I’m working through the final edits of my Thomas & Mercer thriller with my editor (due out next April). He pointed out the usual POV issues (point-of-view to non-writers), and a small plot hole – those were easily fixed. All in all, pretty good until he brought up a new subject that hadn’t been discussed in other books and rewrites: A character’s AGENCY.
|The agency of each of these characters is what makes the story so great!|
Now what the hell is that? Sure, all of you who spent years getting your degrees and writing up a storm know what agency is – maybe. But me? A seat of the pants storyteller who creates characters and stories as if they were a dime a dozen (and cliché ridden), this is a head scratcher.
- 1. active force; action; power.
- 2. that by which something is done, means, instrumentality.
A few have defined it as the ability to freely act or live within the defined world of the story. It is also how a character acts within the boundaries that we, the authors, have set for the story. It is their choices, their actions, their responses to the stimulus, and most especially their relationships to the other characters that creates agency.
Every character (along with their agency) has an impact on the plot. It is how we push one character into another; it is this friction that drives the story. It is how their respective agencies react to each other that our story unfolds. Readers are sympathetic to the characters and often empathize with the character – often with a silent cheer or tear, as the story unfolds.
Every character in a story has a job. As Christopher Vogler in his book The Writer’s Journey, says in one narrow definition, (The Hero’s Journey) these rolls are archetypes: hero, mentor, threshold guardian, herald, shapeshifter, shadow, ally, and trickster. Each of these “jobs” are the character’s agency within the story – and each type reacts to the other characters according to their job. In Vogler’s book he doesn’t even write about agency – he defines it differently and calls it archetypes.
In David Corbett’s excellent book, The Art of Character, he calls out desire as the character’s main purpose: their needs, wants, ambitions, or goals and how these impact other characters in the story. It is agency of a kind.
Within a legal contract (Agency Agreement) the party of the first (the principal) agrees that the actions of a second party (the agent) binds them to later agreements by the agent as if the principal had himself made the agreement. (I’m not a lawyer so forgive my simplicity).
This is what happens between the characters in your story. What one character (principal) does must be consistent with the actions/reactions by the other characters (agents) to that same character. Unless of coarse he’s a lying psychotic with a personality disorder—but then again that is his agency.
I often write up the various characters’ curriculum vitae (stats and CV) before I start the story; all the usual hokum: height, weight, race, hair, scars, ex-boyfriends/girlfriends, family, etc. I haven’t gotten into the stuff inside their heads too much—their motivations, their fears, and what if’s in certain situations—I’ve let that evolve in the story. Will the character be sympathetic or psychotic, do they play nice with others, or will they allow others to control them? Will their actions drive the story (interesting) or will the story drive them (less interesting)?
Agency? Yes, this is something that I will definitely pay more attention to; it may lead to even better plotting and characters.
More later . . . . .