How often have you started writing stories, waded into the first one hundred pages, and felt like you’ve lost the thread? The character concept isn’t coming together. The action doesn’t feel right. So you try all the tricks: change the action; cut the problematic area; rewrite; press on and fix it in edits. Try as you might, the problem remains. If this sounds familiar, agency might be the issue.
In storytelling, agency is a character’s ability to solve problems. Until recently, I did not think about agency. None of my professors, mentors, or editors had discussed it. But it is there. It is a part of storytelling. And I think it is a crucial element of character design.
I first considered the idea of character agency while listening to the Play, Watch, Listen podcast about videogames. One of the hosts mentioned player agency when he described how some games give players the ability to make meaningful choices. After some consideration and online searching, I realized this idea is prevalent in literature, yet it was not part of my exhaustive curriculum.
I think agency is important for character design. It can be incorporated from the first page if the author explores a character’s skills and defines how those skills become assets.
A character with high agency possesses a skill, weapon, knowledge, or power that allows them to overcome a problem. Think of characters such as Sherlock Holmes, Elizabeth Bennet, Drizzt Do’urden, and D’Artagnan. Each of these fictional people endured their story with some combination of confidence, resolve, and skill. They had the means to affect the outcome of their story. And while they might feel challenged or beset by enemies, they were rarely in a position to suffer a crippling or permanent loss.
Furthermore, these characters carried their stories. The story seemed to unfold around them, and whatever choice they made, the story reacted accordingly.
A character with low agency lacks the specific means to overcome their situation or reasonably confront the antagonist. Horror stories and mysteries are built around characters with low agency. Here, the story unfolds, and the characters must react to it without finding an advantage or preparing for what comes next. Characters such as Dr. Frankenstein, Clarice Starling, and your pick of Stephen King’s protagonists seem to reel from one event to the next as the setting or the antagonist(s) keep the heroes off balance.
Low-agency characters are often burdened or unduly challenged. They are given tasks beyond their means and expected to survive or to overcome. Failure is always an option, and the story drags them from scene to scene while the reader follows, eager to know what happens next.
Agency of the Chosen One
Popular in Young Adult fiction, the Chosen One is a character who begins with low agency. Over the course of the story, the character gains a power or ability. Thus armed, the hero possesses high agency in those limited situations where the power or ability can be applied. In these stories, events unfold around the protagonist, but there is always a sense of potential and hope despite any goings-on. Harry Potter and Neo are enduring examples of Chosen Ones.
Agency in a Hero’s Journey
Coined by Joseph Campbell, the Hero’s Journey has its roots in mythology. Here, the protagonist begins with low or no agency. Early on, they receive guidance and a powerful item, and they must learn to be heroes. By the story’s end, the hero possesses incredible agency. Frodo Baggins and Luke Skywalker are great examples of characters who went on a hero’s journey.
Agency by Design
When I plot my stories and design my characters, I define the protagonist’s role in the story. I must determine if that character will possess or lack agency, and then I reinforce that design choice throughout the story.
For my short story The Hound and The Heart, I limited my protagonist’s agency. She possessed power and knowledge, but she could only react to the unfolding story. At no point did I allow her choices to determine how the narrative would affect her. I encouraged the reader’s hope by showing the protagonist’s skill and allowing her to escape early scenarios only to arrive in worse situations.
In your story, your protagonist might have high, low, or varying agency. Maybe you will explore a character’s influence to highlight drama or conflict. When considered and defined on a character-by-character basis, agency can greatly affect how well a story reads and the impressions it creates upon an audience.
Agency in Other Roles
Though I have only discussed the protagonist’s agency so far, every hero or villain can wield influence in the story. There is wonderful potential in a narrative where both the protagonist and antagonist influence their fates and have equal pull on the story. Chapter by chapter, each might gain the upper hand until the story reaches its climax and the hero can seal their victory.
Creating Agency in Your Story
Agency begins with character design. It becomes part of your story design. It informs your outline (if you’re a plotter), or it is a few notes about character roles and traits (if you’re a pantser).
Genre also influence how you create and manage agency throughout the narrative. For example, the protagonist in fantasy horror typically has fewer means to change their fate than the heroes of fantasy adventure.
Considering the horror genre, agency is regulated by keeping every equalizing force away from the protagonist for most of the story. Weapons are guarded or behind a locked door. The heroine is injured or drugged. The villain has the upper hand, which forces the heroine to exploit opportunities and persevere rather than risk confrontation.
Science fiction is tricky. The setting itself often possesses the agency. For example, technology gone wrong, a sentient AI, or an approaching asteroid are the problem, and the characters must resolve that problem before they are destroyed. Sci-fi villains and heroes balance technology and skill where the villain possesses a technology that requires incredible skill from the heroes. Star Wars is its own thing with magic, technology, and a hero’s journey. This paragraph better relates to Star Trek.
Agency in romance can be briefly discerned with one question: is our protagonist pursuing a suitor, or is she being pursued by a suitor? I think there is also a greater play on agency if a romantic story includes eroticism.
The fantasy genre explores agency through magic or skill. The wizard can do the impossible. The warrior prince is the best swordsman in the land. The evil duke is a vampire. And our heroine is a master thief. Everyone has incredible potential. Disparity and a race for power arise when these characters are juxtaposed.
This year, I wrote a fantasy adventure-romance manuscript titled Queen of Intrigue, and my heroine, Cassandra, is a character of high agency. She is a queen, so her choices carry tremendous and implicit influence. However, due to her character traits, Cass behaves as though she has few means to change her fate. But by the story’s end, she has embraced her role, found validation through affection, and accepted the consequences of her rule when she wields her influence through her sword, her crown, and her words.
I hope this exploration of agency in fiction writing has been helpful. It is a critical component of my writing process, and it is one of the ways by which I bring my characters to life.
Good luck, and happy writing!