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.