Point of View questions

Agency – what it is and why it’s critical for your book

What is “agency”?

It’s a term you may have heard before.  It means the characters make decisions that shape their environment and push the plot forward.  In essence, it’s the difference between the plot happening to the character (bad) and the character happening to the plot (good).

Ensuring your characters have agency is critical to writing compelling plots that people will want to read.  If you get it wrong, your story will end up seeming flat and lifeless – even if you have tons of exciting things happening in the background.

Can you give an example of a story where the character has no agency?

I sure can!

The most wonderful part of the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy is how instructively terrible it is.  Seriously, it’s like a masters class on everything not to do in a story.

midichlorians
Ugh

Let’s compare the ending of the Phantom Menace to the ending of Star Wars.

  • In both movies, the protagonist (Luke in Star Wars, Anakin in Phantom Menace)  are involved battles to blow up a space station.  Exciting!
  • In both movies, the hero fires the key shot that destroys the station and saves the day.  Hurrah!

Seems pretty straightforward, right?  Then why is it that the ending to the Phantom Menace falls flat?  Both movies have the same beats, it should be the same emotional weight.

The answer is agency.  In Star Wars, Luke is making decisions that interrupt his environment and move the plot forward.  In the Phantom Menace, Anakin is ignorantly along for the ride, and the action happens around him rather than to him.

Here’s how George Lucas messed up the Phantom Menace (the subject of which could be its own website).

How George Lucas Messed Up the Phantom Menace.

Problem 1

The start of the climax of the movie is the heroes discussing their plans.  Amidala comes up with the main plan and Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan add their two cents.  Hell, even the Gungan frog leader throws in a couple sentences.

Anakin, the main character of the movie literally says nothing.

Anakin
George Lucas: “Okay, can you make a face that shows you’re bored and confused?  Perfect.  Make that face all the time.”

The whole climactic battle to resolve the plot has no input from the main character.  He could have been sleeping and it wouldn’t have altered the end result in any way.  He didn’t choose this plan, nor did he help shape it.  He just stood there, looking stupid.

The plot happened to the character.

Problem 2

Okay, so the good guys are attacking the Naboo palace, to capture the Viceroy.  The script is a mess, but as near as I can tell, that is the objective of the climax.  The action opens with this incredibly “tense” bit of dialogue

Qui-Gon: Anakin, when the fighting starts I want you to hide.

Anakin: Okay.

Great!  The main character is going to hide during the climax.  The main character is going to hide during the climax.  I had to repeat that twice, because it’s the dumbest decision they could have made.  Anakin doesn’t even object and say something like “But I want to help!”.  Nope, he’s just all “sure man, I’ll totally hide.  No problem.”

Anakin hiding
Pictured: Anakin heroically hiding like a coward while the action unfolds around him.

The plot happened to the character

Problem 3

Eventually, Anakin joins the main space battle.  How does it happen?  By accident.  He erroneously presses an incorrect sequence of buttons that put the ship on auto-pilot and makes the ship join the others.

For anyone keeping count so far (me) this is the main character hiding in the middle of a plan he didn’t come up with, watching other people doing the fighting for him, and then being forced to participate because a computer made him.

H…hooray?  What are we even rooting for here?

The plot happened to the character.

Problem 4

So, Anakin reluctantly and accidentally joins the space battle.  I won’t belabor the point much more, except to say that while he’s there, R2-D2 turns off the auto-pilot, Anakin shows no understanding of what’s happening or why it has consequence, he doesn’t express any concern about his situation and he ultimately resolves the “conflict” by accidentally pressing a sequence of buttons that blow up the space station.

Because Anakin is completely unaware of what he did, or why it mattered, this scene has zero narrative tension.  It is putting the main character in danger, but then resolving the danger without any help from him.  Anakin could have literally been unconscious through that whole sequence and it would have played out almost identically.

The plot happened to the character.

It’s a near-perfect example of how to mess up a climactic scene by having it unfold around your character.  In essence, Anakin never interacts with the plot.  Nothing he does really changes the outcome or the ending in any meaningful way.

Also, nothing in the climax helps Anakin achieve his goals.  Whether Naboo falls to the trade federation or not, he’s still going to be trained to be a Jedi.  This cosmic space battle on the outer edges of space have nothing to do with his main narrative arc.  Succeed, don’t succeed… meh.  It doesn’t change the next steps for Anakin.

So how do I make sure my character has agency?

Easy – don’t do what George Lucas does.   Review your action scenes and follow this checklist.  If you have a couple of these checked as “no”, you may have accidentally written a sequence that gives your character no agency:

  • Does your hero understand the danger they’re in, or why it’s happening?
  • Does the action sequence have anything to do with what your main character wants?
  • Does your hero make any decisions?
  • Does the actions your hero takes do anything to impact the plot whatsoever?
  • Did your hero do anything to help resolve the conflict?
  • Does your climax involve ice cream?

    aliens and icecream
    Like in the thrilling and narratively satisfying climactic battle of the book “Aliens and Ice Cream”?

5 comments

  1. Yes! Agreed totally on The Phantom Menace.
    Agency is so important. Terrific post. And I love the checklist… something to keep in mind.
    Aliens and ice cream? Hahaha talk anput agency I can get behind.

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