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Melissa Caruso @melisscaru
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Okay, so, agency! So important in storytelling! What is it, how do you tell if your characters have it, and how do you fix it if they don't? (Thread!)

Agency sounds like guys in suits with dark glasses stuffing you in the back of a van, but it's kind of the opposite of that.
Agency is, basically, your character’s ability to affect the plot in pursuit of their goals.

If they're not pursuing their goals, or not affecting the plot, they lack agency.
Agency can be especially tricky in fantasy, because a lot of our favorite tropes are kinda reactive.

The plot is all about trying to Stop The Villain From Doing Bad Things, rather than what the characters might want.

Or we're just following a prophecy like it was a cake recipe.
Lack of agency can be a seductive trap, because it doesn't mean lack of excitement. I know I love building plot around "OH SHIT!" moments, where something terrible and unexpected happens.

It feels natural to make the story something that happens TO the characters.
But your main character needs to be driving the story. They can't just be in the back seat, along for the ride.

Because there are problems that come with lack of agency.
For one, lack of agency undermines character.

Moments of choice are vital to defining character. But if I’m too busy dodging assassins and following my prophecy cake recipe to the letter, I’m not making any important decisions.
Having goals and motivations is also central to character, but if all my goals are created for me by the villain (stay alive, save my friends, protect the village, etc), they don’t illuminate much about who *I* am, and what inner drives propel me forward.
It also hurts the story’s through line. The main character’s pursuit of their goals is the current that pulls the reader inexorably onward & keeps us turning pages.

If our hero is just reacting to a series of events—no matter how exciting—the story falls flat between them.
Like, WOW, thank goodness we escaped those assassins! Now we’ll, uh, sit around drinking tea and talking about what a close call that was and wonder who's trying to kill us until the NEXT exciting surprise happens, I guess. (My first drafts are often SUPER GUILTY of this.)
This drops the tension on the floor.

The reader has nothing to draw them onward.
So, okay, agency is important! How do you check whether your main character has it?

Ask yourself these questions, both in general and on a scene-by-scene level:
1. Does the character have a personally important goal (with something at stake and serious consequences if they fail to attain it)?
This doesn’t even have to have anything directly to do with the main plot. Maybe the main plot is to defeat the dark lord, but what our hero really wants is to find her missing sister, or for her parents to finally accept her, or to SHOW THE WORLD NOT TO LAUGH AT HER INVENTIONS.
2. Are they taking actions to pursue that goal?

We need to see them doing stuff to try to get what they want, and not just sitting on their hands hoping someone will hand it to them, or letting some mentor figure drag them along the path to victory.
3. Are the actions they’re taking having an effect on the plot?

This doesn’t need to be the effect the character intends. Their plans can go horribly wrong. Their actions could even make things worse.

But things should be different because they tried.
If you realize your character lacks agency in some or all of your book, don’t despair!

Not only can you fix this, but fixing it often will take your book to the next level.
For instance, let’s say you need your character to get captured. How the heck can getting captured be a result of pursuing their goals?

Well, maybe instead of getting randomly jumped by kidnappers, they get captured when they’re in the midst of sneaking into the bad guy's lair.
Or if you need to drop an info bomb, instead of having Mr. Mysterious show up and be like "Woooo, the world is secretly made of cheeeeeese," the characters can deduce it themselves after retrieving a world-cheese artifact from antiquities smugglers.
Some of my favorite moments in my own books have come from fixing and increasing agency.

It's hard to give examples without being spoilery, but for instance, in THE DEFIANT HEIR, Amalia makes a big decision at a party, around the end of Chapter 4. It affects the whole book.
In my earliest draft of the first chapters, her mom made that decision for her. NOWHERE NEAR AS COOL.

Luckily, I realized this robbed Amalia of agency, and asked myself "What if she made this choice HERSELF? What if it was HER IDEA?"

And the book was SO MUCH BETTER for it.
It’s okay for our heroes to be caught completely flat-footed sometimes. Those moments can be wonderfully intense.

But overall, it’s important to make sure our main characters are propelling the plot forward, not being dragged limply through it.
Sometimes they may accidentally roll their boulder off a cliff instead of up the mountain, or it may slip in their grasp and run them over as it tumbles back down the hill.

But they need to keep trying.

If Sisyphus takes a nap, the tension is gone, and we put down the story.
I hope this was helpful! I also have a slightly longer, slightly different version of this thread in a blog post here:…

Keep striving!
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