Who’s the Agent?

This isn’t an article about whether an author should get an agent, and who that might be, though it is an important issue for most writers. No, this is me putting down my thoughts on the narrative concept of agency – the power, or lack, our characters possess to change the world around them and influence the plot of a story.

Agency is Good

In general, few people like reading a story in which the main character or characters have no influence on their surroundings or what happens to them. There is a danger, particularly when exploring unusual concepts and settings as happens frequently in genre fiction, that the characters are relegated to the role of observers and reporters of the author’s creation. As readers we become disassociated from events because the characters’ actions are rendered meaningless.

The amount of agency possessed by a character varies a good deal depending on the style of story being told, the world they live in and their position within it, and the requirements of the wider narrative. However, the agency of characters should never be ignored, even if it is occasionally subverted or suspended.

For instance, a thriller is very much about the loss of a character’s agency. The character will find themselves, unwittingly or otherwise, in a situation spiralling out of their control, often set against forces with a far greater agency than he or she has. It is the crux of the narrative that the character has little nor no influence for a large part of the story, either because of external influence or some internal conflict or obstacle. It is the realisation of agency, the taking of control to overcome these blocks that lies at the conclusion of the thriller narrative.

There are frequent debates on the nature of ‘high’ and ‘low’ fantasy, and while setting and substance plays an important part in reader’s perceptions of these, I think agency is also a key ingredient. High fantasy, no matter how brutal, bloodthirsty and dirty it is presented, focuses on characters with a high degree of agency. They are the queens and heroes and wizards that can change whole worlds with their actions. In The Lord of the Rings, although Frodo is a humble Hobbit, possessed of very little ability in himself, he holds the ultimate agency in the form of the One Ring. While Aragorn is reclaiming his throne and other characters fight battles and lead armies, it is Frodo (with help from Sam) who can ultimately decide the fate of Middle-Earth. The rest of the cast exist to help him exercise this agency.

Low fantasy, on the other hand, deals with characters who are not going to overthrow dark lords and topple empires. They have far less lofty goals of survival, love, revenge or whatever else it might be. Their means to achieve their ends are themselves and perhaps a few friends or allies and like the thriller, the odds are stacked against them.

Changing your Agent

Agency can (and should)change through the course of the narrative, and as I mentioned with thrillers, the weight of agency between characters can be a pivotal part of the plot. It might be as simple as gaining possession of the magical macguffin that enables the characters to face their enemies, or as complex as resolving personal and interpersonal issues, battling against grief or hatred or lust or something else internal in order to be prepared to succeed in the external conflict.

Although I might not have put it in these terms when I started writing it, The Crown of the Blood series has a strong theme of agency running through it. The disparate characters each have their own agendas, which often conflict but also overlap at times, and the interplay of the exercise of different agency is what shapes the unfolding events as the various characters meet and overcome or are baulked by their trials and the agency of others.

This is no truer than in the story of the main character, Ullsaard. He has quite a lot of agency from the outset, being a general and friend of princes and all that. However, his agency is slowly eroded, not only by the actions of others but by his own ambitions, shortcomings and misconceptions. In the second book, The Crown of the Conqueror, Ullsaard appears to have attained the ultimate agency, but the truth turns out to be very different. In the third book, this examination of agency is taken to its inevitable conclusion, but I won’t spoil that for folks…

As a counterpoint to the ‘high’ agency of many of the characters, I felt it was important to present a far less empowered character. Gelthius is a debtor, caught up in these world-changing events without any volition of his own. He is the small man, trying to do his best with what circumstance presents him, and in many ways I find his story the most engaging. As the everyman, he is most of us, adrift in a world that we can barely control, contenting ourselves with the small victories afforded to us.

Double Agents

In keeping to this theme of conflicting and mutable agency, it is important to remember that our featured characters are not the only characters whose agency may wax and wane. If you want to achieve some semblance of reality in fiction, the ability of our characters to overcome their obstacles is defined not only by their personal agency but also by the agency of the characters set against them.

Yes, characters set against them. Even if they never feature as viewpoint individuals, the dark lords, the scheming aliens, the faceless bureaucrats at city hall or the police commissioner looking for re-election are all characters within the world you have created and have their own agency. If they exist purely to thwart the agency of your protagonist, they may come across as thin, nothing more than plot-required obstacles to be overcome.

Sometimes our characters’ conflicts may arise purely from circumstance, but that is not common. There is almost always some other person whose own objectives are at odds with those of our characters. The agency of these conflicting forces must be weighed as carefully as those of the characters when creating the setting and plot. Too much and the characters have to do something unbelievable to succeed, too little and the reader is left wondering what all the fuss was about.

As with all of these things, this agency must be conveyed through the writing somehow. Are our characters baulked by a deliberate counter-agency, or are they simply caught up in the backwash of a far greater power’s schemes and plans? And when we have conveyed the extent of our antagonist’s agency the reader is left in no doubt what is required of our characters to overcome it and assume agency for themselves, thus achieving their goals and getting the happy ending they so surely deserve…

Agency is Good… Sometimes

So we have the various powers at play, conflicting with each other to give rise to drama and strong narrative. We’re all set then, right?

Wrong.

The nature of reality, even a fictional one, is that no matter how empowered individuals are, we can never rule out the nature of chaos – the reality of coincidence, bad or good luck, happenstance and synchronicity. Our fictional characters should be subject to the ebb and flow of life’s little mysteries as anyone in the real world, where even the best laid plans can be thwarted by a rain cloud or a lucky sword thrust.

Too much or too little agency on the part of our characters threatens the verisimilitude of the narrative. If everything they touch turns to gold we end up with Mary Sue characters with metres-thick Plot Armour; or if they never, ever (and I mean ever) get a lucky break, our suspension of disbelief is threatened when finally they get their chance just at the right moment to resolve theplot.

There is a fine line to draw between circumstance and deus ex machina, but it does not mean that as writers we should avoid giving our heroes a moment of good fortune or happy coincidence. History shows us that alongside personal strength, political power and resolve, some of the most famous and infamous individuals from the past and present might not have ever risen to prominence if not for a quirk of fate or fortunate situation. No character has 100% agency (unless you are writing about a god, I suppose, but even then there are all those pesky mortals to mess things up). The trick is to present those occasions in such a way that they appear unplanned by you (the ultimate agency in any story).

Just don’t push it too far. If the happy circumstance or unexpected setback required the confluence of a dozen different things, you might be stretching the reader’s tolerance. On the other hand, if a somewhat unlikely event happens to occur, well that’s just the nature of the universe, isn’t it?

Balance the flow of agency between characters, and the influence of events beyond any control, and you will create a narrative that appears natural and believable, even if the characters are doing unbelievable things – and less face it, most genre fiction thrives on the unbelievable.

Published in: on October 13, 2011 at 11:51 am  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. really good article. thanks, Gavin – I am writing a novel from the 1st person POV and so the amount of influence the pov character gets vs the amount she gets influenced is very important to building a successful narrative, and has given me at least one headache so far!

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    • Glad to help. First person brings its own issues about agency, because you also have the added problem of relating events outside the experience of the character in a way that avoids exposition-dialogue. On the other hand, the strong focus of first person (in my experience) allows you to concentrate on the strengths and limitations of that character’s agency in the story,

      Gav

      Like

  2. Hey there Gav,
    I really liked this article! I’m just about halfway through “Path of The Warrior” (just discovering fantasy).
    This issue of agency is definitely an eye-opener since I’ve just started writing, and in your opinion, does the “double agency” factor look read better if it’s not so direct? eg An evil king tries to wipe out the elves purely out of hatred, and your main character is an elf on a journey to lead an undercover group in that king’s territory to find an ancient powerstone…??? Or something like that..!!
    I have a lot of political themes in my fantasy, where there’d definitely be conflict, but not necessarily against the protagonist, however the protagonist gets caught up in it somehow…
    Ok now I’m rambling! I must be a long way off from writing a novel!! Haha!

    Am LOVING Path of Warrior!

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    • I think is important that the agency of a character or group is not 100% external. If one is clever, the agency of the character(s) is not in the using of the external source, but in the acquiring of it – for example if there is something about the character that means they are able to prevail when others fail (although avoid King Arthur sword in the stone-type events because that’s equally as lazy). Another way of keeping things fresh is to make the using of the power an exercise in personal agency. For instance, in your example the powerstone in the king’s territory might be the source of the elves’ survival, but only if they are willing to unleash a terrible disaster upon the lands of the king. Will the elves really save themselves at the expense of the king’s subject? And in addition, what is it about that character in particular, or that king in particular, that makes the powerstone important or the deaths of the elves meaningful. At the end of the story, your readers must have some idea why that character alone was able to overcome the story conflicts, rather than just being some random person chosen to be protagonist because the plot required one.

      (The powerstone is a source of agency in the setting, but the protagonist must have or acquire their own agency in the plot.)

      Cheers,

      Gav

      Like


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