History Versus Destiny: On Giving Characters Agency In Narrative

The workshop I gave this past weekend was about characters — specifically, how you make characters become architects of narrative rather than part of the architecture. Meaning, they build the house around them as they move through it. They design their space by making choices. They decorate. They are like earthworms chewing dirt and excreting plot behind them.

That’s right. I said it.

Your characters are best when they’re PLOT-POOPERS.

Crawling through the dirt.

Poopin’ plot as they go.

Or something, shut up, don’t @ me.

The point is that, as storytellers — specifically when we’re telling stories in the genre space — we can at times be a little over-reliant upon building the world (aka, the house) and then hastily shoving characters into it instead of letting characters lead the way.

And when asked to further explain this during the workshop, I came up with a suggestion to think about the dichotomy this way, as a manifestation of:

History versus Destiny.

Destiny, in this context, is a thing you cannot escape. It is a framework of mythic narrative that the character does not choose and is, ultimately, a prison — whether we’re talking a literal destiny in the context of the story or an enforced plot structure from the storyteller, it’s effectively a trap. (/Ackbarred)

History, on the other hand, is a thing that people make up as they go. What I mean is, in the truest sense, history is a thing you create for yourself and your world. We may view history as predesigned, but that’s only because it involves us looking back on it in reflection, but while it feels passive, it was active when a person helped to make it. Alexander Hamilton, as our largest historical-figure-slash-pop-culture-crossover, was not destined for shit. He carved his name on the bedrock of American history, changing fate instead of falling prey to it. (Now there’s an argument there too that he falls prey to a certain kind of destiny, but I’d argue that’s literally untrue and serves more as a literary device of him engineering his own downfall, which is a feature of the best tragedies. The difference here being he as a character and an actual historical figure created this for himself rather than the storytellers [Lin-Manuel Miranda and, I guess, American Jesus?] creating a paradigm for him and then forcing him into it.)

Point being, you can over-design a world and over-construct a plot — which threatens the agency of the characters in that world.

And to remind you, this is how I presently define character agency, as seen in this post:

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.

Multiple characters with agency creates an opportunity for a lot of interesting drama and conflict — which is exactly what you want in a good story. What you don’t want is a lot of characters feeling like, no matter who they actually are as characters, they have been given a role and a fate as dictated by plot: aka, a destiny. And again, I don’t necessarily mean a destiny in the world of the story, I mean a destiny outside the narrative, one levied by you, the storyteller, to force them into the plot you’ve created.

In a roleplaying game context, think of how a subpar dungeon master might overly try to control the narrative. Five players create five adventurers in a tavern, and the DM lets them know, “You hear the roar of a dragon somewhere near, burninating the countryside with his fire breath.” The DM then leans back, confident the players will have their characters run out into the countryside with their swords and scepters drawn, but of course, people are like cats, they’re utterly uncontrollable, and so instead the players say, “Our characters have devices that we will remain inside, and we board up the doors and windows and drink a lot of Goblin Ale and we fight the orcs by the bar who have been giving us the literal stink-eye all night.”

Now, a a bad DM here cleaves to destiny and says, but that’s not the story that I, the mighty Dungeon Master, created for you, and finds some way to force them outside to fight the dragon. He keeps pushing and pushing until they have no choice but to address the dragon’s scourge. This is, of course, the act of “railroading,” and can be done both at the game table and in video games, too.

good DM instead relies on the characters, via their players, to write their own history and say “eat shit, destiny.” The DM helps them facilitate their drunken barfighty “shelter-in-place” moment, realizing that a) it makes more fun for the players (aka, the audience) to get to do what they want to do and b) it makes for a more interesting story because we’ve all seen the ADVENTURERS FIGHT DRAGON narrative but maybe haven’t seen the ADVENTURERS SHELTER IN PLACE AT A TAVERN DURING A DRAGON ATTACK AND USE THAT TIME TO SWILL MAGIC BEER AND PUNCH EACH OTHER. The latter also has the narrative advantage of being something that isn’t predictable, because it doesn’t fall into known patterns.

The ‘tell’ that comes when you’ve pushed characters into a narrative destiny is that you have a moment when you realize, “I need Character A to perform Task B in order to reach Outcome C.” Meaning, you’ve created for yourself a performative, outcome-based model for the story — “I really need Dave the Barbarian to be at Castle Ogredong by morning to stop the Kobold Incursion, even though he’s a barbarian and really shouldn’t have any interest in stopping the Kobolds.” Which means you’re arguably closing off more narratively interesting options in order to cram Barbarian Dave into the outcome you’ve set. It shows a lack of flexibility and creativity and fails to let the character make his own destiny — would it be more interesting if Dave joined the Kobolds, instead? Maybe. So do that. Let Dave find his history and fuck the tropes and the standard scope of the tale as you have designed it.

You’re not designing adventures (aka, destiny).

You’re empowering characters (aka, history).

(This is good storytelling both in books and in games, by the way.)

(At least, IMNSHO.)

Curiously, the Star Wars prequels can, depending your (ahem) certain point-of-view, fit both of these modes — on the one hand, internal to the narrative, Anakin Skywalker does a very good job of rejecting his destiny as some kind of chosen one / Force-balancer / midichlorian private-dancerer character — he is too stubborn and willful to be trapped in the rules and life that this destiny demands of him. The Jedi Order says, “You’re the Chosen One!” and then Anakin says, “Actually, I’mma kill these baby Jedi just to show you how little fucks I give about that,” and then he gets punted into some lava.

On the other hand, externally, prequels often suffer from the problem where the fate of the story and its characters is already written. Not only written, but precisely pinpointed — the end of any prequel narrative must line up perfectly with the anchor-point beginning of the subsequent (but already told) tale, or the two will be out-of-sync. In that case, prequels are nearly always a case of destiny over history, and you have far less wiggle-room in terms of creating characters who can Be Interesting and Make History. Because history has already been made for them.

This, by the way, invokes the danger of overrelying on architectural story design, like the kind you’d find with Save the Cat — I dearly love that book and the pattern it sets as a starting point, but it dictates a series of milestones almost as if they’re sales targets. Art and story do not do well when they follow patterns and tropes and stereotypes again and again — yes, you can still use those patterns and tell a great story, but it’s also just as likely you’ll find them overly restrictive in how fluid it allows the characters to be when making their own way through the world you’ve given them. It forces us to declare that the plot is more interesting than the characters, which is almost never the case: we like stories and choose to enter them and remain in them precisely because of characters, because of the empathic bridge a good storyteller builds between us (the reader) and the characters on the page.

Note that this isn’t an anti-outline approach, should you be the type of person who is called a “plotter” rather than a “pantser.” It may seem anathema, but it’s really not: you just have to write an outline that’s character-driven, one that unfolds due to character choices rather than storyteller choices. (Yes, technically that is a bit artificial in its definition — character choices are always storyteller choices, because characters aren’t fucking real. They’re not prancing about in the ether just waiting for you to be their conduit into the CORPOREAL NARRATIVE PLANE, though it’s certainly allowed to feel that way.) What I mean is, the choices you choose to make in the story are better when executed based on the characters you’ve created rather than the exoskeleton of plot or world. Characters represent an organic, internal musculature and skeletal structure — plot and world represent something far too external and artificial.

We come for the characters.

So let the characters lead.

To sum up, when it comes down to characters either creating plot or falling prey to it, it’s worth realizing which is the cart and which is the horse — all that PLOT DESIGN and WORLDBUILDY GOODNESS and those COOL RULES don’t mean shit-on-toast if you have to cram the characters into it like a squirming, bitey raccoon into a trash bag. Characters are the center of the story, even if they don’t know it. Let them be makers of their own history…

….not victims of your railroaded narrative destiny.

* * *

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Whether you’re writing a novel, screenplay, video game, or comic, this funny and informative guide is chock-full of examples about the art and craft of storytelling–and how to write a damn fine story of your own.

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11 responses to “History Versus Destiny: On Giving Characters Agency In Narrative”

  1. I don’t usually comment, but I feel so strongly about this post, I’m doing it anyway. I’ve been in agreement with this idea since I fell into the publishing vortex, although I’ve not been able to voice it into something as wonderful as “plot-pooping.”

    I’m considered a pantser, although I don’t like this term since it implies I don’t do any work before writing. My issue with traditional plotting is that when I try to plot, I’m constructing something for my character(s) to fit into. It just doesn’t work for me. And it’s usually a waste of time. I have an idea (several actually) of the direction they should take, but I find what works best for me is to work linearly within the story. A leads to B and so on. Because I mainly write mysteries and in first person POV, this works for me. It works for the heroine and for the villain because they’re doing a dance that sometimes neither realizes (until the climax) and that creates a tension that feels more natural. I don’t believe in magic or muses, it’s hard work. Sometimes my brain literally hurts (Or maybe that’s just my cranium, I’m no doctor). But if you know your characters intimately before writing, this is what happens. The plot is created by their actions (and inaction).

    Someone with a different brain can do this within their outline. But for people with brains like mine, this post is particularly freeing.

    Besides it’s so much easier to let the characters do the work for you than the other way around.

    Thank you for sharing this. And I love your characters, by the way.

  2. This resonates with me, and also reminds me of something Stephen King said in ‘On Writing’: “I want to put a group of characters (perhaps a pair; perhaps even just one) in some sort of predicament and then watch them try to work themselves free.” He’s more of a believer in situation than plot, which seems to be what you’re getting at.

  3. From a theme point of view (yes, I like to get all preachy in my sci-fi allegory), I need characters with diverging worldviews to hash it out–whether in actual dialogue or a dialogue seen through their actions in the world. I can’t tell what that argument’s gonna look like till I’m writing the argument. I might know who I want to win, despite setbacks (antag catches protag back-footed; good, protag will do it better next time), but I’m not thinking about the win while writing the dialogue. Or else you can see it coming. . .a mile. . .away. . .

  4. There’s a bunch of scientists who say we have no agency, and no free will. Everything’s predetermined, including this post. You can’t help but follow your destiny, nor can you be held accountable for your actions. To them, it’s all just atoms in the void. True free will would exceed the boundaries of science and probably even violate some of it. In other words, we have a real asshole for a dungeon master.

  5. Very timely! I came up with a whole heap of Interesting! Things! To Happen! and then realized that it would be much more entertaining just to let the young hot-head encoil himself in the results of his own foolish decisions – and then let him try to figure out how to get free. With the inevitable complications caused by everyone else trying to make their plot happen too. Essentially, you have all the characters trying to write the story at once, and while some of them may agree on what the endpoint should be, they have very different ideas on how they ought to get there.

  6. “The ‘tell’ that comes when you’ve pushed characters into a narrative destiny is that you have a moment when you realize, “I need Character A to perform Task B in order to reach Outcome C.””


    What’s fantastic, though, is realising ‘oh, character A is going to do task B because [their motivations]. And then C will happen. Cool, I never expected any of that!’

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