THE PLACE TO BE FOR ALL YOUR STORY WRITING NEEDS
THE DREADED 'AGENCY'
That illusive writer word that gets bandied about - what does it mean? Whhhhy?
Simply put - agency is the character's action, their drive, their (and I say this loosely) 'lack of passivity'.
A character that has good agency drives the story through their decisions or their mistakes.
I like to use Sleeping Beauty as an example (because it's old and I'm less likely to mortally offend anyone).
Princess Aurora starts off as a baby spirited away from Maleficent's clutches by the three fairies. She can't do anything decisive as a newborn, but then she grows up.
At sixteen, she gets told to go berry picking and meets Prince Phillip but of course, she has to go back to her parents in the castle.
While there, Maleficent bewitches her to prick her finger and she falls asleep to await true love's first kiss.
When she awakes, luckily the boy she loves is the one to wake her so they get married.
Now, at what point in that story does Aurora do anything decisive?
She goes berry picking because her aunt's tell her to.
She meets Prince Philip but lets the fairies take her back to the castle.
She is bewitched by Maleficient.
She is woken up and marries the Prince.
I actually like the Sleeping Beauty fairytale, but it's more the plot of the fairies and Maleficent that drive it along. They have good agency while Aurora just sort of gets swept along with it all.
So what do we do to ensure our protagonist has agency? We ask the following:
How are they driving the plot?
Are they being passive?
Even down to the individual sentences, you can see the difference.
The window was crashed into by the tree.
The tree lashed the window.
The first one, the window is just there minding it's own business and oops here comes a tree. It's passive.
In the second example, the tree is active - it has more power and therefore the sentence has more power behind it.
While passive sentences have their place, we want the action to be powerful and to the point. We also want our characters to be powerful and to the point. Even when they're making mistakes or situations are happening to them (rather than them happening to situations), how do they handle these events? What decisions do they make in response? What would have happened if Aurora had said no to going back to the castle and the Prince got cursed instead? (Hands off, that idea is mine!)
So, we return to plot for this next exercise (this can also help with the dreaded Synopsis to practice getting concise plot points - win win!)
When you have some time, write a list of everything your character does to move the story along. This doesn't need to be a literal 'and then they made soup, and then they fed the dog', but rather what do they do to in relation to the plot.
Protagonist, we'll call her Jane, accidentally spills acid in Science class and gets detention. She decides to go to her locker on route, but is waylaid by her friend and stops to chat. She is late for detention and feels too nervous to go in late as everyone will look at her, so she runs home.
I could build a story around that, but lets just look at Jane's agency in those couple of scenes.
Jane spills the acid accidentally
She decides to go to her locker
She stops to chat
She runs home
Some of these examples, like not attending detention, are driven by nerves or they are the result of accidents, but they are still Jane's decisions and reactions. Jane's agency is in how she reacts to the situation, or that she chooses to stop and chat rather than be on time.
Harking back to the active and passive sentence example before:
Characters with agency do things - active
Characters without agency have things done to them - passive
When you have time, try going through the character points of your story using the exercise above, and see if your character is being actively driving the story, or if they're just letting the story drive them around.
One common rule to remember OTHER THAN Rule Number 4: ALWAYS SAVE AND BACK UP YOUR WORK - is to look for the chance to do the unexpected.
What I mean by this is that there are at least a hundred chosen ones in some form or fashion throughout the vast realms of literature. Chosen for their skills, or because of Prophecy, or because of genetics, they are special through no earned effort of their own.
Harry Potter didn't choose to be marked by Voldemort
Percy Jackson didn't choose to be a demi-god
There are many more, and we can all invent these reasons for the protagonist to be 'special' or 'chosen'. These permissions don't give them agency however - their responses to dealing with these conditions do. They show who they are as a character, so avoid the temptation to rely too much on their special gifts for solving problems instead of their tenacity, spirit and ingenuity.
Vampire fiction is another great example. It was a big thing back in the day. From Anne Rice's iconic Interview with a Vampire or Stoker's Dracula to True Blood and Twilight, vampires had a huge career in the spotlight.
Then the market was crying out 'vampires are so done' and 'enough already'.
But vampires are the perfect example of a conflicted character - they are super strong, but can't go out in the daylight. They're immortal, but can be killed in quite a few ways. This gives a writer a very wide scope for creating twists and original stories, perhaps why their limelight lasted so long.
While their vampire skills give them easy villain status, their vulnerabilities can make them relatable, and it's that relatability that readers will take interest in.
While vampires have the ability to just follow their urges, making them fight that (think Angel in Buffy) gives them great agency throughout the story.
So, how do we make sure OUR characters are killing it in the agency stakes?
We become 5-years-old again. Not literally, that would be weird, but we're going to ask one simple question:
- I want to write a vampire story, about a vampire who was turned against their will and now has to navigate vampire politics.
But why? Why do they have to navigate vampire politics, instead of retreating to a dark room and generally living off bat blood or something?
- Because, Jane (we'll call her Jane) wants to find their missing sister and thinks the vampires had something to do with her disappearance, hence being in a place to get bitten in the first place.
But why? Why would the vampires take her sister?
- Because, the vampires used Jane's sister to lure her to the fold.
But why? Why do the vamps want Jane at all?
- Because, she has some kind of pigment in her blood that could cure vampirism and they want to be human again.
Okay, that's a random example but the method is the same. When you feel your story is lacking something, or the character doesn't seem to be going anywhere or isn't dynamic enough, ask yourself this of your character's actions.
But why does she have this special pigment in her blood? (hello, backstory)
But why do they need to turn her to get her blood? (Er...)
But why do the vampires want to be human again? (Your guess is as good as mine!)
Playing the But Why game can help you to iron out any slack spots and make sure your characters are charging into the fray with colours flying, rather than shrugging and saying 'yeah okay then'.
Why not give it a go with one of your characters!