Tag Archives: agency and consequences

Agency and Consequences #amwriting

In my previous post, Agency and Character Development, I briefly mentioned the importance of consequences. It is a word with many uses and connotations.

WritingCraftSeriesAgencyLIRF01302022Let’s look at both the meanings and synonyms for the word consequences.

Consequence (noun)

[kon-seh-kwens]

consequences (plural noun)

[1] The result or effect of an action or condition.

“Many programmers were laid off from work as a consequence of the failing economy.”

Synonyms:

Result, upshot, outcome, sequel, effect, reaction, repercussion, reverberations, ramification, end, end result, conclusion, termination, culmination.

[2] Importance or relevance.

“That’s of no consequence.”

Synonyms:

Importance, import, significance, account, moment, momentousness, substance, note, mark, prominence, value, weightiness, weight, concern, interest, gravity, seriousness.

[3] Social distinction. (Slightly dated usage. Its synonyms are more commonly used.)

“Adelaide Brown was a woman of consequence.”

Synonyms:

Fame, distinction, eminence, preeminence, prominence, repute, reputation, prestige, acclaim, celebrity, note, notability, mark, standing, stature, account, glory, illustriousness.

For today’s post, let’s consider agency and the importance of choice. How will the results of their decisions affect our characters’ lives? After all, a story isn’t interesting without a few self-inflicted complications.

Once again, we will go to J.R.R. Tolkien and look at Bilbo’s choices and his path to becoming the eccentric eleventy-one-year-old hobbit who vanishes (literally), leaving everything, including the One Ring, to Frodo.

ConsequencesLIRF07122020In the morning, after the unexpected (and unwanted) guests leave, he has two choices, to stay in the safety of Bag End, or hare off on a journey into the unknown. He chooses to run after the dwarves, and so begins the real story—how a respectable hobbit became a burglar and became a hero in the process.

The consequences of his decision will shape his entire life afterward. Where he was once a staid country squire, having inherited a comfortable income and existence, he is now expected to steal an important treasure from a dragon. At the outset, that particular job doesn’t seem real. He is beset by problems, one of which is his general unfitness for the task. He’s always been well-fed, never had to exert himself much, and suddenly, his opinions carry no weight.

Bilbo’s hidden sense of adventure emerges early when the company encounters a group of trolls. He is supposed to be a thief, so he is sent to investigate a strange fire in a forest. Reluctantly, he agrees. Upon reaching the blaze, he observes that it is a cookfire for a group of trolls.

Bilbo has reached a fork in the path of life. He must make a choice: the smart thing would be to turn around at that point and warn the dwarves. However, his ego feels the need to do something to prove his worth. “He was very much alarmed as well as disgusted; he wished himself a hundred miles away—yet somehow he could not go straight back to Thorin and Company empty-handed.” [1] Bilbo feels the need to impress the Dwarves and makes decisions he comes to regret.

In the process of nearly getting everyone eaten and having to be rescued by Gandalf, he discovers several historically important weapons. One of them is Sting, a blade that fits Bilbo perfectly as a sword.

At first, Sting has no name, a long knife that the hobbit Bilbo Baggins discovers in the cave of trolls. Gandalf and the dwarf Thorin also find their respective swords, Glamdring and Orcrist.

Although it is only a dagger, its length corresponds to a short sword for a creature the size of the hobbit. It turns out that, like the swords of Gandalf and Thorin, this dagger was forged by the elves of Gondolin in the First Age and possesses a magical property—it shines with a blue glow when orcs are close.

the hobbitThe blade does not acquire its name until later in the adventure, after Bilbo, lost in the forest of Mirkwood, uses it to kill a giant spider and rescue the Dwarves. This is when Bilbo’s decisions become more thoughtful, and his courageous side begins to emerge.

Decisions and consequences shape Bilbo’s character and force his growth. His experiences and bad choices along the way have consequences that shape how he thinks. As the Dwarves continue to get into trouble, he makes plans for their rescue and considers what may or may not go wrong before implementing them. He doesn’t know it, but he thinks like a warrior instead of a staid country squire.

Consequences force the character arc. Sometimes the decisions our characters make as we are writing them surprise us. But if those decisions make the story too easy, they should be discarded.

We, as their creator, must take over, cut or rewrite those scenes, and force the story back on track.


Credits and Attributions:

[1] Quote from The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, by J.R.R. Tolkien, published 1937 by George Allen & Unwin, Ltd.

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Agency and Character Development #amwriting

Now that we are well into the new year, many of us are finally getting back to work on novels we began for NaNoWriMo or work we had on hold for the holidays.

WritingCraftSeriesAgencyLIRF01302022This is an excellent time to look at the freedom we give our characters to act and react within the story. I have mentioned many times that I am a plotter. However, when I am in the process of writing the first draft of a novel, the characters sometimes take over. The plot veers far from what I had intended when I began writing it.

West_End_Fair_Gilbert_PA_Demolition_DerbyThis happens because my work is character-driven, and sometimes, they’re like demolition derby drivers.

When a significant change happens, I have to adjust events to match the timeline. Adjusting my outlines is a simple process because I create them in Excel. I can delete and move events as needed to ensure my story arc doesn’t flatten.

Other people use whiteboards and sticky notes, and still others use Scrivener—a program my style of thinking doesn’t mesh with.

I tried Scrivener but grew too frustrated, so I returned to my good old Excel spreadsheet program. Google Sheets works well too, and it’s free.

Usually, the ultimate ending never changes no matter what the characters do. However, the path to that place can go quite far afield from what was initially intended.

I try to keep the plot moving so that it flows naturally. The characters must still act and speak individually, the way that I envision them. I want their uniqueness to remain central to the story, even if their motives and actions evolve from what I first planned.

PinocchioThis is called giving your characters “agency.” Agency is an integral aspect of the craft of writing. It means that you allow your characters to make decisions that don’t necessarily follow the original plot outline. This gives them a chance to become real, the way Pinocchio wanted to be a real boy and not a puppet.

Many times, the way to avoid predictability in a plot is to introduce a sense of danger early, a response to an unavoidable, looming threat. Every character has a different personality and should respond to each event differently. The freedom you allow the protagonist and antagonist to steer the events is crucial for them to emerge as real to the reader.

In literary terms, “agency” is the ability of a character to surprise the author, and therefore, the reader. If you plan their every response when you are writing them, it can feel canned and boring. The most exciting moments I’ve had as an author are when my characters surprise me and take over the story.

Sometimes my characters make their own choices. Other times, they go along as I, their creator, have planned for them. Ultimately, they do what I intend for them, but they always do it their own way and with their own style.

Plotting, for me, means setting out an arc of events for a story that I hope to write. I do this in list form in a new Excel workbook. My outline workbook will contain several spreadsheets. On page one, I create the characters and give them personality traits. On page two, I list the order of events that I think will form the arc of the story.

When my characters begin evolving, new events are added. My plot outline must continually evolve with them so that I don’t lose control of the arc and go off on a side quest to nowhere. The evolution of the outline happens once I begin writing because that is when I get to really know my characters. Only when the writing commences can they make choices and say things that surprise me.

That is when they have agency.

When I first consider writing a new novel, I get the idea out of my head by creating a plot outline. For me, introducing the threat and warning signs of inescapable danger early in the story arc limits my habit of writing too much backstory. Their history can happen off-screen, in a file marked Backstory. That way, I get to know my characters, but no one is going about “life as normal” in the narrative. Readers aren’t looking for ordinary—they have enough of that in real life.

Each character will be left with several consequential choices to make in every situation that arises along the timeline. I consider the personality and allow the characters’ reactions to fit who they are.

Author-thoughtsNo matter how they respond, they will be placed in situations where they have no choice but to go forward. After all, I am their creator, the deity of their universe. I have an outline that predestines them to specific fates, and nothing they can do will stop that train.

The consequences my characters face for their choices affect the atmosphere and mood of the story as it emerges. Think about it—if there are no consequences for bad decisions a character might make, everyone goes home unscathed. So why bother writing at all?

So, while I am an outliner and plotter, I also fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants to a certain extent. I love it when my characters take over and drive the story.


Credits and Attributions:

Lowenburg at the English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

Pinocchio by Enrico Mazzanti (1852-1910), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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Plotting and Agency #amwriting

Sometimes when I am writing the first draft of a novel, the characters take over, and the plot veers far away from what I had intended when I first began writing it. Even though I am a plotter, this happens because my work is character driven and sometimes, they’re erratic drivers.

When that happens, I have to sit down and look at my outline, then make adjustments. Usually, the ultimate ending never changes, but the path to that place can go quite far afield from what was originally intended. My task at that point is to keep the plot moving in such a way that it flows naturally. The characters must still act and speak as individually as I envision them.

This is called giving your characters “agency” and is an integral aspect of the craft of writing. Allowing your characters to make decisions that don’t necessarily follow the original plot outline gives them a chance to become “real.”

Many times, the way to avoid predictability in a plot is to introduce a sense of danger early, a response to an unavoidable, looming threat. How our characters react to that threat should feel unpredictable. When you let them act naturally, they will emerge as real, solid characters.

In literary terms, “agency” is the ability of a character to surprise the author, and therefore, the reader. If, when you are writing them you know their every response, it can feel canned, boring. Their reactions must surprise you occasionally.

For me, there are times when my characters drive the keyboard, making their own choices. Other times, they go along as I, their creator, has planned for them. Ultimately, they do what I intend for them, but always they do it their own way and with their own style.

Plotting, for me, means setting out an arc of events that I will then create connections to. Because my characters act independently, the order of events changes. New events are added. My plot outline must continually evolve with them so that I don’t lose control of the arc, and go off on a bunny trail to nowhere. This evolution of the outline happens because as I get to really know my characters, they make choices that surprise me.

They have agency.

When I begin planning a new novel, plotting is important because introducing an unavoidable threat early limits the habit I have of writing too much backstory. Plot outlines don’t allow much time for the characters to go about “life as normal” rather than going on an adventure. “Normal” is boring.

As they move through the events leading toward the final showdown each character will be left with several consequential choices to make in each situation. Allowing the characters to react to each incident that takes them out of their comfort zone is good.

The final event will happen in a situation where they have no choice but to go forward. By that point, their personalities are fully formed. How they react feels natural, because they have been growing as human beings over the course of the story.

Consequences are the most important aspect of any story when it comes to the choices my characters must make. I say this because if there are no consequences for bad decisions a character might make, everyone goes home unscathed and I won’t have much of a story.

So, while I am an outliner and plotter, I do fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants to a certain extent. Those moments are beautiful, flashes of creativity that make this job the best job I ever had.

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The Character Arc: Agency and Consequences #amwriting

My favorite novels are literary fantasy, a genre which has a character-driven plot set in a fantasy world. I love books where the prose has been carefully crafted, the growth of the characters is the central theme, the events are  the means to enable that growth, and the fantasy setting frames the story.

Thus, I am a great fan of Tad William’s work, in all its many incarnations. When not writing, I am currently finishing reading The Witchwood Crown, and I must say, his work never fails to move me. On Friday, I will post my review here.

Tad Williams’ work is brilliant because he understands the character arc, and the importance of agency and consequences. No character is allowed to stagnate,  a lesson I have taken to heart.

Because I love character driven work, some of what I write is literary fantasy. I have found that, for me, the first half of the book is easy to write, but beginning at the midpoint of my first draft, I begin to struggle.

For many authors, the rough draft is challenging because we are pulling the story out of the ether. The good news is that once the first draft is finished, we can get down to actually writing the book.

The first draft is where we take an idea, a “what if” moment and give it form on paper. When it is finished, the rough draft is basically made of sections of brilliance interspersed with a catalogue of events: who did what, where they did it, and why.  We are beginning to know our characters, but in the original version, we may not have a handle on how to portray their reactions. The character arc is uneven and making the story seem real becomes a challenge.

The term character arc is used to describe the personal growth and transformation of a character/protagonist over the course of a story. Stories that interest me have a strong character arc:  the protagonist begins as one sort of person, and through the events he/she experiences, they are transformed, frequently changing for the better, but sometimes they change for the worse.

The third quarter section of your story begins with the midpoint crisis. It is crucial because the seeds planted by the events of the first half must bear fruit here, forcing a visible change (usually a positive change) in the behavior and outlook of the protagonist and his/her friends. Sadly, some books fail to live up to their promise when they arrive at this point, and the reader gives up.

In a book where the storyline follows the hero’s journey, at some point in this third section, the protagonists may lose their faith or have a crisis of conscience. This is your opportunity to learn who they really are as human beings. The events leading to this place have combined to break the character down to their lowest emotional state.

The protagonist must emerge from this section remade as a stronger person, ready to meet whatever awaits them at the final showdown. And you must make it believable, done in such a way that it feels natural to the reader.

If you are stuck with a character you can’t figure out, ask yourself what personal revelations come out about the protagonist, or conversely what does he discover about himself?

The way to avoid predictability in a plot is to introduce a sense of danger, an unavoidable threat. How our characters react to that event should feel unpredictable because they have agency.

In many ways, agency is the ability your character has to surprise you when you are writing them and their reactions. They seem to drive the keyboard, making their own choices.

When we give our characters agency, an unavoidable threat removes the option of going about life as normal but leaves characters with several consequential choices, the final one of which will be made in a stressful situation.

I used the word consequential relating to the choices your characters must make. I chose that word intentionally. If there are no consequences for bad decisions a character might make, what is the story about?

Why would a random trip to a convenience store interest a reader if something out of the ordinary does not occur? After all—we go out for bread every day, and it’s not too exciting. Frankly, I’m not interested in reading about Nadine buying a loaf of bread. But make her the witness to a robbery and things begin to get interesting. Better yet, give her options:

  1. She can hide and wait for the intruders to leave.
  2. She can decide to be a hero.
  3. What other options does Nadine have? What does she see when she looks around the store?

Whatever Nadine chooses to do, there will be consequences. If things go awry, she could become a hostage. If she goes unnoticed but tells the police what she knows, she and her family could be in danger.

Once she is in the middle of these consequences, Nadine will have more crisis points to face, and a lack of bread will only be one of them. She will have many decisions to make, and each choice will drive the plot.

The obstacles your characters face and the choices they make in those situations are the story. Giving your characters an active role and allowing them agency is what drives a great, absorbing story.

At the outset, giving my characters agency is difficult to write. This is because, in the rough draft, the protagonist and her motives are still somewhat unformed. What I keep in mind is faithfulness in following the hero’s journey and allowing her choices to force her personal growth.

In one of my current works-in progress, my main character has been put through a personal death of sorts. Her world has been shaken to the foundations, and she no longer has faith in herself or the people she once looked up to. To write this story, I must discover the answers to these questions:

  • How is she emotionally destroyed by the events?
  • How was her own personal weakness responsible for this turn of events?
  • How does this cause the protagonist to question everything she ever believed in?
  • What makes her pull herself together and just keep on going?
  • How has she evolved after this personal death and rebirth event?

In all my favorite novels, this low point is a crucial part of the hero’s journey. It is the place during which she is taken down to her component parts emotionally, and rebuilds herself to be more than she ever believed she could be.

By the time you finish writing this part, you should have come to know your character and how they will react in any given situation.

Paying close attention to making this section emotionally powerful in your first draft will pay off when you begin the second draft. In the first draft, use all the adverbs and modifiers you need because you must get the idea down before you forget it.

In the rewrite, these words will be the guide you need to make the prose evolve into a greater, more polished version of the original.

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