A person who is in a situation where they can make a decision has agency. Characters in stories have agency when they are in a position to make choices that affect their story. Unfortunately, some characters in stories suffer from agency deficiency. Today, I’ll talk about this particular writing smell and how to fix it.
What is agency deficiency?
As I wrote above, agency is the ability of characters to make decisions that affect their story. A deficiency of this means that characters in the story have too little ability to make decisions that affect their story. Of course, not every character in a book or show has their story highlighted. The nameless woman just walking past in scene 24 and never appearing again, does not have much story and doesn’t need much agency. The main character, however, should be the major force pushing the main story towards its climax.
Keep in mind that supporting characters should still have agency over their own stories. They are all the main character of their stories, which just happen to intersect the main plot. Each character should have an agenda, and depending on their role and importance, they should have agency, or they will seem flat.
This doesn’t sound too hard, but it is remarkably easy to mess up. What usually goes wrong is that a character is only reacting to events and doesn’t have a clear agenda of their own. If you look at fantasy and science fiction stories, some writers put the main characters on a journey through the beautiful world they have crafted and forget to actually let them do something. Another way to fall into this trap is by having the main character surrounded by other characters who actually run the plot. As for supporting characters, well, they just hang around for no reason until they do their part in the plot.
I found the lack of agency particularly vexing in the Rise of Endymion and Olympos by Dan Simmons. Both these books are the last part of a series, and in each the main character is shown around the world while others resolving the story around them. Don’t get me wrong, the start of the Hyperion Cantos and Ilium/Olympos series are both great, but the main characters are very agency-less in the series final instalments. It almost seems Simmons can’t wrap up a plot without using the main characters as a moving camera stand to show-case the cool ending he’s envisioned.
(That, and there is the Islamophobia in Olympos, but I’m only discussing the agency-deficiency today.)
Another example is the damsel-in-distress main character. I have to admit I only read parts of the novel Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, and none of the rest of the series, but it follows this basic premise: Bella falls in love with the vampire Edward who she meets at school. She gets in trouble and her knight in sparkling skin Edward saves her from the bad vampire James. So, where in this story is Bella affecting the plot? She’s mostly just the prize for the actual agency-endowed characters, which is not a good thing for the protagonist.
As an example of a supporting character falling flat on their face I’d like to highlight Queen Amidala in the Revenge of the Sith. She is supposedly a Senator who is directly affected by Palpatine’s efforts to become Emperor. Her reaction to this is doing… absolutely nothing. She sits in her apartment being pregnant, until – whoops – Palpatine becomes Emperor of the known galaxy. Way to go Amidala.
How to fix it
Stephenie Meyer thought that the problem of her book lay in the gender of the characters, and is actually releasing a gender-swapped re-imagining. I disagree. Calling a damsel-in-distress a dude-in-distress doesn’t make them more agency-full – it only sort-of alleviates one of the misogynistic problems with the story.
The actual fix is to give the character enough agency, in other words, they need to have a choice and an agenda. Either that, or you need to delegate them to the background.
In the case of Bella, she should first have an agenda, then push for it. Her goal appears to be that she wants to be with the man she has a crush on, but she actually has no influence on the obstacles placed in her path. For a more in-depth analysis about Twilight, I point you to Film Crit Hulk.
In the case of Hyperion and Olympos, the main character should be doing more. They are led through the world by the hand. Instead, they should be travelling through the world of their own accord, to achieve a goal.
Finally, Amidala… again, she needed an agenda and a goal. Actually, she had an agenda: keep her people safe and protect democracy in the Republic. All she had to do was try to actively rally people against Palpatine. Remember the end of the movie, where she follows Anakin to a lava planet and gets beaten up by him for stupid reasons. If she had been rallying followers in the Senate, Palpatine could have ordered Anakin to take her out of the picture to secure his victory. That would have given her agency and would have given Anakin and Amidala some actual conflict.
As you can see, the fixes are not that hard. Agency: agenda and choices. Have fun.