Six impossible things

Agency in Fiction

Yesterday, my walking buddy and I were discussing several movies from the 1930s and 40s, and she was complaining about a couple that she strongly disliked because, she said, the main character lacked agency, and had to be rescued from various plots by other people. I did some pro forma arguing because I liked a couple of the movies in question, though I was pretty much in agreement about the importance of agency to stories (and especially their resolution).

But the subject kept nagging at me, so when I got home, I started poking around the Internet. Agency turns out to be a popular (though sometimes nebulous) concept in literature – the word gets thrown around a lot without anyone ever actually defining it beyond occasional general statements like “the power to make choices” or “the ability to act” or “the true way to success.” I didn’t hit pay dirt until I started looking at philosophy (!) and sociology.

The best short definition I found was “Agency is an actor’s ability to make purposeful choices.” (“Actor” in this sense being “a person who takes action,” not “Robert Downey, Jr.”)

Note that in order for a character to have agency, he/she has to have a choice to make. If you are out in the rain with an umbrella, you have a choice: put up the umbrella, or don’t put it up. If you have no umbrella, you have no choice: you are going to get wet. Also note that the definition talks about the ability or capacity to make choices, not whether someone actually uses their capacity, and certainly not whether the results are what the person choosing wanted or expected.

And that’s where fiction comes in. When you start looking, agency is all over all kinds of fiction, from different angles. There are stories about people who made good or bad choices in the past and then suffer the consequences; stories about people who face current choices, large or small, personal or public; stories about people who have no choices and want some, or who struggle to find or create choices where there seem to be none. Fiction is, to a large extent, about the choices characters make and the desirable or undesirable results those choices have.

A character who gives up and accepts his/her fate at a critical moment in a story – especially someone who still seems to have choices, but who refuses to do anything about them or make any further moves to achieve his/her goals – loses a lot of readers, even though choosing not to act when one is able is, theoretically, still a choice. It is almost always a huge, horrible let-down when someone who has struggled through half a novel or better, against increasingly heavy odds, decides to give up the fight.

As always, there are exceptions. The two that come to mind are the character who has truly exhausted all his/her choices, and the character who still has choices but who has succumbed to despair and thus can’t see or act on any of his/her few remaining options. They both require a fair bit of groundwork and setup, and both are still tough to pull off. For my money, the character who succumbs to despair is a bit easier than the character who truly has no more choices, because if there is any other option that the reader can see (and readers can get really creative when it looks as if their favorite character is about to succumb to some inevitability or other), they will never believe that the character couldn’t/wouldn’t think of the same thing. And having a choice but not using it is far worse than having no choices at all. (Sitting and thinking hard about the best move to make next is a kind of positive action, provided it doesn’t go on so long that the reader starts getting impatient.)

Matters are a bit different when the story opens with the character paralyzed by despair. It can be hard to get the reader interested and involved with such a character, but the assumption is usually that things are going to change (else why are there all these pages after Chapter One?), and watching someone climb out of a hole when it initially looks as if they have no options can be interesting.

There are also stories where the whole point is a character’s moral and spiritual decay, like Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984; the entire plot is a slow stripping away of whatever agency the characters started with, until by the end they have no choices left. Note, however, that in both cases it takes the author an entire novel to get the characters to the point where they have no options – this is not a surprise plot twist that can be thrown in at the last minute, not if it going to be convincing.

For most stories, though, the point is that the main characters have options, and usually the power to choose among them – in other words, they have agency. It is annoying and frustrating when they don’t exercise their agency (which was the real problem, I think, with the movies my friend was objecting to – the characters still had choices, and could have picked a more productive course of action, but instead sat around waiting until someone else came to the rescue). It is especially annoying and frustrating when characters refuse to make choices or to act at a turning point or climactic moment in the story. So don’t let them do that.

  1. I’ve found that having choices isn’t good enough. It doesn’t matter if they can choose if none of their choices effect the course of events.

    For me, this showed up in the writing process. I knew how the story was going to go, I knew what was happening, all the characters were taking action, but nothing any of them could do would alter anything. It was very unsatisfying. I realized, that if I wanted this to be a proper novel, they would have to actually have the chance to alter events, but more importantly, they should actually be responsible for causing some of the awful events that occur. Note, this project has not been worked on since!

    • Cara,

      This is how I came up with my definition of character agency, which, interestingly, is near-identical to the one above: Agency is the ability to make meaningful choices. To me, in your example, the characters may have choices, but they’re not meaningful.

      We came up with this definition while discussing roleplay characters and situations: it’s great to give a character the option to go right or left when the tunnel branches, but if the players/characters don’t have any information about the two options, it’s a meaningless choice. Since introducing it to my roleplay vocabulary, I’ve found it useful in fiction-writing and discussion, too.

  2. There’s a point where Miles Vorkosigan is drugged and tied to a bed. And he takes stock of the options he has – move or don’t move, open eyes or don’t open eyes, what kind of impression he wants to give his jailers – and comes up with a plan which he executes and which gets him a step closer to his goals.

    It’s extremely frustrating when writers decide that characters – particularly women – have no choices and thus won’t act so they just stand there and wait until someone else fixes things. If Miles can have agenda, every character can.

    I think it depends on the genre and individual expectations whether readers will accept ‘make a last stand even though the situation is hopeless’ ‘write down events so future generations will know what happened’ ‘teach a skill to another person so it will be passed on’ ‘save/spare one person’ and other similar small acts as sufficient (the heroic last stand, probably yes) – but they all demonstrate agenda.

    If you go out without an umbrella in the rain, you can seek shelter. If you’re caught out completely in the open… you can be miserable, or you can dance in the rain and make a stranger smile.

  3. It’s interesting to see your take on the subject of “agency” in stories, and it seems a very balanced one. I first came across the usage of “agency” in storytelling on a fantasy writing forum and it confused me. More so because many of them seemed to think any story where a character wasn’t able to make any choice they wanted at any given time lacked meant the character “lacked agency” and that just makes no sense to me. If you can’t have stories where characters find themselves in difficult positions where their choices are limited then how do you create drama?

  4. I love reading stories where the main character makes a certain choice in the beginning, which doesn’t turn out the way they want. Then they are faced with a similar dilemma near the end of the book, but this time they have learned from their choice and make a different, better choice. Agency at its finest!

  5. No agency, no reader involvement. You’re SO right.

    You can show a character stubbornly refusing to take the big steps you think she needs – and her reasons, but I won’t follow unless she is working the little steps at the same time. Misguided protagonist who sees the light eventually, yes. Whiner who has to be rescued, no – tell me about the rescuer instead, and why she would spend time trying to save someone who won’t make any effort to save herself.

    We don’t read to find out who we are – we have plenty of failures in real life. We read to find out who we could become – and which choices would put us there, and to have some understanding of whether we could possibly make those required choices so WE could go there: could you be Strider – and end up King in Lord of the Rings? Or would you stay a Ranger?

    For a while, as you read, you might be King.

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