Character Agency is one of those buzz topics I see thrown around all the time and it amazes me how often people use it wrong. So let's grab a definition, shall we?
Agency, is a character's ability to make decisions and affect the story in a meaningful way.
Alright, blog entry's done, everybody pack up and go home. Good job.
Stick with me, there's a lot to unpack here.
Content Warnings: Insinuation that characters should be...you know...characters and not furniture, ripping on old school Princess Peach, the usual healthy dose of irreverence, and a handful of swear words.
What Agency Is:
A character's ability to affect the outcome of the narrative is agency. If they can make their own decisions, and those decisions matter in terms of the flow of the story, they have agency to one degree or another.
Princess Peach, who Mario sees carried off to Bowser's castle and decides he has to go off and rescue, has no agency. Bowser could have stolen Mario's favorite necktie and sent him on this quest to get it back and the story would still basically work. Ergo, she has no agency.
Princess Leia sends R2D2 off to find Obi-Wan Kenobi in the first place while she's being held prisoner, and throughout the plot does a lot of stuff to change what's going on in the story around her. Were she an inanimate object, Luke never would have known she was there. Were she an inanimate object they would have been caught by storm troopers in that corridor. Leia has agency.
It's almost like I just used two princesses that got kidnapped by the big bad on purpose, isn't it?
If a character is supposed to be a major character, they should do things, and those things should change the flow of the story in some way. They don't have to change the flow of the story for the better, but they should change it!
What Agency is Not:
This can be broken down into two basic camps for our purposes here.
First, Agency is Not a Character Succeeding. Second, Agency is Not Trying And Accomplishing Nothing.
Those sound pretty contradictory, right? Well, they're not and I'm about to break down why.
Agency is Not a Character Succeeding
We've already established that Agency is a character doing something that affects the plot. Sometimes they fail. Sometimes they make things worse.
Our illustrious protagonist pickpockets the villain so that at the 13th hour he doesn't have the little remote that activates his doomsday device, buying the rest of the cast a few minutes to finish screwing him over. That's agency.
Our illustrious protagonist pickpockets the villain so that at the 13th hour when he goes to deactivate the doomsday device that the rest of the cast has convinced him isn't necessary, he doesn't have it and it goes off because it's too late to deactivate it manually. Also agency.
Our illustrious protagonist pickpockets the villain so that at the 13th hour, even when he decides he's not using THAT doomsday device in particular, she has the remote to it. So she sets it off in the middle of his hidey hole and ends his reign of terror. As well as the lives of dozens of workers who were just doing their jobs. Good job hero. But yes, that's agency.
She sure did something. It sure mattered.
Agency is Not Trying and Accomplishing Nothing
Let's try another example, shall we?
Our illustrious protagonist pickpockets the villain. The villain immediately realizes she has done this and takes his little doomsday remote back. Nothing actually happens as a result of her taking it in the first place and she might as well not have been involved. Not agency.
Our illustrious protagonist pickpockets the villain. The villain doesn't notice and goes into the final end sequence and guess what? He wasn't using that doomsday device anyway so her taking the remote out of his pocket doesn't matter in the slightest. Not agency.
But Megan, I hear some of you saying, didn't she take the thing in the first place? Isn't that exercising some kind of agency? She did make a choice after all!
No! No it's not. Because agency is making decisions, yes, but there's a second part to that, and this time I want those of you who are on the same page with me to say it with me: decisions that effect the plot!
If your character sits passively by and does nothing the whole story, you have written a piece of furniture. Congratulations, that's not a good character, go slap yourself on the wrist and try again. I'm pretty sure that at this point we all know that.
If your character struggles and does her damnedest to do something, but the plot just moves on as if she hadn't bothered trying, that's still not good agency, that's you the writer being like "yeah I acknowledge I have to have this character do stuff for feminism or whatever but I don't want to be bothered actually following through" or "I kind of hate this character so whenever he tries to do stuff I'm just going to lol and smack him down".
Really sit down and consider why this character is in your story. Typically, if you're trying to fill a quota, those characters are the ones that are likely to be treated like this. And it isn't helpful. And it doesn't look good on you.
Your characters don't have to snap some guy's neck with their bare hands to have some kind of power over the plot. Sometimes it's as simple as telling a lie at the right time and sending a villain on the wrong path. But have them do something. Have that something matter. Even if it makes things worse.
Megan R. Miller