Tag Archives: Chuck Wendig

#amwriting: give your characters agency

In literature, the word agency is used to define an active vs. a reactive character. Active characters have agency, where passive characters are pushed into predictable actions and boring outcomes.

Chuck Wendig, in his wonderful post on this subject, nails down the heart of this issue: 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.”

In other words, the character must drive the plot. Until you nail down just who your characters are and what they want, your plot will go nowhere. In this regard, you must give your characters permission to NOT BE PASSIVE.

I am an ‘outliner,’ but I am also a ‘pantser.’ By this I mean that I have an idea, a “What if…” moment, and that evolves into an outline, a guide that is the jumping off point. Once I begin writing, the story goes through a radical evolution, driven by the personalities who inhabit that world.

Because my work evolves drastically over the course of four drafts, the moment I set pen to paper, I start building a stylesheet, also known in the industry as a ‘bible,’ a list of names, places, and relationships, updating it as I go. This is critical so that in the editing process any subtle shifts of spellings or names (and a multitude of other horrible things) can be rectified and made consistent.

We begin with a static idea for the story. We think we know who goes where, what our characters will do, and we think we know how it will end.

You must give your plot structure. In other words, create a good story arc to begin with, but allow your characters to surprise you, taking the story indirections you didn’t originally envision.

We know that the way to avoid obviousness in a plot is to introduce a big threat. How our characters react to that threat should be unpredictable because they have agency.

When we give our characters agency, this 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 Bubba buying a loaf of bread. But make him the witness to a robbery and things begin to get interesting. Better yet, give him options:

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

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

Once he is in the middle of these consequences, Bubba will have more crisis points to face, and a lack of bread for toast will only be one of them. He 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.


Quotes and Attributions:

Quote from JUST WHAT THE HUMPING HECK IS “CHARACTER AGENCY,” ANYWAY? ©2014 Chuck Wendig, posted June 03, 2014  http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2014/06/03/just-what-the-humping-heck-is-character-agency-anyway/ accessed July 25, 2017.

#amwriting: ensuring consistency: the stylesheet, © 2016 Connie J. Jasperson, posted August 3, 2016 https://conniejjasperson.com/2016/08/03/amwriting-ensuring-consistency-the-stylesheet/ accessed July 25, 2017.

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#flashfictionfriday: The Iron Dragon

Earl Aeddan ap Rhydderch turned his gaze from the mist to the strange iron road that emerged from it, and then to where the road entered the cave. “Tell me again what happened.”

The peasant who had guided the earl and his men said, “The mist, the iron road, and the cave appeared yesterday, sir. We saw the beast entering its lair, and a fearful thing it is, too. No one dares to enter, but the monster can be heard in there. It’s a most dreadful dragon—we found the carcass of a large wolf that had been torn to shreds, trampled until it was nigh unrecognizable.”

The man’s companion said, “Everyone knows wolves are Satan’s hounds. It must have angered its hellish master. We found it lying cast to one side of the Devil’s Road.”

Aeddan looked back to the iron road, seeing where it emerged from the mist. He walked to the low-hanging fog bank, seeing that the road vanished just after it entered the mist, leaving no marks upon the soil. He turned and strode back to the peasants. “I agree it’s the work of the Devil, but why does the Lord of Hell require an iron road that leads nowhere?”

A faint grumbling sounded beneath Aeddan’s feet. “A light! Look to the mist!” shouted one of his men.

Turning, Aeddan saw a white glow forming in the fog, as if a large lamp approached from a great distance. “That’s no ordinary lantern. Mount up!” Moving quickly, he leaped into his saddle and turned his steed to face the demon. He freed his lance from its holster and settled it in the arret attached to his breastplate under his right arm. His fingers fumbled as he struggled to fasten the grapper, but at last it held firm. The peasants, knowing they were no match for whatever approached, had run for shelter up the hill.

The light deep within the fog grew and strengthened, as did the rumbling noise.  The light waxed brilliant and the earth shuddered as if beneath the pounding of a thousand hooves. Smoke filled the night air, reeking of the sulfurous Abyss, combined with a howling as cacophonous as the shrieks of all the damned in Hell.

What emerged from the mist was impossible—an Iron Dragon of immense height and girth.

“Courage men! For God and King Gruffydd!” His bowels had turned to water, but Aeddan and his men stood firm in the face of the demon, sure that death would be their reward.

Dragon-Linda_BlackWin24_Jansson

Dragon, Linda Jansson PD/CC via Wikimedia Commons

The fiery light emanating from the burning maw lit the night, and the ground shook as the beast roared and raced ever closer. As the beast sped toward him, a burning wind blowing straight out of Hell knocked Aeddan and his horse to the side of the Devils Road, and using that opportunity, the Iron Dragon thundered past him, heading into its lair.

Stunned, Aeddan scrambled to his feet, staring as the length of the beast passed him by, the body taller than a house and long, like an unimaginably giant, demonic centipede. The length of the beast was incomprehensible, lit  by the fire within and glowing with row upon row of openings. The faces of the damned, souls who’d been consumed by the ravening beast peered out as they flashed by. Sparks flew from its many hooves.

Terrified his men would be crushed by the immense creature he shouted for them to back off, his voice drowned by the din.

Abruptly it was gone, vanished inside its lair. In the sudden, deafening silence, Aeddan wondered how such a thing could possibly have fit into the cave. Yet it had done so, and other than the stench of its passing, there was no sign of it.

He remounted and settled his lance in the holster beside his stirrup, then turned to his men. “Rouse the village. We must seal it’s lair with stone and mortar. We may not be able to kill it, but at least, we can stop it from marauding and decimating the countryside.”

>>><<<

Mist shrouded the small valley just outside of the village of Pencader. Engine Driver Owen Pendergrass looked at his pocketwatch and opened the logbook, noting the time and that they had just departed Pencader. He said to the fireman, Colin Jones, “We should be approaching the tunnel, though it’s hard to tell in this mist. We’re making good time despite the fog. We’ll be in Carmarthen on schedule.”

“Sir! Look just ahead! What…?” Colin pointed ahead.

A group of mounted men dressed like medieval knights, complete with lances lowered as if prepared to joust, appeared out of the mist, attempting to block their path. “God in heaven—what next!” Blowing the whistle to scare them off the tracks, Owen pulled the brake cord but there was no way the train could stop soon enough. In no time at all, the train was upon the knights, scattering them and blowing past. Owen looked out the window, to see if they’d survived but they were gone as if they’d never been.

“Vanished,” said Colin. “Like the ghosts when we passed through here yesterday.”

Hiding his trembling hands, Owen shook his head. “It was a close call, but no harm was done. We’ll not be mentioning this to the authorities, eh? Not after the way our report was received yesterday. It’s a haunted valley, but it’ll do us no good to mention it to anyone important.”

Colin agreed, and turned back to fueling his fire, shoveling coal as if he could work the fear out of his mind.

The connecting door opened and Harrison, the chief steward, entered. Pendergrass told him the same thing, and the old man agreed. “We got in enough trouble at the yard yesterday for mentioning the ghosts. I’ll go soothe the passengers.”

“Tell them it was just the mist and the dark playing tricks on their eyes.” Owen shook his head and glanced out the window, seeing they had emerged from the tunnel into a clear, cold evening and would soon be at the next stop, the village of Llanpumpsaint. “Playing tricks indeed.”


“The Iron Dragon” © 2016 Connie J. Jasperson, All Rights Reserved

For more stories involving what may or may not be dragons, check out today’s post by Chuck Wendig–he has posted a writing challenge and over the next two weeks the links to many great stories will be filling the comment section:

Terrible Minds/Chuck Wendig: Flash Fiction Challenge: the Dragon

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Filed under #FlashFictionFriday, Dragons, writing