Agency is a character’s ability to steer their own story. The more agency that a character has, the more control they have over their destiny and the more ability they have to alter the course of events. Even if you haven’t heard it discussed in these terms, you’ve seen agency at work. Understanding how it operates will allow you to craft more interesting characters and to give your stories forwards momentum.
Characters with low agency are the characters who things happen to. If a character does not have agency, they often react to the plot as it happens around them. Even if they accomplish their goals, it’s generally because the goal came to them and not because they advanced towards their goal. Their love interest asks them out, they are named as the chosen one and sent on a quest, the monster shows up at their base leaving them with no choice but to kill it.
Characters with high agency are the ones who do things. They make the plot happen, and when they have a goal, they actively move towards it. These are the characters who pursue their love interest, pick quests that are important to them, and chase down the monster so they can confront it where it lives. High agency does not mean that the character is always in control. They can still be outwitted or outgunned. What it does mean is that when they lose, it’s due in part to their own decisions.
Generally, you want high agency characters. High agency characters help create a heightened sense of danger because they have more skin in the game. If the characters are actively pursuing something, this implies that the character is strongly motivated and that the object of pursuit is of serious consequence. Likewise, if the driving questions are treated as an important mystery rather than a matter of idle curiosity, they become more compelling. It is unsatisfying to watch low agency characters get pushed along, waiting for things to be handed to them.
This is one of the reasons why the classic YA love triangle is, four times out of five, gag-worthy. The heroin has two men pining away for her, but she doesn’t have to go after
either one of them. They are both already there, just waiting for her to choose. Aside from the lack of queer representation and the annoying assumption that everyone is monogamous, this is dull and unsatisfying because it requires nothing of the heroin. She doesn’t stand to lose anything because no matter what choice she makes, she isn’t going home alone unless she wants to. She is a passive player in her own love life with little motivation and nothing at stake.
Additionally, high agency characters are in charge of their own story so they have more opportunities to deviate from the script. Because they make their own decisions and pursue what they think is important, they have the ability to turn away from clichés.
That said, agency is not a constant. One of the points of rising action and character development is that they give your characters the opportunity to gather agency. Characters gather agency every time that they take matters into their own hands or stray from the expected course of action. Whenever they make a decision, act with intent, or even observe their surroundings, it becomes a little more believable that they might go against the grain.
Not all characters are expected to have agency at the beginning of the story. If they’ve just discovered a magic world, it would be weird for them to drop in and immediately start calling shots. What is important is that by the end of the story, they have gathered enough agency for the reader to believe that they could reasonably overcome the main conflict. Otherwise, it’s rather jarring to see a character who has spent most of the story twiddling their thumbs jump up and slay the dragon.
An Example: The Princess in the Tower
- Low agency: The princess sits in her tower gazing out the window and pining for a knight in shining armor.
- High agency: The princess escapes the tower on her own. Alternatively, she is in the tower because she wanted solitude, and she makes up bogus quests to get the knights to leave her alone.
- Low agency to high agency: The princess sits in her tower pining for a knight in shining armor, but when one finally shows up, she speaks to him for a bit and realizes that he’s utterly repulsive. She just barely manages send the knight on a made up fetch quest. As soon as he’s gone, she collects herself, gathers a few useful things from her room, and then begins to plan her escape.
- High agency to low agency: The princess is very active in royal politics and is on the verge of implementing a system of popular government that will give the poor and working class a say. Her rivals kidnap her and lock her in a tower so that she can’t go on with her plans. For the rest of the story, she is little more than a pawn who changes hands while others jockey for power.