blog Character Agency for Beginners

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Black Dragon, May 6, 2018.

  1. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    Svrtnsse submitted a new blog post:

    Character Agency for Beginners
    by Nils Ödlund

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    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;...
    Continue reading the Original Blog Post.
     
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  2. Black Dragon

    Black Dragon Staff Administrator

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    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.
     
  3. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    It's been years (decades?) since last I saw that movie, but I recall the basics.

    I think what matters is that Indiana Jones keeps trying to achieve his own goal The things he does might not change the outcome of the story, but they do impact the course it takes. If he hadn't done anything, the story's conclusion would have been the same, but it probably wouldn't have been a very entertaining story.
     
  4. Yora

    Yora Mystagogue

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    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.)
     
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  5. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Dark Lord

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    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...
     
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  6. ThehornedGoddess

    ThehornedGoddess New Member

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    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.
     
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  7. Moonlake

    Moonlake Apprentice

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    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.
     
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  8. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    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?
     
  9. FifthView

    FifthView Istari

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    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.

    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?
     
  10. Moonlake

    Moonlake Apprentice

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    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.
     
  11. Moonlake

    Moonlake Apprentice

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

    FifthView Istari

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    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
     
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