Character Agency and Why It MattersAug 21, 2022
‘Character agency’ in fiction is used to describe the ability a character has to take action to affect the events of the story.
It’s often used in a negative sense. Rejection letters may refer to the ‘lack of agency’ of the main character as the reason a literary agent passes on a submission. It’s become quite a fashionable phrase to explain why a story’s just not working, so any writer aiming to get published will want to consider whether their main character is missing out on their full potential for ‘agency’.
Where does character agency go missing?
In an era concerned with power and abuse of power, having the capacity to make choices, affect events, and drive outcomes is a hot topic in the literary world. In the #MeToo era, and when women tend to read more than men, the issue of female agency matters. But sometimes, writers face the problem of a female main character who is denied agency.
In historical fiction, the female lead is often someone to whom things ‘happen’. Fantasy fiction faces a similar challenge. Due to the epic scale of the genre, characters of all genders often find themselves at the mercy of huge political and magical forces beyond any normal person’s control, and female characters seem to particularly suffer from being drowned under a wave of plot. Even in the ever-popular genres of psychological suspense and crime fiction, things happen to women more than women happen to things.
In an era concerned with power and abuse of power, having the capacity to make choices, affect events, and drive outcomes is a hot topic in the literary world.
The female lead – often described in the title as a ‘girl’ even when she is an adult – may be hapless or winsome, a victim who is disempowered whether through a sense of self-sacrifice and duty, romantic naivety, drink problems or memory loss. She’s often ‘The Girl Who’... looks out of windows, sits on trains, and narrates the exciting or gruesome events as they unfold without her involvement being very necessary.
Character agency in crime and suspense fiction
It’s arguable that regardless of gender, the lack of agency in the character who is the eyes of the reader, from whose point of view the story is told, is necessary to the mechanics of a suspense plot.
They act as our ‘avatar’. And fair enough! The problem of the lead character’s lack of agency in these genres is counterbalanced by the strong story driver of the whodunnit. That’s why the blending of historical fiction with the whodunnit is such a winning combination.
But it’s not just in these genres we see a lack of agency from our main character.
Character agency in Up Lit
We meet Ove in Fredrick Backman’s A Man Called Ove living a routine existence. He measures out his coffee the same way every day and is reduced to checking the door handle on his garage three times daily, after which he tours the guest parking area. Hardly an adventurous, proactive existence.
It’s a hallmark of the genre that a single lonely soul is defeated and it takes a team to get them to be an active participant in their lifetime. The author of Up Lit counteracts the dead weight of this lack of character agency with a catalogue of idiosyncratic habits and irascible and eccentric tendencies. This allows us to see characters happening to things, albeit on a miniature scale. Eccentricity is, after all, the business of holding very different standards to others.
Their world is minor and their activity is reserved to the small world of things they can affect. Ove kicking inanimate objects is not, after all, nothing. When it comes to adding character agency, there’s a clue here for writers in every genre.
It’s a hallmark of the genre that a single lonely soul is defeated and it takes a team to get them to be an active participant in their lifetime.
What character agency is
Agency is the power or means or wherewithal to change things in your favour, or in the direction of your want. But not every story allows for it, and many good stories, tragedies and comedies don’t give character agency a leading role.
Think not just of female heroines, but men caught in difficult circumstances and rendered powerless: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Being There by Jerzy Kozinski, Less by Andrew Sean Greer.
What character agency is not
It’s not as simple as your main character ‘wanting something’. But it’s worth taking a moment to consider this.
Don’t dodge what your main character wants. Putting that in place from the start of your story will make your writing life so much easier.
When I teach our Advanced Writing Course group, we read out the briefest of storylines for our novels-in-progress. It’s arresting how those whose stories have a main character who actively wants something from the opening sentence have a self-propelled plot. It’s as if we storytelling animals hunger after the wants of our hero. Those stories simply roll off the tongue (and on to the page).
Character agency begins with want
Very often, the underdog is the main character of a story. The story begins with them powerless, apparently without agency. Many novels begin with a main character recognising they don’t have agency. (The current bestselling novel Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus begins with the main character Elizabeth Zott declaring her life is over…)
A story is articulated by two things: what the main character wants (first half) and what the main character needs (second half).
I’m going to give you an example, using one of the bestselling novels of all time with 12 million copies sold since 2018. This will show how you can add agency to characters who don’t appear to have any. Even if the character’s circumstances preclude it, even if their lack of agency is essential to the story (*spoiler alert*). I will show you why the story has been such a big hit, too.
In Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, our main character Kya is abandoned by her family one by one. The most painful loss is that of her mother, and it happens in the first chapter. A small child of five when the story begins, a poor ‘marsh dweller’, literally barefoot and hungry, and a girl child too, she is undeniably a main character without agency.
Every dog has its day when it’s a long story. At the outset, it’s not a question of power, either physical or social, but compulsion. Desire. Want.
A story is articulated by two things: what the main character wants (first half) and what the main character needs (second half).
The author supplies what they need rather than what they want as a way of resolving the problem of the story.
What they want is located in the old world; what they need can be found in the new world or secondary world to which we’re heading. Your main character either travels to a new world or changes their world to be one that meets their deeper needs.
Begin with what they want
Sometimes what a main character wants is to remedy or restore a loss or lack of something fundamental to human wellbeing. So in Where The Crawdads Sing, our story starts with Kya wanting her mother, then her father’s affection. By one-fifth (literally 20%) of the novel’s passing, the false hope of having a primary caregiver fails. (Writers on our creative writing courses will understand the significance of False Hope.)
With no one in her childhood to care for her, nor friends, by her teens she wants a boyfriend, husband or lover. If our hero can’t affect or change things, they need strong, successive, iterative wants.
One simple essential thing after another.
Think of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs driving what characters want in the most classic form of storytelling, from folk and fairytale onwards through time. These fundamentals tell the reader our character is not greedy, but needy.
For drama on a grand scale, you may wish to underline the want – the yearning – by increasing its thrall or pall, making it loom larger and showing it as a longstanding want. You can show your readers how it’s essential to survival and shared by others, through the generations, or something that has been pledged or promised to the main character.
‘Want’ is the first commandment of storytelling
- You shall want
- You shall not receive
- You will have a vision of what you want, you will see it before you, out of your grasp
- You will dwell in a world that is lacking what you want
- Your world of lack will get the better of you, again and again
- You will move to get what you want
- You will be in error
- You will continue in error…
- The devil of your want will be your master
- Until you defeat the devil of your want to find what you need
Deprivation is the nursery of character agency
We are shown how challenging circumstances are mastered step by step with small acts of agency. In Where the Crawdads Sing, having nothing to eat, Kya learns to cook. Then she overcomes bullying at school, a nail through her foot, and her father’s violence, each time drawing strength from her small world, the marsh. Each obstacle is overcome.
Successive wants propel a story in which a character has no agency. As I show in the Advanced Writing Course, storytelling requires the magic trick of showing the main character and the reader the image of what they want, then taking it away, as frequently as possible. This makes a story page-turning.
Successive wants propel a story in which a character has no agency.
But wants can only take us so far (to the middle maybe, but possibly not beyond). Especially when lack of agency bites back…
We are shown that Kya does not possess a single thing which might endow her with the means to have friends or lovers; worse, she is ostracised and reviled as ‘the marsh girl’.
World-mastery on the small scale
However, as the story develops we are shown the antidote to lack of character agency in fiction: world-mastery. Kya is an expert on her world, the authority on a world in miniature.
World-mastery, being the keeper of the dolls’ house, knowing the smallest details of their setting, their cell or room (such as in Room by Emma Donoghue) confers agency on a disempowered or powerless ‘victim’. Inspired by the Fritzl tragedy, Room tells the story of Ma, who was abducted as a teenager and kept in a ‘room’ in a shed for 7 years. She’s become the ma of Jack, who’s now five years old and has experienced nothing but the room in which they’re kept.
In Where the Crawdads Sing, Kya’s mastery, knowledge, expertise and command of the world such as she has, though valueless to others, gives her the opportunity to affect the lives of others and reach a wider public. If a character cannot rule the big wide world, we are shown in fiction that agency begins in the crucible of the setting. Mastery of the crib.
Once skills have been acquired, some mastery or husbandry assumed by the main character, then they will have to face down their want. Often we see what they want turns on them in a surprising way. So it is that the man she wants turns on Kya from the midpoint and her romance with Chase undoes her. She becomes the quarry, hunted by the men of the area with only her mastery of her world, her deep knowledge of the marsh, keeping her free.
If a character cannot rule the big wide world, we are shown in fiction that agency begins in the crucible of the setting. Mastery of the crib.
Finally, we discover that what she needs is the world she mastered. In the end, her need to be in the world of nature that raised her and met her needs turns out to be more vital than what she wanted (the love and care of another human being).
The other way to character agency
But there’s another route to agency, setting aside ‘want’. It’s a jaw-droppingly scenic route, which begins with the cliffside view. Kick your story off with the main characters in one hell of a spot.
This is the reverse side of ‘want’. You’ve created a situation they want to get out of. It’s a fabulous way to get a story going, as it comes jam-packed with kinetic energy, motion and conflict. Our writing coach Jack Jordan wrote a blog on the use of the dilemma in fiction as a way to create tension.
Raymond Carver begins the story ‘Fever’, from his later collection Cathedral, with this opening:
Carlyle was in a spot.
—Raymond Carver, ‘Fever’
This is Raymond Carver, so we don’t get any hubris there with a stray adjective. A ‘spot’, a problem, a dilemma forces agency upon your protagonists and charges the story with tension.
I think a little menace is fine to have in a story. For one thing, it’s good for the circulation. There has to be tension, a sense that something is imminent, that certain things are in relentless motion…
When you kick off with a bang, you won’t end with a whimper. When you make things hard for your characters, you give them the gift of action and agency, regardless of whether they want to play or not.
Just add agency
So not all main characters have agency, and many of the all-time classics feature characters who don’t have agency at the outset; the drama turns on their growth or development to assume agency.
What contemporary publishers, literary agents and readers want is for character agency to be present within the novel over a sustained period. We may say that a tragedy is a story in which agency is present in the first half and lost in the second (from Macbeth to Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee). But for most fiction, from literary to adventure fiction and thrillers, we see the main character’s agency prevail during the second half.
To recap, what a main character wants can drive the story in the first half. If it’s historical fiction or a fantasy novel, or one in which your main character experiences circumstances which entirely preclude their agency, then you can consider the strategies we offer in the Advanced Writing Course:
- Inner agency: a thrusting inner voice with wants and needs vocal in the internal narrative to which we’re privy (use very close third or first for narrative voice/perspective)
- Borrowed agency: another character close by with a very driven agenda which sweeps them up (think Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice)
- Supplied agency: give them a problem, raise the stakes and throw bigger rocks at them which means their very survival requires them to act, even if they’re passive before
- Surrogate agency: the strategies of the disempowered, namely manipulating or affecting others, with words and the arts (even the dark arts!), to act for them
Please avoid melodrama, please I beg of you, you’re making me weep here, I am crying tears.
Melodrama is unmerited emotion. It cuts two ways, and applies both to your character and your reader. Our feeling for a character has to be earned and deserved. So you must allow us to feel they deserve our sympathy over time. That’s character-driven storytelling in a nutshell.
No, you may not have them crying on the first page. We just don’t care. The first principle of caring is knowing someone. Acquaint us, please, with who they are.
Our feeling for a character has to be earned and deserved. So you must allow us to feel they deserve our sympathy over time. That’s character-driven storytelling in a nutshell.
Next comes feeling they are deserving, by liking them. Sure, have them save the cat by all means. But showing them being reticent, modest, courageous, or hardworking are all good strategies that don’t require testing on animals.
Similarly, we will sympathise with what they want once we know and like them. Relax, writers. Let it grow.
Bluffer’s guide to storytelling and character agency
- Show us what they want (now you see it, now you don’t). Or give them a problem.
- Show us why they don’t have agency, or make the problem harder.
- Show us what’s missing, what they want, or the problem again and again.
- Send (more) adversity their way, and show us how they overcome adversity.
- At the midpoint, swap one problem for another problem, or what they want for what they need.
If you do one thing today after reading this, check you know and we (your readers) know what your main character wants, or that there’s a problem in play that they have to resolve. Then as you write, consider the matter of your main character developing more agency. Now you’re telling a story.
Founder at The Novelry
Louise Dean is the author of four novels and has been published by Penguin and Simon & Schuster among others.
Louise Dean has won the Betty Trask Prize and Le Prince Maurice Prize, been nominated for the Guardian First Book Prize, and longlisted for the Dublin International Literary Award and the Booker Prize. Her books have been deemed the top books of their year by the Guardian, the Observer and Publishers Weekly. She was also a finalist for the Costa Coffee 2020 Short Story Award.