Character Agency

“So What Cha Want?”
-Beastie Boys

“The question isn’t what are we going to do. The question is what Aren’t we going to do?”
-Ferris Bueller

When you talk about writing characters or talk about characters, in general, sooner or later you talk about Agency.

You do this whether you know what Agency is or not. Agency is what makes a character pop out of the background. But what is it really?

Agency is more than the character wanting something. Agency is the character actually doing something about it, and having an impact on the story as a result.

Want an example? Here goes:

This is a weekly blog. Each one of the members posts on a regular basis. This week, something came up with the person scheduled to post today. And that’s fine. Life happens – often while we’re making other plans. That’s not the point. The point is, she asked if anyone could fill in at the last minute.

I stepped up to fill in.

That’s agency.

If I were a character in a story, you, as the writer, would already know that:

  1. I want this blog to succeed. In order for this blog to be successful, it needs regular infusions of content.
  2. I am willing and able to provide that content.

I could very easily have ignored this request for someone to fill in. But because of point 1, I acted, which brings us to point 2. Because I acted, you’re reading this right now. If I’d stayed quiet, acted without agency, you wouldn’t have a blog post today – and how lousy would that be?

Naturally this is a very simplified description, but I think you get the picture. It’s your job as an author to make that decision to act as difficult as possible.

Maybe your character realizes that there will be consequences if she acts., yet does so anyway.

Maybe your character has to compromise a moral stance that was previously unassailable to get what she wants…or what is necessary.

The decision to act – any decision to act – has to have consequences. If you can make those consequences call into question something that the character held sacred, so much the better.

Doing something, taking action – perhaps in the face of unpleasant consequences – is what will make your characters leap off the page compared to those that simply react to what’s been handed to them.

Act. To thine own self be true…

That’s agency.

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