercise. That is called railroading the character. (If you do A, you die, if you do B, you wind up in prison, therefore you must do C . . . that kind of setup doesn’t actually give the character agency. You’ve still presented only one choice.)
- Likewise, for it to be true agency a character cannot be pushed into making a specific choice by one of the other characters or by the plot. In the first example, you can’t assign Mike to community service or have his father demand he go over and apologize. It has to be his idea, and the decision has to come from within himself.
- These choices need to be different options, not variations on the same option. (I can hide from the Space Spider Ninja Dinosaurs behind the barn, or I can hide from them in a tree, or I can hide from them under a truck . . . this is NOT three different choices to be made. These are all a subset of I can hide. Try something more like, I could hide the family living on this farm from the SSNDs by sealing them in the trap-door in the barn and try to lead the aliens away from them — though they might die if I don’t survive to let them out. Or I could try to make first contact with aliens and let the family fend for themselves. After all we don’t REALLY know the aliens’ intentions. Or maybe I should just try to take the family and cross the freezing river, even though neither of the children know how to swim. If we make it, we might be able to get to somewhere where I can make radio contact with people who might be able to help before the SSNDs catch up to us.)
- These choices should all be within the character’s moral and mental grasp. If your character is a peace-loving scientist who believes first contact might be difficult and risky but is worth achieving, then I could try to trap the Space Spider Ninja Dinosaurs in the barn and set it on fire so that the alien scourge burns to death is not an actual viable choice. This character simply wouldn’t do it. Unless there’s another character present who wants to promote this option, this character probably wouldn’t even THINK of doing this. A choice like that, coming from outside the character, does NOT count as one of your three.
- The outcome should not be easily reversed. To be real agency, the character’s decisions must be allowed to stand – for good or for ill. If your character tries to take the family across the river, and one of the children drowns, the character should have to deal with the consequences of that for the rest of the book. It may be hard on the character, and maybe even take the character somewhere emotionally that your plot outline was not prepared to handle, but you’re going to wind up with a deeper, more emotionally resonate story.
If you really want to understand the impact of having agency, once you’ve written the scene, think about the implications for your plot if the character proceeds using this course of action. Then re-write the scene so that he makes each of the other two choices. What are the implications for each? If the character is truly displaying agency, there should be a significant change of direction to the plot depending on which choice is made.
Think of that example with Mike at the beginning of the exercise. Each of those potential decisions will lead to a whole tree of other decisions Mike has to make. Each one leads to a completely different story, perhaps even a completely different genre. It’s his own choice whether he wants to be in the middle of a murder mystery or a coming of age adventure halfway around the world, or an 80-s throwback rom-com. Are the impacts of your characters’ decisions as deep and lasting?
NOTE: That pic is at Crystal Cove in California when we went this summer.