Remember, remember, the fifth of November…
So, at the risk of possibly getting some grumbly comments, I wanted to talk for a little bit about a new buzzword I see popping up more and more often. Agency. Journalists and critics are latching onto it to talk about characters (often women and people of color, but I’ve seen it applied to characters of all genders and races). Like so many buzzwords, though, I rarely see it defined by the folks using it.
Which, of course, makes it easier for them to use…
This is a bit misleading, though. Agency isn’t a new word. It’s actually a fairly old sociology term (from the Enlightenment) that’s migrated into literature. Well, migrated’s a bit misleading, too. Maybe it was chloroformed and woke up tied to a chair, unsure what it was doing here.
In a sociological and philosophical sense, agency refers, in simple terms, to free will. Can a person make their own choices and affect the world around them? How much does the world or society they exist in constrain that ability to make choices? Does it cancel out free will altogether, or just the appearance of free will? Is there a point where I no longer have free will?
While this is fascinating stuff to debate over drinks, it doesn’t really have anything to do with literature. As I’ve mentioned in the past, when I’m writing, I’m more or less the god of this little world I’m creating. And I’m a micro-managing god, too. None of the characters move, speak, or have a single thought without my say-so. There is no free will. Zero. Because I’m creating all of it. Every sentence, every idea, every word, every punctuation mark. It all comes from me.
Okay, in all fairness, some of the punctuation comes from my beta-readers and copyeditor.
When critics and literary pundits talk about characters having agency, at the core they’re talking about something we’ve addressed here many times. A a writer, I need to make my readers believe these characters are people who are having an actual effect on the story. My characters shouldn’t be window dressing, they need to do things. If I’m going to make a point of Wakko or Yakko or Dot being in my story, then there should be an actual reason they’re in the story.
I read a book a while back that was your standard “chosen one shall save us” sort of thing. A young girl—we’ll call her Phoebe—discovers her birthright and powers, must go into hiding, has to fight off enemies she didn’t know she had, needs to learn how to harness and direct her abilities. We’ve all seen this a few dozen times at this point, right?
Except… well, Phoebe didn’t really do anything. She didn’t discover her powers, she learned about them from her parents. She didn’t decide to go into hiding, she was told to go—pretty much forced. There were two guardians who fought off the enemies for her (one actually sacrificed himself so she could get away). Hell, when Phoebe finally got to the Tabernacle and began to train, people were even walking her through that. She just kind of stood around looking dazed and confused. Phoebe didn’t make an actual, independent decision about something until page 114.
Not exactly inspirational, that chosen one. In fact, for those first 113 pages Phoebe could’ve been a duffelbag full of towels all the other characters were handing off to one another. She just didn’t do anything.
Y’see, Timmy, my characters need to face challenges and need to respond to them. They should make choices—ones that are consistent with who they are. They need to be active, with their own thoughts and opinions. And they should have a real affect on how the story plays out.
Here’s a simple test we can perform. Let’s say I scribble out a two or three page summary of my current novel or story or screenplay (choose which one applies to you). I want to be as thorough as possible without changing how I’m telling the story. So I put all the introductions, reveals, explanations, and so on in the same order they appear in the book. Make sense?
Okay, so let’s look at this. What characters did I mention? Which ones did I skip over? Reading through my summary, I mention Eli, Harry, Zeke, Theo, and Fifteen. I don’t mention Eli’s childhood friends by name, the bus driver, the cashier, or the cigarette man. That’s because they’re all supporting and background characters. By nature of the beast, they should be a little more… well, two dimensional. They’re the stepping stones and redshirts of our story, so we’re not going to focus on them too much.
So let’s look at the characters we made a point of mentioning and naming. These should all be important to the story, right? Every one of them is key somehow.
Now, take one of them out.
If these are actual characters who are supporting the plot and making things happen, my story should fall apart without them. If Dot can step in and immediately pick up the slack from Wakko’s absence… well, he can’t have been that important to things. If nothing at all changes when Yakko vanishes, he definitely wasn’t important. And if they’re not important, if they’re not having an effect… I really need to ask myself why they’re here.
So do great stuff with your characters. By having them do stuff.
Next time… I’d like to talk about the bug problem.
Until then, go write.