How can you spot good character agency?

I’m going to start sharing some of the feedback I regularly give to clients, along with tips to help you find and change/strengthen these things in your own stories. Let’s start by chatting about AGENCY. (To find more of these on Twitter, search #EditingTipsFromAnna)

Teeny disclaimer for my editing clients: I will never use specific examples or show any part of your stories! This might have formed part of the feedback you received, but I will never, ever talk about YOU or your words.

Anyway – what the heck is character agency?

Boiled down, agency is your main character doing stuff and moving the plot forward. It’s closely linked to their aims/wants/needs/fears. Basically, it’s your MC acting on inner impulses and making the story happen. Rather than things happening to them, they are going out and getting shit done.

Side note – agency is actually pretty unrealistic. We all take action and push towards our goals, but life throws a lot of randomness at us that we have no control over and can’t form a neat narrative around. I think this is why a lot of writers struggle with giving their characters agency. It’s more realistic for lots of things to be thrown at them. However, that doesn’t make for a very compelling story.

As a reader, it’s easy to spot when a character is lacking agency. Either their aim/wants/needs/fears won’t be clear so their actions feel random, or lots of stuff happens to the character rather than them doing things. As a writer, lack of agency can be tougher to pin down. Loads of stuff might happen in your novel, and how can you figure out whether or not this action is being prompted by your MC? This can be especially difficult since you do need a certain amount of external story propellers. Your MC probably has no control over their wider world, the actions of their friends and family, the weather… but they can act within these.

So how can you spot character agency in your stories? First, write out what happens in your novel, point by point. This is a bit different to a synopsis, as you don’t have to keep it short or prune anything out.

I’m going to use The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins as an example to show good agency. If you’ve not read this already – why the heck not? And prepare yourself for a few spoilers.

You’ve written a point by point run-through of your plot. Now, grab a highlighter, and mark every element that is prompted by action from your MC. This is what this would look like for the opening section of the Hunger Games:

There is a good mix of Katniss taking action and other stuff happening. But this is how that opening section would look if her agency was taken away:

Stuff is still happening in this agency-less version, but it’s so much less engaging and exciting! Now, I don’t know how highlighter-full your plot is looking. If it’s a bit bare, don’t despair! Realising your MC lacks agency can feel demoralising but it’s an easy thing to fix.

The first thing to establish is your MC’s aim. This is crystal clear for Katniss – she wants to protect her family/survive the games and return to them. Every action she takes is informed by this. So, take a look at your plot with your MC’s aim in mind. Is every action they take pushing towards this, even if this sometimes conflicts with that they want or forces them to face their fears? What Katniss really wants is a peaceful life. She doesn’t want to fight or lead a revolution, but she is forced into a situation where she has to act contrary to what she wants to achieve her main aim of protecting her family.

Making this aim clear will ensure that your character’s actions are understandable and it gives readers something to root for. Katniss makes things happen, but her actions would feel random without her aim to protect her family. What is your main character’s aim? They might have been thrust into a situation, but what are they going to take control of and push towards? Answer these questions, and then go back and thread agency into your story.

Hopefully, this will just require adjustments. You probably already had an aim in mind, but might not have attached it to your main character or used them as the driving force behind it. However, sometimes adding agency needs larger scale changes. If Katniss had been picked in the Hunger Games originally, writing in Prim getting picked and all that this entails would have required a major rehaul.

BUT putting good character agency into your stories will make them so much stronger. You’ve already written a novel, so you’re more than capable of rehauling it and making it shine!

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