How to Write: Character Agency
Character agency is basically about giving your characters choices. It’s also tied in to the idea of making relatable, rounded characters – so characters with aims and flaws, who make good and bad decisions. Character agency is the decision-making bit of that; it’s letting the characters drive the events in your stories.
Character agency is about how the characters accomplish the plot
Ok, so you’ve got your basic plot. Hero rescues Princess from Dragon. Simple, right? But if you pick three different characters, they’ll go about that in three different ways, and you’d end up with three different outcomes.
- The Dark Lord. Turns up on his own Fearsome Dragon and has them fight while he leans on the wall and has a quick smoke. Hang on…his dragon lost?! Well, depending on your Dark Lord, he can either haul out the Sword Of Doom for a quick bout of hand-to-hand, or produce the cannon he so thoughtfully hauled along…either way, you’re likely to end up with a dead dragon and a suitably rescued princess, who might be rather charmed by a thin moustache and fashionable black armour.
- The Thoughtful Farm Boy. He brings along a cow, strolls past the dragon while it’s otherwise occupied with that snack, and then talks both Princess and Dragon into leaving with him, because who wants to be stuck in a crumbling old castle? They then all decide that any King who shuts his daughter up in a tower and kills off her suitors probably isn’t a very good King, and go off to rescue the Kingdom as well. Adventure time!
- The Cynical Assassin. She doesn’t bother fighting the dragon – she scales the back wall, sneaks into the tower and…love at first sight, with a passionate kiss to go with it? Well, why not?
What do your characters want?
You’ll usually have three levels of aims; the immediate might just be Find Something to Eat, but at a higher level, it’s Get The Ring To Mount Doom or Return To My Family. This aim will be driving them – and if other people find out about it, they can use it too.
The aims can change, of course. Instead of Become The Best Assassin Ever, maybe now it’s Elope With Princess, with a side order of Escape The Pursuing Guards. Maybe rescuing the princess was just a side quest in a larger aim (Take Over The World, One Kingdom At A Time), or maybe it was a complete accident! Things can get in the way of an aim, or a task can get completed – but your character still wants something.
Larger events don’t change, but people’s reactions to them do
Sometimes, there are events that are larger than one person, and one person’s choices won’t necessarily affect it. Let’s say the dragon’s managed to set fire to the town. That’s too big for one person to put out, but every character will have a different reaction.
- The Dark Lord goes looking for things to loot before finding somewhere safe to wait it out, with the aim of taking the opportunity to seize control…
- The Thoughtful Farm Boy could mull over the possibilities of diverting the river, scold the dragon for not considering the potential side-effects of flame-grilled steak, or help with the rescue operations…
- The Cynical Assassin might have someone she loves trapped in the city – possibly the Princess that she just rescued, who has been returned to her father for a large reward that’s seeming quite inadequate when compared to the passionate kiss they shared…
So while the fire or volcano or zombie apocalypse or war might be bigger than the one character, each individual character within the story will have a different reaction and different choices to that event.
Can your characters go off in a different direction?
If one of your characters made a different decision in the middle of the book – if the Dark Lord decided to just return the lovestruck Princess instead of marrying her and taking over the kingdom – would you (as the writer) be upset? Do certain things Have To Happen?
Now, that’s not saying that you can’t make them happen – you could add a tragic backstory or some blackmail, for example. But if your character, as they are, would not make that decision…and then you force them into that plot line because that’s what you want to happen…then that suggests you don’t have much character agency. Your character needs to fit the decisions that they are making.
However, there are ways of making characters do what you want them to do…
1 + 1 + 1 = a nice dose of chaos
One character is pretty easy to work out. But the fun – and the good stories! – come when you have several characters, all with agency and all with different aims. And if they conflict, who comes out on top and gets to push the plot? What does this do to the other characters?
The Dark Lord gets hired to track down the Cynical Assassin who has run off with the Princess…and he promptly hires the indifferent Farm Boy to do his dirty work. But the Dragon is feeling vengeful about having the Princess stolen and joins in the chase – so now you’ve got two people on the run, one boy + a dragon chasing them, and the Dark Lord and King in the background who both apparently want the same outcome – or do they?
As characters gain agency – so as their choices mean they affect the plot – other characters will lose it. But they still have those aims and that ability; if they go along with events then that’s still a decision made by that character, and that doesn’t mean that they can’t do something later on – for example, stand up to the Dark Lord’s Evil Reign, or simply run away! Even if one character is coming out on top, you still need to think about what the others will be doing, and why they are doing it.
The best way to check if your characters have agency is think about replacing them with another character – if you replaced Batman with The Joker, would events still play out in the same way? Would they still do the same thing? While the wider plot might stay the same (the Princess gets rescued from the Dragon) the individual methods should vary, and the interactions between the characters will be different. The Dark Lord may not necessarily fall in love with the Princess – but then the Cynical Assassin wouldn’t try to Take Over The City. Your events have to be based on what your characters would do.
Overall, the idea is to drive the plot from character choices. It should always be clear – to you as the writer, even if not to your reader – why a character has made a decision. Maybe they have some dark secret that you haven’t yet told the reader? Maybe they’re just stubborn or cowardly or in love? Whatever the reason, those individual decisions should affect how events unfold, and how your plot works.
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