Give your characters agency to drive a story

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Action-and-IntentionWhen I coach authors on their stories, I advocate the relentless use of agency for their characters. Agency is not a term that is common to writing instruction. I first heard about agency in a seminar taught by novelist Jim Shepard at the Tin House Writer’s Workshop. Shepard was dynamic in those classes, teaching from the balls of his feet, always moving and taking action.

Agency is the persistent taking of action or intervention. A rich and well-crafted character is always taking action to respond to challenges and improve their life. Things do not just happen to a good character. They make choices: tear down that fence, apply for the scholarship, take the ill-marked back road, give their coat away on the rainiest day of the month to a homeless person. Lie to win a job, and so on. As a reader, I enjoy living with characters who take agency. Right choices or wrong, these are interesting people.

Things happen in a story where the characters have agency. They attempt to control their fates. The payoff is that as a writer, you get to create scenes. When it’s done well, building scenes is hard work,  Actions — even the fight that ends a relationship, or the interrogation of a suspect in a mystery — are the high-octane fuel of a story.

When a character shows agency, they make choices or decisions, good or bad, and those can lead to action. If they choose not to act, we can be shown their decision to stand by that, too.

Finding power for change

In Orson Scott Card’s draft book  Characters and Viewpoint he says, “If a character is relatively powerful — powerful enough to make choices that change other characters’ lives — the reader will remember her better and expect her to amount to something more in the story.”

A compelling story makes it clear to us what’s at stake for the main character, and those stakes need to be high. Then the character takes risks to achieve what they yearn for — and they succeed or do not. And there are consequences for every risk taken, regardless of the outcome.

The alternative is a story that’s driven by feelings and musings. There’s a place for those stories, too. But maybe the most important part of good stories is that their heroes and villains are acting. Not talking about what they once did, or remembering in a boozy stupor what someone said, or wishing for better fortune but doing nothing to gain it. Bad things should happen to the best of characters. But those things should flow from some choice or action that the character makes.

Try it out with a character when you’re stuck in a story. You know what they want. Make them take an action to get it. They should be the person who acts to produce a particular result. Give them severe stakes if they make the wrong choice. Trouble drives great stories, and you can get into trouble by going somewhere.

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