Just What The Humping Heck Is “Character Agency,” Anyway?

Whenever I talk about character in storytelling — seriously, I’ll talk about this stuff with Target clerks, zookeepers, parking meters, carpenter bees — I frequently bring up the notion that, for me, good characters possess agency. And this, I often say, is one of the things that really matters in a so-called “strong female character” — not that she is a character who can bend rebar with her crushing breasts, but rather that she has agency within the story you’re telling.

Often when I talk about this in public, someone — maybe the zookeeper, maybe the parking meter — raises his hand and asks the question:

“Wait — what is agency, again?”

And it occurs to me I don’t know that I’ve ever defined my terms.

And that is a Naughty Wendig.

(The Naughty Wendig is also the gamboling goblin-like creature who will steal the teeth right out of your mouth if you throw cigarette butts or fast food containers out of open car windows. The Naughty Wendig is a vengeful spirit, also known for gobbling down human toes as if they are cheese doodles in recompense for your shitty behavior.)

(Oh, also? The Naughty Wendig is also the name of a tavern in D&D, a sandwich you can buy at various transdimensional delicatessens, a sex toy, a sex move, and a Japanese candy that squirts blood when you eat it. Please update your records.)

(Parenthetical asides are awesome.)

(Whee!)

(Okay, sorry, moving on.)

So, let’s talk a little bit about character agency and why a character needs it.

Character agency is, to me, a demonstration of the character’s ability to make decisions and affect the story. This character has motivations all her own. She is active more than she is reactive. She pushes on the plot more than the plot pushes on her. Even better, the plot exists as a direct result of the character’s actions.

The story exists because of the character. The character does not exist because of the story.

Characters without agency tend to be like little paper boats bobbing down a river of your own making. They cannot steer. They cannot change the course of the river. The river is an external force that carries them along — meaning, the plot sticks its hand up the character’s cavernous bottom-hole and makes the character do things and say things in service to the plot.

Because characters without agency are really just puppets.

It sounds easier said than done. In the writing of a story it’s common to find that you had these Ideas About The Story and the character appears to be serving those ideas — she is not driving the car so much as the car is driving her. And it’s doubly tricky when you write a story that has more than one character, which is to say, uhhh, nearly all stories ever. Because one character who has agency can dominate the proceedings and set too much of the pace, too much of the plot. Other characters lose their agency in response. For example: an antagonist puts into play a particularly sinister plot that forces all the other characters to react to it again and again, never really getting ahead of it. That’s not to say that reacting to events is problematic — just that reacting to events shouldn’t be passive. It shouldn’t be the character going another way just because the plot demands it. At some point reaction has to become action. It has to be the character getting ahead of the plot, ahead of the other characters. The power differential must shift.

And it’s the character who should be shifting it.

Look at your characters. Are they fully-formed? Ask yourself: if the character in the middle of your story went off and did something entirely different from what you planned or expected — something still in line with the character’s motivations — would that “ruin the plot?” That might be a sign that the plot is too external and that the character possess too little agency.

Characters without agency feel like props.

Worse, they’re boring as watching a bear wipe its ass on a pine tree.

(Okay, that’s pretty comical for the first 30 seconds, but then it gets boring.)

(I’m just saying.)

Characters with agency do things and say things that create narrative. Plot is spun out of the words and actions of these characters. And their words and actions continue to push on the plot created by other characters, because no character has agency in a vacuum.

(Those who play tabletop roleplaying games understand this in a practical way, having embodied characters at the level of agency. If you’ve ever rolled bones with an RPG, you know when you’ve got a gamemaster who railroads the plot versus one who puts the characters into a situation and lets the plot spin out of their actions and reactions around that situation.)

What gets interesting about a story isn’t when some Big External Plot is set into motion. What’s interesting is when the agency possessed by multiple characters competes. This push-and-pull of character motivations, decisions and reactions is how stories that matter are created. Because they’re stories about people, not about events, and people are why we read stories. Because we are all made of people. Our lives are made of us and all the other people around us. We live in a people-focused world because we’re solipsistic assholes who think that unless we behold it and create it, it probably doesn’t matter. And in stories, that’s pretty much true.

Stories must be made of people.

And that can only really happen when those people — those characters — have agency.

(Because after all, your characters shouldn’t be parenthetical to their own story, should they?)

(Whee!)

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