Thursday, October 22, 2015

What Is Character Agency (And Why Do You Need It)?

So, let's say you're reading a book. Your main character is just working his regular job, dealing with life, when suddenly a group of werewolves tries to kidnap him. He's not a fighter, he has no combat experience, and he has no idea that these creatures even exist. He's saved at the last moment by a vampire, who whisks him out of harms way. The two forces fight over him like a soccer ball, until it's finally revealed that he is the key to creating the ultimate monster. His power is unlocked, and he immediately starts tearing into those he considers the villains of this centuries-long struggle for power.

Does this sound familiar at all?

Here's your hint.
Yes, this is the general plot of the movie Underworld, but it's also the plot to dozens of modern fantasy novels if you lightly tweak the story, the creatures, or you flip the gender of the "lead" and his love interest. The reason the word "lead" is in quotes, by the by, is because while Michael Corvin is one of the central macguffins of the entire film, his character really is little more than a talking soccer ball. He could just as easily have been replaced by a corpse, and the film wouldn't have lost a great deal.

Let's Talk About Character Agency

Character agency, in a nutshell, is how much a character can act in the context of the story. Put another way, it's how much your character decides to act, instead of being acted upon. Characters like Michael Corvin, Bella Swan, and others don't act; they are acted upon. In some few instances, they react. They don't participate in the plot; the plot is something that happens to them.

Even Winston was a master of his own fate, by comparison.
It is, in a very real way, like passive tense. Characters without agency are passive. These characters are acted upon, and they have very little to do with the story. They tend to be surrounded by other forces, and to be pushed back and forth by those forces. Characters like Christine Daae in The Phantom of The Opera, for example. While she is, ostensibly, one of the leads of the story, she's little more than a puppet being controlled alternatively by Raoul and the Phantom. She sings because the Phantom tells her to, and she runs away from the Phantom because Raoul wants her to. She's kidnapped by the Phantom so Raoul can chase them, and even when Christine is told to make a choice at the end of the play (or novel, whichever version you're enjoying), her choice is nullified by the Phantom, who sends them all away.

At no real point does Christine decide what she's going to do, or how she's going to do it. She is an object, and objects are not characters that garner a whole lot of interest.

If you're not sure whether or not your character has agency, then ask what they're doing. Characters who have agency will see problems, and do something to try and deal with them. The actions the characters take don't have to work, they don't have to be smart, and they don't have to be brave, but the character has to be able to act without someone else pulling his or her strings.

But They're Not The Real Main Character!

Lack of agency tends to happen a lot in what I've dubbed cat's paw syndrome. This is when your story has a "lead," but that lead isn't really the main character of the story. The main character, the one doing all the acting and who is really behind the plot, is someone that the lead will slowly uncover. Typically this is because the actual main character is supposed to have a lot of mystery and build-up surrounding him or her, and we need an outside source not to spoil the surprise. Hence we have a cat's paw who, while part of the story, isn't actually the person the story is about.

I'm sure we can all think of at least one story that goes like that...
While you can argue that characters like Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, Michael Meyers, and even Dracula are all the true main characters of their books, films, etc., that doesn't mean the author gets to knock off early when it comes to the rest of the cast. Jonathan Harker, while he may not be the main character of the novel, is still capable of taking action within the story. Even though he is trapped by the count, and left to the brides for months on end, he still manages to escape and make his way back to England. Not because they let him go, or because Van Helsing kicked in the door and rescued him, but because Harker was capable of taking action on his own.

We see this in non-horror series as well. Sherlock Holmes is the reason you read his stories, but the narrator and character whose perspective we get is that of Dr. Watson. And while Watson is constantly jerked around by the machinations of his slightly-crazed flatmate, that doesn't reduce him to a perspective on a rope.

Don't Skimp on Character

Agency is something all characters need in order to step into the third dimension. In order for us to buy that the story is real, and to maintain both our suspension of disbelief as well as our enjoyment, we have to see people taking actions. While they can be forced into decisions from time to time, or follow the obvious course, we still have to see them actually doing something in order to invest us in their story.

Even if they aren't, technically, the real lead.

Thanks for stopping in this week, and if you'd like to get all my updates be sure to follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter! Also, if you're interested in supporting this blog, then all you have to do is donate a minimum of $1 by the end of November at my Patreon page in order to get a free book!

1 comment:

  1. Very well said! I try to get this point across to my players in my games. I don't think they understand just how much they can influence and modify the campaign and story if they would just step up and have proactive action in the world instead of reactive. This also makes the games so much more fun because nobody is quite sure where things are going, even the GM!

    This is something that is so important in any story which you state so well. When the main characters are really doing things themselves instead of just reacting the flow of the story can change and the unexpected is more likely, and acceptable.