Today’s tip is just a short rundown to help you understand the concept of character agency a little more.
It’s one of those essential things to be aware of in writing that is often confused and misrepresented. This should set the record straight.
The problem comes because agency happens in at least two distinct and important levels.
The first one is within the plot arc. To make your plot work and fulfill the story contract (the promise of a satisfying story that you make to the reader), the protagonist (the central hero of your story) must be the one whose actions bring the story to its resolution: Harry Potter must defeat Voldemort; Andy Dufresne must be the one to bring down the corrupt Warden Norton; Ripley must be the one to blow the alien out of the airlock and into space.
And this is where the confusion comes in because the other distinct level at which agency has to happen is in every scene of the novel. Well, it doesn’t have to, but without it, your readers will soon lose interest in your character and their story.
But here’s the thing: at the scene level, agency is not about the actions of the hero, it’s about their decisions.
Let me give you a scenario.
Our hero has been trapped in a room with his wife and eight-year-old son. Water is flooding in, and the only way he’s able to save them is by closing a rusty valve. He struggles and heaves and just before the water reaches his son’s face he manages to turn it off.
Okay, that’s not a terrible scene, in its form, it’s one that we’ve probably seen in books and films before quite a lot. But it’s not great, it’s not really that dramatic – why?
What about this scene?
Our hero is in a hallway next to two rooms filling with water. In one of them is his son and in the other is his wife. He only has time to turn off one of the valves.
See, much more dramatic, The reason for this is it forces the hero to make a decision. And that’s what agency at the scene level means. It’s not the actions which count at all – it’s the choices the character makes.
Let’s put it to the test: can a scene be dramatic where the hero makes a choice but actually does nothing? Let’s see…
It’s the dead of night. Our hero is a thirteen year old boy. At his dad’s command he’s hiding in the backseat of a car, while his father is outside arguing with an armed gangster, who’s waving a gun at his dad.
The gangster steadies the gun. He’s going to fire. The boy sees his father’s pistol on the seat next to him. He could pick it up and save his father, but fear takes hold of him and he chooses to do nothing. He hears the gunshot from outside the car.
And this shows us the most essential point: even if a character has the choice to act but actually ends up doing nothing, they still have agency. With the rarest of exceptions, a character always has agency. You just need to make sure that their reasons are clear to the reader and that the choices they make have emotional integrity.
Till next time, go write!