question people

Ask an Editor: Does my character have agency?

Merriam-Webster (THE dictionary of choice for publishing copyeditors) says that agency is "a person or thing through which power is used or something is achieved." Someone with agency has the power to change things and get stuff done. They can have an effect on the world around them, and their actions are important. It's a useful thing to have in the real world and it's VITAL for any major character in your story.

In literary terms, agency is the thing that separates a protagonist from a narrator and a strong female heroine from a damsel in distress. Think about the classic story of a princess kidnapped by a dragon. In the original story, the men have all the agency. The dragon chose to kidnap the princess, the King offers half his kingdom as a reward, and the Knight/Prince chooses to fight the dragon to rescue the princess, and the princess is given to him as a reward for slaying the evil beast with no say in the matter. That princess is a plot device, not a real character with agency. Yet if you give the princess some say in the matter, that same story can be completely revitalized. In Dealing with Dragons, (Book One of The Enchanted Forest Chronicles), Patricia C. Wrede takes the idea of being kidnapped by a dragon and turns it on its head. Her princess, Cimorene, is FILLED with agency. When her father tries to marry her off to a handsome idiot, she takes matters into her own hands and arranges for her own dragon "kidnapping," and once she's safely a dragon's princess, she sets about making everything better for herself, the other princesses, and the dragon while simultaneously foiling an evil plot or two.

Story comes from plot. From problems that need to be solved and goals that need to be attained. Agency comes from the ability to affect the plot. Villains, by their very nature, almost always have agency. Whether it's the evil witch trying to take over the world or the bully who wants to steal your lunch money, they cause problems and keep the story moving forward... If they weren't a problem, they wouldn't be a villain.

The trick is to make sure that your main character ALSO has agency. They don't have to be in charge of everything... In fact, in most cases, they CAN'T control everything (If they did, there would be no tension and no risk of failure). HOWEVER, no matter how big their problem is, they MUST have a way to fight back against it. They have to have the ability to make a choice and their choices have to MATTER. Think of it as the difference between fate and free will. A character at the whims of fate, one who ends up at the same place no matter what choices they make or actions they take, is much less interesting than one whose choices and actions have consequences.

And remember, it is EXTREMELY rare for a character in a novel or story to be in a position where they ACTUALLY have no agency. Unless they are completely strapped down, there is probably some action that they can take to effect the story. And even then, they often have options. Minor spoiler alert for Star Wars: The Force Awakens (although honestly why haven't you seen it yet???): In the newest Star Wars movie, Rey manages to take action and fight back against the villain while strapped to a a chair simply by glaring and refusing to give in. There's almost always SOMETHING your character can do... It might not be the best option and the consequences of said action might make things worse (in fact, in most good stories, the character ends up making a number of "bad" decisions that make things worse), but the point is that the story moves forward and things change because of the choices that they make.

So maybe the right question isn't, "Does your character have agency?" Perhaps the real question is, "Is your main character using the agency they have?" If not, then they might not actually BE the protagonist. They might just be the narrator for someone else's story.... And if you find out that's the case, you might want to consider switching your viewpoint to follow the person whose story you are actually telling!

Have a question for our editors? Let us know in the comments!

Author spotlight

Holly West

Senior Editor at Swoon Reads and Feiwel & Friends. Giant geek. Dedicated fangirl. Half-Elven Rogue Cleric. Also answers to That-Girl-Who-Reads-A-Lot.

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