5

I have two main characters. Character A is more prominent than Character B. I've been trying to tease out problems with the story as a whole, and I'm concerned these two characters lack agency.

Character A has made several major decisions in the past, setting complex events in motion. The story begins after these decisions have already taken place. He only makes another major decision at the climatic point of the story which is the first one in 'real time.'

Character B makes the decision to get involved in Character A's life (with a complete lack of awareness as to implications) and then is swept along by events, only really making the major decision to not leave well alone when all is revealed.

There are other characters with strong opposing agendas who push until Character A makes his final decision, but am I doing a disservice to Character A and B by not making them more in control?

  • Who is actually telling the story? – Double U Jul 17 '18 at 0:03
  • It's in third person: perspective is 50% Char A, 45% Char B and 5% Char C (who is the most prominent char after these two) – Brisdest Jul 17 '18 at 0:12
  • Is this a Romance novel of something? Often in the Romance genre, the author goes back and forth between the two characters in third person. I think it's rare for other genres to do something like this. Stick with one POV. – Double U Jul 17 '18 at 4:25
  • Is your concern is that neither A nor B are controlling events in your book? – Alexander Jul 17 '18 at 6:55
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    @DoubleU Happens in SF/F all the time. As long as the POV is made clear to the reader, you can switch generally whenever you need to. – Lauren Ipsum Jul 17 '18 at 9:45
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At the heart of every story is a choice about values. The protagonist is brought to a point where they must choose between two things they value. This requires the ability to actually make the choice and accept the consequences. That much agency at least is required.

On the other hand, there must be limits to the character's agency as well, since if their agency were unencumbered, they would not be forced to make the choice that they don't want to make. If they could have their cake and eat it too, they would.

So, story requires a limit on the character's agency that forces them to choose between having their cake and eating it, but sufficient agency to choose between having the cake and eating it. And that agency to choose cannot come out of nowhere. The reader reads in anticipation of this choice, and so they require evidence both that there are limits on agency that will make the choice hard, and sufficient agency to make the choice possible.

If you know what the central moral choice of your story is, you should be able to deduce from that what level of agency your characters require to demonstrate the capacity to choose and the inevitability of having to choose.

  • Thank you, I think this fixed things far more clearly in my mind! – Brisdest Jul 17 '18 at 16:24
4

In my opinion, your story would be fine, and readers would be fine, if your characters exhibit a significant amount of agency once and early.

If the hero (and sidekick or whatever) chooses to subject themselves to a harrowing experience that lasts the entire book, and this choice is real (not a "your money or your life" choice), then what follows can be coerced.

In the Hunger Games, Katniss makes a choice: Take her sister's place. She could legitimately have held her tongue, but out of love she chose to risk her own life instead of letting her sister march to almost certain death. That's a real choice that showed agency. After that, it's fight or die.

The same could be said for McClane in Die Hard (Bruce Willis). He could have left the hostage situation to the police, but chose to risk his life to save his wife and two daughters that were victims. After making that decision, for Katniss or McClane, future "agency" is pretty much in never giving up no matter how bad it gets.

Your story can be similar, just be sure you engineer the situation so the characters make one real choice in the beginning. Even if it seems a little coerced by love (like both Die Hard and Hunger Games), make it a decision against orders, wise advice, the law or the Expected Norm in their culture (as is true for both Die Hard and Hunger Games).

3

It is difficult when we do not know the plot.

But the fact that you have asked this question at all suggests that you know there’s a problem with your story. And I would say, yes, you probably are doing them a disservice.

The problem with characters who lack agency is that they don’t drive the story, and characters who don’t drive the story often come across as dull and ineffectual (not that I’m suggesting yours are, I’m just highlighting a possible danger).

It’s okay for an event to happen to a character without them having any agency over it, but they must react and make decisions based on that event. Their reaction as a result of that event or dilemma should then be the driving force for the next event in your story.

Read this article for more information on this:

https://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/writing-the-perfect-scene/

And for further detail, the book this is taken from:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Techniques-Selling-Writer-Dwight-Swain/dp/0806111917

It is hard to write in this way, alternating scenes/chapters between goal/conflict/disaster and reaction/dilemma/decision but having written one novel where I didn’t do this and one where I now have, the difference is startling in terms of how engaging and readable the characters are. It makes for a far more interesting read than a story where events simply wash over your characters like waves, bobbing them around like lifeless objects.

Good luck!

  • Thank you for the links, I think you've exactly nailed what my concerns are, so I know I have some work to do! – Brisdest Jul 17 '18 at 16:25
  • @Brisdest NP. You may find, as I did, that you don’t have as much work to do as you thought. When I analysed each chapter coldly, I found that I had quite a few chapters back to back that had a lot of conflict. But then several chapters back to back that were all reaction and dilemma yet with no real decision making on the part of the protagonist. That made her seem ineffectual with the events washing over her... cont. – GGx Jul 17 '18 at 16:36
  • By restructuring the novel, I was able to intersperse the conflict chapters with the dilemma chapters to keep the engine running and prevent slumps. But I also ended each dilemma chapter with a firm decision by the protagonist on how she was going to move forward. That decision then really informed the conflict in the next chapter. It wasn’t as much work as I initially thought and it’s made such a difference. My protagonist now drives the story. Best of luck with yours. – GGx Jul 17 '18 at 16:36
2

I have heard it stated as a fact on a number of occasions that people in general only make two serious decisions per year, the rest of the time they just go with the flow. Most of the time life happens and people do their best to get through it. Assuming that all these people are in fact more or less correct and depending on the time scale of the story; the characters having made their decisions and the story covering them riding out the consequences of those decisions is not unrealistic.

Alternatively if characters can't or won't make decisions fast enough then they will lose agency, a case of "if you don't make the decision the decision makes you" and/or "he who hesitates is lost". If the pace of the piece is slightly frenetic then a certain lack of agency is to be expected as the protagonists are "overtaken by events".

Characters can be very active while not actually having a lot of plot control if they're reacting instead of acting, the example that comes to mind is the Nightside novel Sharper than a Serpent's Tooth by Simon R. Green. There's a plan at the very start of the story but by chapter two or maybe three that's a happy memory and the rest of the book is a series of ill-conceived responses to the latest obstacle, the protagonists don't really make any decisions they simply do what they think they have to to keep moving.

I some of that helps.

  • You assumed correctly about the time scale and pace of the story, and you've certainly assured me that I don't have to overload my characters with lots of new big decisions, thank you! – Brisdest Jul 17 '18 at 16:27
  • @Brisdest I try not to make any assumptions about your particular tale I'm just saying that if the story is fast paced and set over a reasonably short period seeing characters as victims of fate rather than being in control of their destiny is a pretty human normal position to have them in. – Ash Jul 17 '18 at 17:00
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Whoever is telling the story should have the most agency. If Character A is the narrator, then everything should be written in terms of Character A's point of view. After all, people can't read minds. They only know what's in their own minds.

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    "Agency" doesn't mean "point of view." It means "having an effect on the plot." The OP is asking "Should I be worried that my main characters are not having any effect on events?" – Lauren Ipsum Jul 17 '18 at 9:46

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