In her poetry collection Call Us What We Carry, poet Amanda Gorman writes, “Change is made of choices, and choices are made of character.” Gorman is a writer and is the youngest inaugural poet in US history. But she wasn’t referring to the craft of writing when she wrote this. She was writing about the choices we make as human beings and how our choices build our character and create change in the world and in our individual lives. Still, I can’t imagine a better way to look at the way we bring a character to life in a story or a novel, too.
When we write fiction, our characters must have agency. When I talk about a character having agency, I don’t mean that the character is a self-actualized person, someone who has realized their full potential and is making their way independently and smartly through the world, a feminist, an ally, doing all the things they are capable of doing. I don’t mean that the character has achieved all their goals, is at peace with themself and with the world, and is always true to their ideals and values. In fact, I would venture to say that there are few, if any, protagonists who are anywhere near self-actualized. In the real world, being self-actualized is a good thing. In literature, a self-actualized character is boring and has nowhere to go.
Last week, I wrote about What Does Your Character Want? And Why Does It Matter? Now, I’m talking about what your character does because of that want. Novels generally involve not only a story arc, but one or more character arcs–characters who undertake journeys and come away from their experiences changed in some way. So when I talk about a character having agency, I am talking about a character who makes choices and decisions–choices and decisions which often reveal who they are–and who come away changed by those choices and decisions.
A character who wants something–meh. But a character who makes choices and decisions because of that thing they want is an interesting character. And a character who then acts on that choice or decision becomes even more interesting. This also ramps up tension throughout the novel–okay, the character has made this choice and has taken this action–what will happen next? As a reader, I can’t wait to find out.
Sometimes, for example, writers I work with begin their stories with the protagonist making a decision to leave their current situation, whether it’s a relationship or a job or a town they’ve outgrown. The decision to leave is always a scary one–leaving the familiar and the comfortable for the unknown. But what follows is a true and exciting adventure, shaped not only by the situation the protagonist is leaving but by the places they are going and the things they learn about themself as a result of their desire for something more. These are characters with agency.
The decisions our characters make may be good decisions or they may be bad decisions. They may be quite bad decisions. But each choice they make (and each action they take based on that choice) will result in consequences, also good or bad, that then result in them having to make another choice, which will then result in more consequences, and so on and so on. These choices, actions, and consequences drive a story forward to its conclusion.
So when I say our characters must have agency, I am talking about something I call “literary agency.” I’m talking about our characters deciding things and doing things. I’m talking about a character who doesn’t sit around observing. I’m talking about a character who isn’t sat in the middle of a bunch of random things happening around them. Our characters must not only want something but must make choices, take action, and suffer consequences in their attempt to get it. I encourage you then, in its simplest terms, to write a protagonist who undertakes a proactive journey toward the thing they want and who is changed by their experiences along the way.