Character Agency for Beginners

If you’ve been around people interested in the art of storytelling, chances are you’ve heard someone claim that characters need agency. If you’re anything like me you may have a vague impression that it’s about giving the character a reason of their own for doing things. That’s sort of correct.

I’ll try and clear things up a little. What is agency really? What’s it good for, and what are some practical examples? How can I tell if my characters have agency?

What Is Character Agency?

There’s a number of different definitions of what character agency is. Google it, and you’ll find them (along with other articles trying to explain it). Let’s look at a few:

Agency is…

  • …an actor’s capacity to act in an environment.
  • …a character’s ability to make meaningful decisions.
  • …a demonstration of a character’s ability to affect the story.

See what I’m getting at it? What matters here isn’t which definition is the best one, or the most correct, but rather that the idea comes through. Agency in storytelling is about characters being able to contribute to the story in a meaningful way. It’s about your characters making things happen.

Do note that it’s not necessarily about making the right things happen. Agency isn’t about being successful – it’s about doing, or even just about making the decision to do something. It’s not about winning; it’s about playing the game.

Still with me? Good.

Now, what’s the opposite of agency? It’s when your character’s actions don’t have any impact and the story just progresses anyway – either randomly, or through the actions of other characters. Taken to the extreme, a character without agency is just a prop. They’re a piece of decoration that doesn’t serve any purpose other than to have the story happen to them.

That brings us to the next question:

What Is Character Agency Good For?

It’s easy to say that having agency makes a character more interesting, but why is that so, and is it always the case? Is it even true at all?

I mentioned earlier that a character without agency is just a prop, and I’m going to stick with that.

At their core, almost all stories are about characters doing things. Actors, acting. When characters act we get to know them, and when we know them we get invested in what they’re doing. In short, we start to care.

If a character doesn’t act, it’s difficult to get to know them. We don’t develop a relationship with them, and we don’t really care as much about what they’re doing. If we don’t care about a character, why would we read a story about them?

The above is a little bit simplified, but that’s mainly to illustrate the principle. In the real world, and in most stories, it’s slightly more complex and somewhat more nuanced. For example, it’s very possible to have a character that does things, and who still doesn’t have any agency.

Usually this happens with supporting characters, like sidekicks or henchmen or random encounters. These characters are still doing things, but it’s either not on their own initiative, or it doesn’t impact the story in a meaningful way. They’re reacting to events happening outside of their control, or they’re obeying orders, or they’re just passing by and are never heard from again. Many times, that’s fine. There’s often not room for every character in a story to show that they have agency.

If it’s a major character though, someone close to the hero, it’s probably good if they get a little bit of space to show off who they are and what they can do. A sidekick with no agency becomes just another tool for the hero to use as they see fit.

Who’s Got Character Agency?

I’ll pick a few examples from Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope.

Han Solo: Han’s got agency coming out of his ears, and it starts almost right away as we get to know him. In his conversation with Greedo, Han decides it’s better to be safe than sorry, and shoots Greedo. It’s not exactly a noble act, but it’s a decision he makes on his own, and it tells us a lot about who he is as a character.

The same thing happens later on in the detention centre when Han gets bored with the conversation and shoots the communications device.

Leia Organa: Leia too shows a lot of agency. Her actions get the entire story going when she sends R2D2 to find Obi-Wan Kenobi. Later on, just after she’s rescued by Han and Luke, she shows her own initiative again. When the group is pinned down by hostile fire, she grabs a blaster, shoots a hole in the wall and provides an escape route.

Luke Skywalker: Towards the end, Luke is the only one left to fire the missiles into the ventilation duct and blow up the death star. The lives of all his friends, and the destruction of an entire planet hangs in the balance. It’s up to him to save the day, and he’s only got one chance. At this critical moment he starts to hear voices in his head, urging him to trust in some hokey religion.

It’s a tough decision. Does he rely on the fully functional targeting computer, or does he trust in The Force? In the end, he makes the decision, and it works out.

It could be argued that this isn’t a display of agency. You could claim that Luke just does what the ghost of Ben tells him. If Luke hadn’t shown any agency earlier on in the movie, I’d be inclined to agree. However, Luke has demonstrated several times throughout the movie that he’s able to act on his own. His actions might not have been the correct ones, but he’s not just some puppet following Ben’s lead.

How Can I Tell If a Character Has Agency?

Perhaps the most important question to ask yourself is:

Does my character steer the story, or does the story steer my character?

Most likely your character has a goal that they want to achieve. Are they actively working towards reaching that goal, or do things just happen that bring them closer to it?

Who comes up with the ideas for what to do? Who’s deciding whether the idea is good enough to act on?

What about your supporting cast. Are they just there for your main character to use as needed, or do they have plans and motivations of their own?

These are leading questions, and the answer may not necessarily be simple, but they still bear thinking about.

Further Discussion

I’ve talked a lot about how important agency is in order for readers to care about your characters, but is it really all that big a deal?

What are some examples of stories you’ve read or movies you’ve seen where a character has little to no agency, and which you enjoyed?

What’s a situation where you’ve noticed that one of your characters lacked agency, and how did you change it in order to give them agency?

Do you have a definition of your own for what agency is, and would you like to share it?

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4 years ago

Solider's Son is written in first person so the protagonist=main character=narrator.

I'll have to check it out sometime. I've read almost all the Farseer books and either liked or loved them, depending, but when I tried reading her Liveship Traders trilogy, I was bored to tears. Couldn't even read half of the first book.

A first-person narrative can still have a POV main character who is not the protagonist. Here's the first podcast from this season's Writing Excuses that explores some of the differences between "main character" and "protagonist." 13.1: Hero, Protagonist, Main Character

4 years ago

I haven't read that one (yet), so I can't say for sure, but it sounds like the character at least has a will of their own and attempts to do things, even if ends up not working out in the end?

Yes, that's exactly that happens in Solider's Son, especially evident in book 2.

4 years ago

This is the phrase that is throwing me off.

There are stories in which the main character is not the protagonist. The most common example given is Watson-Sherlock Holmes. A main character can be an observer of the protagonist; the protagonist is the one actually moving the story forward and succeeding, not the main character. Is that what Soldier Son does?

Solider's Son is written in first person so the protagonist=main character=narrator. There is an additional 'trick' that the author uses but it's not a gimmicky trick, it's a character trait arising out of the events of the story. Not everyone appreciates this series though, it's ranked 1 star lower than Hobb's series set in her Farseer world but I picked it up because the back cover blurb attracts me more than the first series set in her Farseer world. I'm not done with book 3 yet so I don't know what ppl say about it but from book 1 and 2, I think low stars on goodreads are from those who don't like/can't get into passive protagonists potentially.

4 years ago

I haven't read Soldier Son either.

As long as a character is trying to do something, that sounds like agency. Even if a character only tries to convince someone else of something, or only eavesdrops (or reads a book) trying to discover something, these would be examples of agency—the character might not convince anyone else, and the character's discoveries might not influence whatever another character is doing. Or might.


how you can write a series based on a passive protagonist

This is the phrase that is throwing me off.

There are stories in which the main character is not the protagonist. The most common example given is Watson-Sherlock Holmes. A main character can be an observer of the protagonist; the protagonist is the one actually moving the story forward and succeeding, not the main character. Is that what Soldier Son does?

4 years ago

I’m just about to finish Robin Hobb’s Soldier Son trilogy and I enjoy it not just as a reader but because it showed me how you can write a series based on a passive protagonist and still hold readers’ attentions (not everyone agrees on this but at least it holds my attention). And basically, I think the key is that character agency isn’t just about characters acting or being able to influence things, characters deciding to try things and even if their efforts come to nothing, that is still agency.

4 years ago

Great post. I find myself weaving between psychology and storytelling and the connections between the two because they feed off each other and are essential to writing stories rich with emotional depth. I feel like a great exercise anyone can do is to look at their current relationships with people, situations and environment and ask the same questions you have posed. It gives a really good example of where you do have more agency and what others factors might be at play, like sociology/ economical, circles of associations, mental health etc and are great ways to explore your characters agency as a sub plot or overall plot too.

Mythical Traveller
4 years ago

A story with little or no character agency that was enjoyable? How about Forrest Gump? Just about the only two choices he ever makes throughout his whole life story is to start running one day, and to stop three years later. And you could argue that the second was less a voluntary choice than it was a case of succumbing to sheer exhaustion.

Everything other action in his life was a case of him following someone else’s orders; often to a fault. Yet you can hardly argue that his life made for an engaging story.

4 years ago

I personally recommend United Talent Agency, Creative Atists Agency, or perhaps William Morris Endeavor. Every character should have good representation or the writer will just kill them off… I mean seriously, if Ned Stark’s agency had been Paradigm Talent, no way they’d have let his head roll. Sadly for Ned, his agency was Wilbur’s Red-Shirt Limited, who also rep’d Boromir among many other characters. This is doubly ironic as Sean Bean ended up playing both of these characters in movie adaptations Makes me wonder who reps Bean…

4 years ago

Indy and Marion have both a lot of agency. They just keep failing all the time.

Agency is about having their own goals and desires, making their own decisions, and taking actions to achieve those goals. Success has nothing to do with it.

That being said, both Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back are my two favorite movies and both of them are structured in very strange ways. It took me a lot of time and some researching to come to the conclusion that in both movies, the actual main story is in the subtext, not in the action. The quest to keep the ark out of the hands of the Nazis so they won't conquer the world is not one that could possibly fail, given what kind of story it is. That they won't use it to conquer the world is taken for granted. What isn't taken for granted and what is a real personal stake for the main characters is whether Indy and Marion can fix their troubled relationship. Indy has to prove to her his genuine regret about their past and that he is now worthy of her affections, while Marion needs confirmation that she isn't giving up her self-respect because of his roguish charm. All the Nazi stuff only serves to put them into situations where they both can show their mutual affection and respect while simultaneously exposing their flaws. And in this story they also both have a lot of agency, constantly arguing and also relying on each other. They don't get their happy ending for free, both had to work for it.
(The Empire Strikes Back is about Luke's pride and Han's and Leia's relationship. The plot about running away from the empire and Luke having a training montage and getting badly beaten doesn't hold any water by itself.)

4 years ago

What are your thoughts on character agency in Raiders of the Lost Ark?

On one hand, Indiana Jones demonstrates agency as a character. However, his actions ultimately have zero impact on how the story ends. If he had done nothing, the story’s conclusion would have been the same.