As time goes on and the genre of novels matures and evolves, so too does reader expectation. For example, if you look at J. R. R. Tolkien’s LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, you will probably note that the action sequences and battles scenes are often paragraphs or pages long. In books such as SIX OF CROWS, we get pages and pages of epic confrontations between characters. Why? That’s what the modern-day reader enjoys: living the details of action scenes.
But that isn’t the only thing modern-day readers want. They also want to see characters with agency.
For years, I heard the phrase “character agency” spoken by industry professionals on Twitter, and it took me a while to get it.
In short, character agency is when a character (usually a protagonist) is more proactive than reactive to situations in a story.
“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. . . . 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.”
On the flip side, what does the lack of character agency look like?
According to Mythic Scribes’ article, Character Agency for Beginners:
“It’s when your character’s actions don’t have any impact and the story just progresses anyway—either randomly, or through the actions of other characters. Taken to the extreme, a character without agency is just a prop. They’re a piece of decoration that doesn’t serve any purpose other than to have the story happen to them.”
If a character doesn’t proactively make decisions in a story, it’s hard to get to know them. Not only do we not form a relationship with them, but it’s also hard to sympathize with characters who don’t take an active role in their own lives. In the end, why read a story about a character you don’t care about?
However, it’s possible for characters to do things and still not have agency.
For example, supporting characters—your protagonist’s best friend, the antagonist’s henchmen, and so on—are doing things throughout the story, but they aren’t initiating it. They are usually reacting to events happening outside of their control, obeying orders, or supporting their friends.
If a protagonist or principal character is simply reacting to events—rather than proactively working to change or impact events in some way—that’s when you may have a character agency problem.
Example of a Character with Agency
Kaz Brekker from SIX OF CROWS is an example of a character with agency.
SIX OF CROWS takes place in Ketterdam, a hub of international trade. Kaz Brekker, a criminal prodigy, is offered a chance at a deadly heist that could make him and his crew rich.
IF YOU HAVEN’T READ SIX OF CROWS AND DON’T WANT ANY SPOILERS, SKIM OVER THE REST OF THIS SECTION.
At the end of the book after Kaz and his crew have performed the heist, they go to meet Van Eck on a small island with the prisoner they broke out during their heist. Van Eck hired Kaz and his crew to rescue the chemist Kuwei for 30 million kruge.
Van Eck tries to double cross them and, with a group of Grisha, says he will destroy their boat, which is docked nearby. Kaz says Van Eck’s son, Wylan, is on the ship. Van Eck, who’s always been ashamed of his son, orders the ship to be destroyed anyway.
However, the prisoner Kaz brought with them onto the island isn’t Kuwei—the boy Kaz and his crew were sent to rescue from the Ice Court. It’s actually Wylan (Van Eck’s son) who was tailored using magic to look like Kuwei. Van Eck demands to know where the real Kuwei is, and Kaz says he’ll only tell him when they’re safely off the island with their money.
In short, Kaz—anticipating Van Eck would double cross them—actively made plans. He didn’t sit by and hope he would be paid for performing the heist. Instead, he made plans to keep his friends safe and keep Kuwei hidden from Van Eck until they got their reward. He’s actively impacting the plot rather than reacting to it.
Example of a Character without Agency
Some characters don’t take an active role in the plot. As a result, they lack agency.
According to Mythcreant’s article, Balancing Character Agency:
“A common complaint about The Hunger Games is that Katniss had no agency. The series gave her a few chances to steer the story. Some of this was necessary—if given the option, she would have kept her sister safe without battling 23 other kids. But as the conflict grew wider in scope, she should have picked the role she would play. Instead, other characters made that choice without her input.”
Does Your Character Have Agency?
I liked the suggestion from the article, How to Write Character Agency, from Almond Press, for how to check if your characters have agency:
“The best way to check if your characters have agency is to 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 individual methods should vary, and the interactions between the characters will be different.”
Drive the plot with character choices. Why does your character make the decisions they do? Do they have a dark secret in their past that’s impacting their choices? What are their natural impulses—are they protective, short-tempered, or cowardly? The character’s nature—and their individual decisions on account of their nature—will impact how your story unfolds.
The easiest way to give your characters agency is to introduce a problem at the start of this story. In other words, consider the inciting incident. This problem should remove the option of going on with their normal life. Instead, the characters should be left with several choices. Do they fight or flee? In my opinion, the best choice a character with agency can make is one the reader doesn’t expect.