character agency

Looking at Character: Everyone Can Be A Hero!

I wanted to step away from some of the more politically and emotionally charged articles and reblogs I’ve been doing lately, vital as they are, to touch on some lighter writing topics.  With that in mind, in today’s Looking at Character, we are going to examine the ups and downs of a favorite character archetype: the Everyman Hero.  Few kinds of protagonists can score higher in the reader relatability department than the Everyman, because at the heart of it, he/she is a normal citizen, just like most of us.

That very fact makes the Everyman Hero both easy and hard to write for.  Obviously, most authors know very much what it is like to be an everyday person so there are fewer chances to make mistakes at the base character level.  You know what a normal person is capable of, you have an idea of just how varied their background and personality can be, and you have a good idea of how they might react when faced with unusual situations.  It sounds like an ease to add to your story.

The thing is, all of those things can also lead to complications.  Especially if your story deals with fantastic elements, you may have difficulty coming up with realistic reasons for the Everyman Hero to be involved in the larger plot or to justify his/her ability to not to participate in the plot, but to even survive it.  This can tie into the overall need for character agency in our protagonists and the possibility of the Everyman Hero to mutate into the Load, something that can be very jarring when said of a major protagonist.  It could also lead to issues of straining the suspension of disbelief (‘How did that toll booth worker fight off two werewolves with a roll of silver dollars?  She should be torn to pieces!’) when you have the Everyman Hero triumph in situations that would stymie even an archetypical action hero.

These aren’t impossible problems to overcome.  The most obvious means to deal with this is to make the Everyman status a beginning point and allow the protagonist to progress along and grow as strange things happen around them, getting by first by luck and talent and eventually becoming something greater than how he/she started.  A more subtle approach is to simply remain thoughtful and open-minded as you approach strange situations involving the character.  Everyman doesn’t mean dumb and everyman doesn’t mean incompetent.  All it means is the character is relatively ‘normal’.  Human beings are capable of some pretty impressive feats, so an Everyman Hero can do the same things when needed.

However you want to work it in, the Everyman Hero can be an excellent character type to use in a variety of situations, most especially if you need a highly relatable character to provide your readers a viewpoint into an otherwise arcane or complicated setting or plot.

If you have any suggestions, ideas, or critiques, feel free to put them in the comments below!

Plot and Motivation: The C.A.B. – The Character Agency Bureau

Today’s Plot and Motivation was inspired by something I’ve noticed has been a major theme with many of my other articles: character agency.  If it’s something that has been a part of a multitude of other writing articles, then it has to be important enough to address on it’s own.  If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, character agency is the appearance that any particular character in a piece has control over his/her actions.

Now, on the surface, the very concept may seem odd.  How can a fictional character have any control over anything?  Obviously, yes, the author has ultimate control over and is responsible for the situations the characters find themselves in and their reactions to that.  However, your readers shouldn’t view it that way.  You should be able to create sufficient suspension of disbelief so that the readers don’t think ‘man, what is the author going to do with these folks next?’.  Instead, they should be thinking ‘how will the hero figure a way out of this predicament the villain has placed her in?’.  If you haven’t created that investment in the characters and generated that important appearance of character agency, you run the strong risk of loosing that suspension of disbelief.

Generating character agency requires attention on many levels of the story.  First and foremost is good characterization.  If the readers can’t relate to and understand the motivations of your characters, they will never believe them capable of making decisions in the first place.  A character with no personality has no motivation to make a decision at all, cutting out agency before we’ve even begun.

Flowing from that, the plot and scenes you create need to allow for the expression of that agency.  If every scene is railroaded from moment to moment, the characters have no agency because they can make no choices.  Strangely, it is often a bad idea to allow the choices of the characters to control the entire plot.  If they are never challenged, thwarted, or countermanded in their decisions at any point, you can break the suspension of disbelief in the other direction.  No one makes it through life completely on their own decisions.

A final important point of character agency is that the characters should be able to take the initiative in decision making.  This may seem a fine point to make, but if you take a character who mechanically moves through the plot only making the decisions put to him by other characters or forced upon him by the environment doesn’t show any real agency.  He/she is simply reacting to the environment.  A character with agency also acts upon his environment and is an active participant in your story.

The ultimate point is that even the most spineless or weak-willed person has beliefs and makes decisions, both reactive and independent.  Even if they are thwarted in those decisions, the fact that they make them is important to creating fully realized characters your readers will be happy to invest in and follow through your stories.