One thing you hear about a lot when you start sending your manuscript out into the world is ‘agency’. Most agents (and publishers) are looking for characters who make things happen, not ones who merely react to the situation they’re stuck with.
In general, inciting incidents — i.e. That problem that kicks the main character out of their run-of-the-mill daily lives and into the story — are externally delivered. But HOW the character decides to respond can demonstrate either agency or a lack-there-of.
Most stories that feature a journey start off with the main character having little-to-no agency, but as the story goes on, they come into their own.
Let’s look at Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit. A swarm of dwarves shows up, demands dinner, and then Gandolph tells Bilbo he’s needed for the adventure. Bilbo is a grumpy host and eventually kicks them out in the morning — but at the last second realizes he’ll regret having missed his chance, and follows the dwarves out of Hobbiton, joining their quest.
Pitfalls With Granting Characters Agency
But, it can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking your character has full agency, when in fact, they’re bound by gender or race tropes. For example, women typically have options when it comes to WHAT to wear, WHICH spouse, and HOW MANY children.
A TRICK FOR TESTING AGENCY PARITY: To test if a character has too much, too little, or just right parity, try mentally switching genders and/or race, and seeing if their choices seem too free or restrictive.
The tricky part about agency is that the decisions that your characters make have to be internally consistent with your understanding of the characters. However, you have to realize that this is one place where truth can be stranger-than-fiction–and more forgiving. In real life, people don’t always act internally consistent. But, in a novel, if you don’t set up their out-of-character decisions properly, you’re going to lose the reader. They’ll be thrown out of the story and might not pick it up again.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t let your characters surprise you. Often, if you feel like your characters are ‘fighting you’, this can lead to you learning or discovering new motivations or backgrounds to this character that you hadn’t thought out before. By letting the character realizations guide you, you can make your characters more 3-dimensional and write a better-rounded story.
With ensemble casts, it can be hard to deliver agency to all the characters in all the plot-threads. USE that. You can have the character without agency react to that loss and the consequences thereof.
But sometimes? What the plot really needs is for that character to die.
NOTE: As a side-tip, 5 characters is usually the max number of people you can focus on in a particular scene or conversation. Think about it in real life, that’s where discussions fall out into side conversations, or the group is having a very orderly, controlled meeting.
When Characters Lose Agency
Why is Agency so important? What happens when your character loses it?
Well, this is when your story starts following tropes and can become 2-dimensional. Motivations can become lacking and the world grows flat.
The world stops reacting to the characters and nothing they do can influence the world around them.
Agency Expectations Within Genres
Now, having agency isn’t the end-all and be-all of a good novel. Different genres have different levels of agency.
Mystery and suspense novels tend to have less agency (unless you’re talking a detective novel, ’cause those peeps go looking for trouble). There’s a crime and then the main character is compelled to figure out who–or what–is behind it.
Novels with an underlying horror element or sense of doomed-inevitability can slowly reveal that the main character(s) have less and less agency and were compelled to make what they thought were their own choices by inescapable machinations behind the scenes.
If you’ve ever watched the anime ‘Evangelion’, it seems like all the characters, except the main character, are strong characters, making decisions and trying to save the day. But, as you near the end of the series, you realize that all their actions and decisions were set up as to lead toward the inevitable ending that I won’t spoil here.
Make sure you know what sort of story you want.
Do you want the characters’ agency to grow or shrink as the story goes on?
By giving or taking away choice, you can influence the entire feel and direction of your story.
These notes come from the Balticon 52 panel, “Writing Characters With Agency”, featuring writers/panelists John Walker, Jennifer Brehl, Ada Palmer, DL Wainright, and moderated by Bugsy Bryant.