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!)

57 comments

  • I hear tell that these are also called ‘active characters’. Of course, we all know that if they truly were active, they wouldn’t wait to be called ‘active’, they would demand it. With action. YMMV.

  • June 3, 2014 at 10:20 PM // Reply

    I think a good movie that highlights this particular aspect is Johnny Depp’s, ‘Nick of Time’. A father whose child is kidnapped in order to force him to kill a politician. He seems an agent of the plot but pushes his way into the story for his own ending.

  • June 3, 2014 at 10:54 PM // Reply

    This is one of the best explanations (and I’m not talking about parenthetical’s either). It makes we want to re-evaluate all of my WIP and determine which I have. Thanks for the inspiring words mixed with amazing entertainment.

  • Does anyone have tips about showing a character’s change over the course of a story? So, for example, the decisions she would make at the end of a story are different from the decisions she would make at the beginning?

    • The movie-maker’s trick of showing her in the same(ish) situation once at the beginning and once at the end can work. I think in movies it’s recommended that the beginning and ending images be opposite across whatever the dimension of change is. Your mileage may vary, and some measure of subtlety can help people not feel beaten over the head with it, but those are tricks for this.

      Of course, you’ve got to do the work through the middle, too–showing how the characters way of being is failing them, showing the impetus to change and her foot-dragging about changing, and then the gradual signs that something has shifted, and so forth.

  • I was just complaining about lack of character agency in the recent storm of fantasy movies we seem to be gobbling up lately (The Hobbit trilogy, most of the Harry Potters, even Disney’s popular-but-I-don’t-understand-why Frozen). Just because there are magic dragons and stuff doesn’t mean characters shouldn’t do something for some reason that makes sense! This post is a great reminder not only to writers in general but to Hollywood specifically: Please forget the CGI for a moment and give us motivated characters (men or women) who make things happen!

    • I’m confused by your objection to Frozen. Maybe Cristoph helping Anna seemed slightly forced, but at least they gave him a good reason for wanting to do so (paying back the ruined sled). Anna annoys people precisely because they think she displays too much agency and is “pushy” (which people also don’t like to see in female characters — god forbid women stick by their convictions and make their own choices!). She didn’t HAVE to make a scene at the party or go after her sister; she chose to do those things because of reasons that make sense to the character. Even Elsa chose to run away and more importantly, chose to stay hidden in the ice castle rather than just going along with what the other characters wanted. Whatever your objections to Frozen are (and it’s the popular thing right now to say you don’t like it), you can’t legitimately claim that the characters have no agency. It seems almost more like you’re objecting to the fantasy genre as being all flashy showiness, but that’s a completely different issue. (Which I personally disagree with but hey.)

  • June 4, 2014 at 3:00 AM // Reply

    I get it.
    But if you have a big plot tsunami and none of your main characters caused that Biggie they can only react and their reactions will be governed by their character or may alter their character. Yes?

    I like to write plots that include big battles or natural events that put my characters in hard situations. I believe this is a ‘traditional’ type of story telling which perhaps conflicts with a ‘modern’ style where everything seems to result from character action. I don’t go along with the idea that the trad. style is inferior.

    • I think stories vary on how much the main character is the thing that kicks it off. There’s usually some external stimulus and some character reaction to it, but in some stories one is larger, and in other stories the other is. In Lolita for instance, all Humbert Humbert had in terms of inciting incidents was the opportunity to kidnap a child–the rest was all his motivation driving it. In Lord of the Rings, the stuff going on is much bigger than the people we follow–but each of them still has their moment to step up to the plate and make their choice, and that’s when we find out who they are. I suspect the choices characters make and their reasons for making them are still the most important thing, even when the plot is an avalanche falling on their heads.

      • And the thing the person above me mentioned that I forgot to, where agency comes in–those choices need to *be* the plot: Frodo saying “yeah, fine, I’ll throw it in the volcano,” and Boromir saying “gimme the ring,” and Aragorn finally saying “I guess I have to actually lead this thing.”

  • Oh, GREAT, Chuck. All my characters have now assumed agency, have donned trenchcoats, and are out solving mysteries and breaking up international spy rings.

    Not THAT kind of agency, characters! *sigh*

  • I think in D&D as well as books or movies or anything else, some of this comes down to awesome world-building. If you only really know a tiny sliver of your world, the protagonist really can’t do anything because you can’t imagine what will happen if they choose something else. My best GM had been working on a world for over 15 years so had all sorts of cities, bad guys, plots, NPCs, etc. all over the place and we really could just choose to do whatever we wanted. But the GM could let us do that because he already had it all laid out in maps, NPC character sheets, back stories going back over a decade, and so forth.

  • I agree to an extent with the concept of “agency.” However, guys like Elmore Leonard made a living (and reputation) out of having characters who said “Huh. Well, I’ll go along with this and see what happens.” Novels like Touch, Stick, and Swag are great precisely because they have protags who are swept along in the schemes of other people. But they’re probably exceptions to the rule.

  • “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.”

    Thus the question, “Do you want a Naughty Wendig?” must be considered VERY carefully.

  • “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.”

    Yes, this, especially this. I’ve learned so much about writing, and character, from gaming. I wish I’d cut my teeth on it, instead of only discovering D&D in college.

  • Great stuff, Chuck, I will be attending one of your presentations at the writers conference in British Columbia, hoping to get more of this good advice, as my tendency is to create characters and let them dictate their actions based on what I give them as their motivations, which does make them reactive (this also may be a comment on how I view my own life, which is more troubling)

      • At the risk of letting the cat out of the bag… Mr. Wendig will be at the Surrey Writers Conference in October according to their website http://www.siwc.ca/presenters/author. That is how I found his blog and works. It is a great conference, Jack Whyte, Diana Gabaldon, Anne Perry, and many others are always there as well. He is on a panel for a session called ‘Social Media Smackdown’ and presenting workshops called ‘Theme: Wait! Where are You Going? Come Back!’ and of course ‘Creating Kick-Ass Characters’.
        I hope to get to them all.
        So smoph you are a fellow Canuck in BC? That is awesome. If you are interested in swapping critiques let me know my email is csteeksma at yahoo.ca.

        • Thanks CJ! I am in BC, but I’m actually an Aussie living here for a time. I don’t have anything full fleshed out for critiquing at the moment, but happy to be of help.

          • No worries, mate ;-) I have a friend who moved to Australia with his Aussie wife, one day hope to visit them there. Hope you’re enjoying your stay here.

  • I believe this post is patently wrong while at the same time it makes a good point.

    Let me quote the offending lines:

    “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.”

    Let me point out that last line. That is 100% wrong.

    Lets take Star Wars or Lord of the Rings or Saving Private Ryan as examples. None of those epic stories are plots created by character choices.

    What makes a good story, what makes a good rpg game is very much character agency. But that can never create the plot!

    The example of Star Wars ep.4 shows us the external plot interrupting a characters agency in order to further a greater story – When Luke finds out Vader captured his friends on Cloud City and he is posed with the choice of staying to train or leaving to save his friends. Had he stayed – the plot would have not developed. Nor would the character developed. We would miss the entire scene where Vader announces he is Luke’s father – massive impetus for character AND plot development. No, this author is suggesting a flawed idea.

    The truth is – There is a required tandem effort by both plot and character.

    It would be better to say:

    Character agency must work to further the plot provided with enough flexibility and intimacy to develop both the character and plot.

    It would in fact be impossible to run a cohesive and meaningful rpg game by letting each of multiple characters drive their own agendas. Each person would attend to their own needs and interests, having little to nothing to do with each other self-created plots (like how real life is and how my day’s agenda has little to nothing to do with your day).

    At very least in that case, ALL characters would be forced to agree to a joint effort in all agendas and actions for the sake of group interaction – forcing some characters to go along with agendas that are not their own – just like a plot hook might do!

    Therefore there is no way to run a game without the unifying element of an external plot.

    However, it is worth emphasizing – character agency; their freedom to choose how they further the plot is VERY important.

  • I saw an interview with Lauren Bacall once where she spoke of her first years acting in front of a camera. I remember she said the script called for her to answer a knock at the door, so when the director said Action! she walked over to the door and delivered her line.

    Sounds simple enough right?

    The director said Cut! and took her aside. “What was your character doing when the door knocked?”

    Even in stories that have natural disaster plots, like Twister or even Independence Day (Aliens count as a natural disaster, yes?) the characters are in the middle of living their lives when said tornado or said race of supreme space dudes interrupt them. So when the outside force spins these lives out of control, the agency of the characters then should be about conquering their fears in relationship to the destruction.

    So yes the plot might be driving the EVENTS but the Characters still need to control their actions and experience some kind of growth.

    If they’re getting blown about in a house in the middle of a twister and doing nothing but screaming for twenty minutes, you got yourself a problem. Drop the house on the witch and get cracking down the yellow brick road already.

    In Lauren Bacall’s aforementioned case, Lauren discussed options with the director and it was decided that her character was brushing her hair. I think they even sent the property master for a hair brush. And the scene played out more organically.

    That’s my two cents By the by,. I like the term agency, so if you don’t mind, I’m going to borrow it in my own writer’s dictionary. You sparked another great and informative discussion, Chuck!

    • Actors call this “previous life” or sometimes “outside life.” Actors in a scene don’t want to look like actors in a scene. They want to look like people living their lives. And people don’t sit around waiting for things to happen. Even when they are sitting around, they are usually doing something–playing a game on their phone, chewing gum, combing their hair.

      Ditto characters in a book. They aren’t sitting around waiting for the writer to give them plot. They are busy living their lives.

  • I am filing this under the “Totally What I was Needing to Hear Today” category. When I read this, a thousand light bulbs went off, angels sang…or it might have been the roar of the toilet flushing next to my cubicle. But still…this is exactly what I needed to help work through my current story. This is gold! GOLD I TELL YOU!

  • I am a lurker. This is the first time I have ever commented. I just thought that after having sat down to write at nap-time/writing-time with a head full of homeschool/screaming toddler, asked – in aforementioned head – ‘do you have anything for me Chuck?’, pulled up your blog – yet again, and seen that you totally delivered, I should finally say Thank You. Love your blog. Love your books. Thanks for doing what you do.

  • This is a particularly interesting–and problematic–issue in biographical historical women’s fiction. The agency historical women possessed within the framework of their own life stories is sometimes extremely limited. It helps to portray women who had the power to move events rather than react to them, but that’s a very small pool because most historical women simply didn’t have agency with a capital A.

    Another thing I suppose a historical writer can do is try to specifically tailor the plot to encompass things the heroine can push against and change with the decisions she makes, but readers expect that if you’re going to tell a story about a woman caught up in major world events that those world events will be part of the plot whether or not your heroine has any control over them.

    Any additional thoughts or advice with this?

    • I read a book called Princesses Behaving Badly. It was a series of short biographies of princesses, presented in an engaging, humorous way. The author gave historical and cultural context for each princess and discussed her actions within that framework. It was very enlightening. She also treated with the biographies of women who were punished for taking agency, or who never took agency; there was a very varied mix of princesses. And a lot of those women become exponentially more badass when you consider how it would have been harder for them to take agency within their social roles.

      Another great read is ‘Bess of Hardwick: Empire Builder.” She was a very remarkable person.

  • Good advice. It’s too easy to have characters be reactive instead of active. While reading this article, I thought about a few things I could tweak in my current project to make my character less “going along with things” and more “making them happen”.

  • I definitely needed to read this today, Chuck. I kept wondering what was wrong with one of my main characters. This post hit the nail on the head; so far, this character has only reacted to things that happen to her, instead of being proactive about her own life and where the other character is leading her.

    As always, thought-provoking, well-written, and chuckle-inducing. (I love parenthetical asides!)

  • June 5, 2014 at 1:13 PM // Reply

    Characters can decide NOT to act. They can ignore a chance that comes up or ignore a danger. They can decide to just walk away, which may be to their detriment or to their benefit. I like to think that agency does not always have to equal capital-A Action. Sometimes agency is subtle, and big things can result on down the line from a lousy choice your character makes.

    I really like this blog post Chuck.

  • That’s why I am a pantser. Because once I start to get to know my characters they wander off piste and do all kinds of shit I didn’t expect. Which means that pantsers are people who are pathologically unable to analyse the crap out of life and think miles ahead, and planners are able to see the characters buggering off in advance and when it happens it doesn’t faze them because they’ve already thought it into the plot… Or something. Loved this post.

    Cheers

    MTM

  • As a writer, this is great advice. As a reader, I have to offer a slightly different take on it. This is great and all, but personally, the most powerful and satisfying character arcs for me start out with passive characters who become active by the end. Sometimes (usually) they have a reactive phase in the middle. But seeing someone who is completely passive (especially if it’s a female character) take agency and become an active character is far more interesting, exciting, and relatable than a character who’s already developed to the point where s/he takes agency all the time right from the start. I feel like I get to see less development there. But maybe this stems from my fondness for YA, which typically traces a passive-to-reactive-to-active coming of age arc. But I’ve also seen this in adult fiction. It explains my feelings about Sansa vs. Arya Stark in ASOIF/GoT. Sansa starts out passive and gradually becomes more active with more agency. As of the last book, she’s in her reactive, starting to become active stage; if this arc continues, she will become a more developed, active character and a strong woman instead of the shallow little girl she was at the beginning. Arya on the other hand starts out active and just becomes an empty vehicle for plot, a flat character who surrenders her agency. People like Arya because the plot she obediently follows along with is cool, but she’s a very boring character.

    The thing is, though, characters who start out as active are usually insta-likeable. Characters who begin as passive or even reactive take more time to develop and more patience on the reader’s part. So, how do you convince a reader to stick around with your character who isn’t instantly awesome and agency-y and stuff right off the bat? Or, in your opinion, is such a character not even worth writing?

  • June 8, 2014 at 10:53 AM // Reply

    I came to realize that many of my earlier characters were nothing but b actors filling the screen creating an illusion that something was actually going on. Nice article.

  • Perfect timing on this entry, Chuck. I am in the revision phase and this is exactly what I need to keep in the forefront of my mind during the process.

  • I feel it’s worth pointing out that the need for agency grows as the story progresses. Early on, the character can be buffeted about, but by the end of the first act, the character should be taking action.

  • I get stuck on this all the time. Some of my favorite classic characters are sleuths: Jessica Fletcher, Columbo, Poirot. They rarely have anything invested in why they are on a path to get more information & ultimately solve the crime especially in the cases of Murder, She Wrote where Jess wasn’t hired for those reasons; she was a writer who was pulled into cases. I attended the recent MWA University in Philly and several of the speakers taught about how things should be done with characters & the big reveal ending — all things that were not the methods of Agatha Christie. I guess, my point is that I’m confused by things that are classic vs modern.

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