5.3 CHARACTER AGENCY
Driving the plot via character actions/choices
We’ve all read stories where the main character is swept along by a breathtaking, intricate, fast-paced plot, only to finish and realise we feel hollow and flat, and the characters are unmemorable. It’s likely that the reason we’re feeling that is exactly because the main character has been swept along by the plot. We’ve just met a main character who has little or no agency in their story – the story happened to them.
When we talk about agency in fiction, we’re talking about how the protagonist should be the thing that drives the plot, and not vice-versa. Think of your plot as a beautiful, shiny (electric) car. It’s got the wheels, steering and engine that will get you from A to B, and it’s also got all the fancy little things that make a journey more pleasant; cup holders, sat-nav, a good music-playing set-up. But all of those things mean nothing if there’s no one to actually drive the car. Without a driver, it’s just a lump of metal and plastic. That’s where your protagonist comes in. It should be their actions, their choices, and their desires and goals that drive the story onwards. You are not the driver of the plot – your main character is.
Developing character and plot together
Characters without agency react instead of acting. This means they’re often surprised by and unprepared for the turns the plot takes, because they have no influence over them. (That’s not to say your main character should never be surprised; it’s absolutely fine if a twist shocks them, BUT that twist should come because of another character’s agency – a decision they’ve made, an action they’ve undertaken to achieve their goal.)
You might have heard writers talk about their main characters not behaving the in the ways they’d expected. Maybe you’ve even thought that’s a bad thing. Well, I can tell you this: what those naughty characters have is agency! They’re not just making their way through the plot, hitting all the key points you’ve decided on in the right order, instead they’re developing and growing and changing in response to what’s happening, and that’s affecting what they do, even to the point of making them try to act against your desires. If you ever find yourself needing to wrangle your characters into doing something just to fit into the plot you’ve developed, then you could be robbing the character of their agency. If the action they’re trying to undertake will bring them closer to their goal, then maybe it’s the plot you need to wrangle a little, and not the character. That’s not to say you need to rewrite your entire plot – that’s a sign your character has too much agency (yes – it’s a thing. Those books you’ve read where at times it feels like nothing is happening? That’s often because a character’s actions are overriding the plot).
If this sounds like a delicate balancing act, it’s because it is! Writing stories is baking, not cooking; you can’t just throw anything in the pot and expect it to look like the picture. You have to take care to add the right amount of ingredients in the right order.
Character and plot should develop together, in tandem, acting to push and pull the story into shape. They should grow and change in response to each other, working symbiotically together to create the story. Your characters actions and words need to be the thing that brings the plot to life, and their behaviour and choices should continue to push against and challenge the plot at every possible moment, until the very end.
The story is what happens.
The plot is why it happens.
The characters are how it happens.
Suggested writing task
The easiest way to test whether your protagonist has agency, or much agency is to pick out a few scenes, ideally ones with other characters, and at key points in your story. Imagine the scenes unfolding, but that your main character is under a spell. They can’t move, or speak. No one knows they’re under a spell, instead they’re getting on with the business of the story, assuming everything is fine. Can you make the scene unfold in the same way by letting another character pick up the slack? Can another character get you from A to B without messing up the plot? If so, then your protagonist is lacking agency – they’re not the person driving the story and this is something you need to address. Remember – your protagonist is the main character; the story shouldn’t be able to exist without them!
Agency for all characters
One final note: it’s not just your main characters who need to act with agency. Your antagonists and any characters who spend a lot of time on page need to have agency too. Just as your protagonist should always be actively working to achieve their goals, so should your supporting cast. If your supporting casts’ only goal is to aid your protagonist in hitting the plot points, then they’re lacking agency too and won’t make a positive impact on your readers. Their reasons for their actions need to be personal; their own motivations need to factor into their decisions.