I Finally Get “Character Agency”

Some things about writing you can’t get just from reading. You can get a lot out of reading, to be sure, but if you don’t know what you’re supposed to be looking for, then you might not learn a whole lot. Some writers pick up different areas more quickly than others. For example, I picked up grammar most easily, which is a double-edged sword because it means I may write clearly and concisely, but I find it difficult to inject “art” into my storytelling.

Others, I assume, pick up characterization, plot, conflict, and so forth more quickly. I say “assume” because I secretly hope that no one has it that easy.

I hate how many phrases and idioms and adages and specialized terms exist for writing and storytelling, and the term “character agency” is among these. It’s not that I don’t agree with its necessity; it’s that not enough people will actually explain what character agency is. I’m an arrogant SOB who will just grin and nod and pretend like I know exactly what you’re talking about if you say something about character agency.

Character agency is your character’s reason for being part of the story, for your character to want to do something, to have a goal, and to accomplish that goal because it affects them on a personal level.

I tried really hard a while back to relate this to video game characterization, but I decided to set it aside. Then Chuck Wendig wrote this illuminating article that said everything I wanted to and more on the topic. Things like this:

Your story is not a video game. In a video game, the protagonist is in effect the player. The player has agency by dint of holding the controller. But in a story, the character must have agency.

The reason this rings so true with me recently is because I actually quit reading a book partway through because of the main character’s lack of agency. I normally finish reading books, even if I put them aside for a while to read something else.

In this book that I put down, the main character is visited by a being that informs him of something that only he can do. He then gets dragged along by the plot. He’s told to do this, so he does it; he’s told to do that, and he does it. He does whatever he’s told and only rarely makes his own decisions – and even when he does, the results that further the plot seem more like an accident than a direct result of his own intervention.

His goals are the goals that others set to him. They aren’t even goals – they’re orders. He’s the reluctant hero who shows more compliance than reluctance. I got about two-hundred pages in before I finally got tired of his crap.

The story’s world was interesting, but without an interesting character with goals, someone I can care about and worry about, the setting can’t save the story. At least not for me. Different readers read differently.

The same day I put that story down, I picked up another one with a character who was given a great deal of characterization in the opening chapters, whose personal goals and convictions were clear early on, and I finished it a few days later. The difference? I cared about what happened to the character, if he achieved his goals and how he did it.

I’m definitely guilty of giving characters a lack of agency as well. I’ve focused too much on the setting and the plot that I wanted to happen and forgotten to give the characters a reason to give a damn. They were just actors playing out the things that I wanted to happen, and they had no stake in the story, aside from the fact that I wanted them to do the things I made them do. Dance, puppets!

Now I know how to fix at least this area of my writing.

This revelation about character agency has also given me the words to articulate why I find it so much harder to read some stories more than others. I like to count how many pages I have until the end of a chapter or book, and sometimes I’m excited when I only have fifty pages left, and sometimes I wish there were more. When a book is good, reading the final page should be bittersweet.

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