Tag Archives: what is agency in literary terms

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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#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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