Welcome and thanks to our second guest poster of the month, the fabulous speculative fiction writer Sofie Bird. I got to know Sofie via Twitter, and knew right away that she is one of my people. Case in point: she owns a necklace of a t-rex skeleton! — Cass
Character is key to a story. It doesn’t matter how spectacular your plot is if we don’t care about who it’s happening to. And when it comes to creating characters we care about, giving them agency is perhaps the most crucial element.
Characters with agency leap off the page and demand our attention; they grab our hearts and don’t let go. They’re the kind of characters we can chat to in our head after the story is done; the kind we imagine having as a friend (or enemy), with a life of their own. Giving your characters agency means they’re driving the story. It pulls your plot into a cohesive whole that revolves around what the character wants, and what happens when they try to get it.
So what is agency, and how do I create it?
Agency isn’t some nebulous quality that just appears; it can be created! Characters have agency when their purposeful actions affect the plot.
There’s a lot of information in that definition, so we’re going to break it down into goals, actions and consequences: a purposeful action is an action with a reason behind it — a goal it’s trying to attain. That action affects the plot by creating consequences for the character. We’re going to look at these elements and how you can make sure your stories are supported by each.
As Kurt Vonnegut famously said: “A character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” Goals are what give us a way into the character, a way to understand and identify with them, which is the first step to caring about them. The more important the goal is to the character, the better: the more they care, the more we’ll care.
Goals can be attaining something, or preventing something, but they need to be actionable. The character needs to be able to do things that they believe will help achieve their goal. If a character desperately wants their cancer test to be negative, that’s a powerful want, but it’s not a goal. There’s nothing they can do to make it happen or influence the outcome. However, if what they really want is for their insurance company to think their test is negative, that’s a goal: it’s no longer out of their hands. Even if the result is positive, they could sneak in and forge it, or bribe the doctor: they can take action.
The best kinds of goals are ones the character can’t have right away. If Billy gets himself a glass of water from the kitchen as soon as he wants one, it’s not much of a story. If Billy’s water is off because his neighbour’s renovations burst the water main, now we might have something.
But it’s both repetitive and absurd if Billy just searches his environment endlessly for glasses of water. When thwarted, people look for other ways to solve their problem. So Billy’s going to need sub-goals for each scene, things like find out why the water is off, try to tell the water company, relieve his frustration by yelling at his neighbour, get to a café and buy a drink.
These sub-goals need to progress the main goal, or be closely related to it. If Billy suddenly wants catch up with an old friend instead of going to the café, we’re going to feel like his glass-of-water problem isn’t that important after all, and we’ll stop caring.
Agency checklist part one: read through your story and note both what the character wants overall — their primary goal — and how they’ve broken that goal down into sub-goals as problems arise. If you can’t find any goals, invent either something they really want — a promotion, a lover, a glass of water — or something they’re desperate to avoid.
Goals are all very well, but there’re few things more irritating than characters sitting around wanting something and doing nothing about it. In fiction, if the character doesn’t do anything about their goal, we’ll assume they don’t really care, and we’ll stop caring. So: characters have to take actions that they think will move them toward their goals.
Your character’s actions provide the stepping stones of the plot. Every scene or story beat should have a definite action the character is taking. (Okay, not quite every scene, but I’ll cover that later). To make the obvious link: this is precisely why character goals have to be actionable, because we need the character to do things about them. If your goal isn’t actionable, your character will have nothing to do.
Characters also change during a story — in fact, the story is usually the journey that takes them from being unable to do what is needed to attain their goal, to being capable of that action. So the actions they choose should change as the story progresses. Maybe they’ll take the high road now, where once they took the easy path. But this growth needs to be based on experience that we see; characters need a reason to change, just like regular people do. And that’s where consequences come in.
Agency checklist part two: write down each action that your character takes to try to attain their goal. If your characters spend a significant time not doing anything, then make some notes on things they could try, or perhaps some smaller sub-goals they could strive for if the main goal is out of reach. If you can’t think of anything, revisit whether your goal is in fact actionable by this character.
So, you have characters who want things, and they’re taking actions to work towards attaining them… but the plot just happens anyway. Explosions. Pirates on the high seas. We start to feel like this isn’t the character’s story, that they have no power over their own lives, and their actions are pointless: nothing they do has changed how the story turned out.
For characters to have agency, the plot must respond to the character’s actions.
Usually, things get worse and worse until the character has a breakthrough and can finally take the action they need to resolve things. But just making the situation more dire doesn’t work: it must be a direct result of the character’s earlier actions. Essentially, the story is teaching the character that the initial way they wanted to solve the problem isn’t the “correct” one. They’ll keep making things worse for themselves until they learn to do things the “correct” way. I’m putting “correct” in quotes here because we’re not talking about what’s morally correct. It’s all relative to the character’s journey.
If, after complaining to his neighbour, Billy goes down to the café to get water, but the café is closed because it’s Monday, that’s boring. It’s not related to anything that happened before, and Billy learns nothing. If the café refuses to serve him because the neighbour’s wife owns it and she heard what Billy said down the phone — now we have consequences. Billy’s own actions have made things worse, and have driven the story forward by creating a new problem for him to solve. These consequences eventually combine into the climax that helps Billy realise he should perhaps try asking nicely for a change.
Other than your inciting incident — the initial event that pushes the character off on their journey, like Billy’s water being shut off — everything that happens should be a result of the character’s actions, preferably within the story itself. (A word of caution on using backstory to justify consequences: it’s an easy shortcut, but if we don’t see the action that caused the event, it doesn’t feel as ‘real’ to us. Use backstory sparingly, and never for a major consequence.)
Agency checklist part three: go through your story looking for all the events that happen. Can you tie everything back to an action the character took earlier? If not, maybe your character isn’t taking big enough actions, or your story needs to react more to them. Consider the worst possible outcome from your character’s actions, then inflict it upon them!
A final word on breaking the rules
Combining goals, actions and consequences give your character the ability to change your story, which is the sense of agency readers want to connect with—they want power over their own lives. But not every scene needs to have agency.
Sometimes, after a big revelation or a huge loss, a character needs to take stock, think over what just happened and decide on a new direction. But those scenes need to be few and far between. Think of it like a rollercoaster; scenes with agency are either building up or racing down; scenes without agency flatten out. They give you a breather to process what just happened, but too much kills your momentum.
And that’s it, we’re done! Three simple steps to create engaging and memorable stories with characters that readers love. Happy writing!