Every first draft I’ve ever written has had agency problems. Which sounds like a bunch of guys in suits with dark glasses should be pulling up in a black van and hustling my draft into the back, but it’s nowhere near that exciting. In fact, it’s kind of the opposite of exciting.
Agency is, basically, your character’s ability to affect the plot in pursuit of their goals. It’s something I think a lot of writers struggle with, and I think it can be especially difficult in fantasy because a lot of our favorite tropes steal agency from the main character. Fantasy tends to have the plot kicked off by a villain doing Bad Things, and often that villain continues to drive the plot forward doing More Bad Things, and all our character can do is run around putting out fires and trying frantically to stop Yet More Bad Things from occurring.
This feels pretty natural, right? For me, at least, when I first come up with a plot, it’s often a series of nasty surprises the characters must deal with. I love the “OH SHIT!” moments SO MUCH, and I often build my plot around those to some degree—and they can turn out to be some of the most intense moments in the book. But there are some problems that come with lack of agency.
One of the most important is that it undermines character. Moments of choice are vital to defining character; but if I’m too busy dodging assassins and following prophecies as if they were cake recipes, I’m not making any important decisions. Having goals and motivations is also central to character, but if all my goals are created for me by the villain (stay alive, save my friends, protect the village, etc), they don’t illuminate much about who I am, and what inner drives propel me forward.
For this reason, lack of agency also sabotages the story’s through line. The main character’s pursuit of their goals is the thread running through the entire story, the current that pulls the reader inexorably onward and keeps them turning pages. If our hero doesn’t have personally significant goals to actively pursue, and is just reacting to a series of events—no matter how exciting—the story falls flat between those events. Like, WOW, thank goodness we escaped those assassins! Now we’ll, uh, sit around drinking tea and talking about what a close call that was and how we wish we knew who was trying to kill us until the NEXT exciting surprise happens, I guess. (My first drafts are often SUPER GUILTY of this.) This drops the tension on the floor, leaving the reader with nothing to draw them onward.
So, okay, agency is important! How do you check whether your main character has it? Ask yourself these three questions, both in general and on a scene-by-scene level:
Does the character have a personally important goal (with something at stake and serious consequences if they fail to attain it)? This doesn’t even have to have anything directly to do with the main plot. Maybe the main plot is to defeat the dark lord, but what our hero really wants is to find her missing sister, or for her parents to finally accept her, or to show the world that her invisibility device can WORK, dammit, so they’ll never laugh at her again.
Are they taking actions to pursue that goal? We need to see them doing stuff to try to get what they want, and not just sitting on their hands hoping someone will hand it to them, or letting some mentor figure drag them along the path to victory.
Are the actions they’re taking having an effect on the plot? This doesn’t need to be the effect the character intends, mind you. Their plans can go horribly wrong, thereby saving you from a premature happy ending on page 75. Unexpected twists can derail or reroute their efforts, or their actions could even make things worse because they didn’t understand the true situation. But things should be different because they tried.
If you realize your character lacks agency in some or all of your book, don’t despair! Not only can you fix this, but fixing it often will take your book to the next level.
For instance, let’s say you have a plot point where your character gets captured. How the heck can getting captured be a result of them pursuing their goals? Well, maybe instead of getting captured when they’re jumped by kidnappers while walking down the street, they get captured when they’re in the midst of sneaking into the castle of Count Sardonico, looking for murder evidence, and WHOOPS he’s unexpectedly ready for them! Or someone in the party HAD to try to steal the thing behind the magical alarm wards, or there was this clue about your MC’s missing sister that she HAD to check out even though there were guards patrolling that area, etc…make it character-driven, so the choices your characters make are important. (Just make certain those choices are relatable and not plain old stupid. No one likes that guy who throws himself on the enemy’s swords because DRAMA.)
Or let’s say you need to drop a big stunning information bomb on your characters. (Your missing sister IS the dark lord! There is a traitor among you! Your entire world was MADE OF CHEESE all along!) Instead of having some mysterious figure swoop in and announce this, or having them stumble across the crucial info, have them obtain it in a hands-on way while pursuing their goals (even if it’s not the info they thought they were getting). Maybe they actively go spy on the bad guys to overhear their plans, or retrieve the ancient world-cheese artifact from antiquities smugglers, or trick the info out of the Dark Lord’s sinisterly charming lieutenant at a fancy party. It’s cooler if they have to work for it.
Some of my favorite moments in my own books have come from a realization that I needed to increase agency. It’s hard to give specific examples without getting spoilery…But for instance, there’s an, uh, decision Amalia makes at a party around the end of Chapter 4 in The Defiant Heir which has a huge effect on the course of the book. In my very first partial exploratory draft, this was a decision her mother made for her. But I quickly realized that it would be SO MUCH COOLER if she made it herself, and that one change made the entire book SO MUCH BETTER.
Obviously the antagonist’s actions are also still important, and it’s okay for our heroes to be caught completely flat-footed sometimes. But overall, it’s important to make sure our main characters are propelling the plot forward, not being dragged limply through it. Sometimes they may accidentally roll their Sisyphus boulder off a cliff instead of up the mountain (oops), or it may slip in their grasp and run them over as it tumbles back down the hill, but they need to keep trying. If Sisyphus takes a nap, the tension is gone, and we put down the story.
4 thoughts on “Let’s Talk Agency”
I found the draft of my first book improved dramatically when I realized that back-tracking, mistakes, detours and disasters make for a much better story than a steady progression toward the goal.
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Yes! The characters are a force that keeps pushing toward the goal, and then ALL THIS OTHER STUFF deflects and delays and blocks them, and that struggle is what makes the story. If the characters stop pushing or the Other Stuff isn’t there to derail that push, there’s no dramatic tension.
I once had to explain to a writer-friend I was beta reading for that the problem with her protagonist was the way that the plot essentially could have personified as government men in black and kidnapped them around the book and the effect would have been exactly the same.
The protagonist made no decisions she wasn’t forced into, took no initiative, and even though the plot itself was really interesting, I couldn’t invest because the protagonist wasn’t invested.
On the plus side, once we figured out how to re-frame everything so the protagonist was now pushing things forwards rather than be pulled along, it was a fun romp of a tale!
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This is a great post! Too often I read a book (or watch a movie) and you get the sense that the protagonists is just someone who life happens to instead of taking an active role in it. I notice it the most when there’s a romance involved and then you’re left to wonder if the romance will survive the “Perils of Pauline” constantly befalling them. But for the longest time I didn’t have the word to explain this and now I have it–agency! Thanks for that!
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