Hello, Write Owls! Welcome to Day 10 of Storytelling 101. Today we’re talking about character agency.
Agency is a character’s willingness and ability to be proactive in their lives. When a character has a problem and they’re actively working to solve it, they’re showing agency. When a character has a problem and they’re not doing anything about it, they’re not showing agency. Characters with agency tend to be more likable and engaging than characters without. Would you rather watch a character who has the proactivity to deal with problems, or would you rather watch a character sit and cry about them hoping someone else will solve them?
Characters can get stuck and ask other characters for help solving their problem. That does not affect their agency. By actively seeking out assistance, your character is still demonstrating their ability to deal with the problem.
Maybe your character is in a situation where there isn’t much they can do about their problem. For example, your character could be locked in the deepest, darkest dungeon in the scariest castle in the land. They may have no way whatsoever to get themselves out of their cell. What do they do about it? Do they spend all their waking hours brainstorming ways out of their predicament, no matter how far-fetched? Or do they give up?
Agency is more about acting than reacting. Characters can be active without being proactive. Sometimes life forces people to deal with problems. Your main character should be actively making decisions about what’s happening in the book, but they can’t make every decision. There has to be balance between acting and reacting; and if one character makes all the decisions, then the other characters don’t get to have agency (Donne).
Not all characters have to have agency. Sometimes you have a character who isn’t proactive. That’s okay. Maybe that’s part of who they are as a person. Maybe their arc is learning to be more active. Just be careful about how you write characters who lack agency because your readers may not be willing to stick with them. Maybe they have a crippling fear that prevents them from getting the thing they want more than anything else in the world. Show them wishing they weren’t afraid, so they can achieve their goal. Show them gradually fighting their fear, or put them in a situation where they have to face it whether they want to or not.
One thing to watch out for is agency with female characters. Female characters are typically portrayed as passive (not proactive). Because of the damaging continuation of this portrayal, it’s important for your female characters to have agency. Women are perfectly capable of making decisions, too (Donne, Moreci).
Readers like seeing characters with agency, so those are the basics you need to know about it. If you have any questions about these topics, please leave them in the comments; and I’ll try to answer them either as a reply or in my Q&A on Saturday.
Feel free to answer these in the comments if you want to chime in!
1) Do you have a favorite character who is really proactive?
2) Can you think of any good characters who aren’t proactive?
Donne, Alexa. “Character Agency and Growth.” YouTube, uploaded by Alexa Donne, 17 June 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VVwdp4KPWk0
Moreci, Jenna. “All About Character Agency – Tips for Writing Active Characters.” YouTube, uploaded by Writing with Jenna Moreci, 19 June 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FmLsBz1JFcc