Episode 130: Give Your Characters Agency

On January 22nd, Kasie and Rex revisited the “Be Mean to Your Characters” idea with this part two — give them agency. What could be meaner, right? Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day

Give Your Characters Agency


  • Remind/Revisit Episode 57
  • What is Agency and why do you want it?
  • How you know you have it and how you know you don’t
Characters competing for control of the plot? That’s a good thing.
Photo by Gabby K on Pexels.com

Link to the podcast

Segment 1

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So I wanted to do “be mean to your characters” and it turns out we did that way back in Episode 57 (August 2019) and while that seems like a pandemic ago, nonetheless we don’t want to be that show that just recycles oldies but goodies for live broadcasts.

So Google helped me find this “be mean… part two” topic: Give Your Characters Agency.

In a philosophical way, what could be meaner than making your characters make decisions, do something, take responsibility, and live with consequences of their actions?

Agency. That’s what we’re going to talk about today.

Before that, though, let’s talk about our pal Carolyn Hartley whose interview is up on the YouTube channel now. Thanks, Carolyn for your support and all of you listeners out there, go check out Carolyn’s debut novel, Redemption: One Woman’s Dream to Overcome Oppression, Find Family, Love, and Forgiveness She’s working on the sequel now and you’ll want to read that one, too, when it comes out this spring, so get crackin’ on the first one today.

We should do an entire episode on sequels. When to write one. When to not. Have we done that yet? Nope. Put it on the list for February.

Segment 2

Okay, agency. What does it mean and why do your characters need it?

According to this link by Meg LaTorre at Savvy Authors, “agency” means the character is more proactive than reactive in the story. The character does stuff instead of stuff just happening to him/her.

::FacePalm:: as I think of my favorite story “The Shower” and wonder just WTF is wrong with it. Duh. Agency.

Okay, so why does the character need it? Well, if you read Sister Carrie or The House of Mirth and were very, very frustrated with the main characters seemingly powerless to prevent their own total ruin, you know what we’re talking about.

Reading about a character that doesn’t act in their own best interest is frustrating. Even when characters are despicable about the things they do, at least we have action and motivation. Those two things make drama and drama is interesting.

Chuck Wendig at TerribleMinds has this take on it:

“Character agency is a demonstration of the character’s ability to make decisions and affect the story.” more:

  • Has motivations all her own
  • Is active rather than reactive
  • Pushes the plot more than the plot pushes on her
  • Plot moves as a direct result of the character’s actions.

Seems easy enough, right? Except we can fall into these traps:

  • Your story has ideas and the ideas are developing and dragging the character along
  • You have multiple characters and one character’s agency is running roughshod over the others’
  • Characters exist as props to fill in a scene or fulfill a genre archetype
  • Sidekicks and henchmen who do what the main character needs done but don’t have a personal stake in the story

Segment 3

So how do you know if a character has agency? This link offers some questions to ask (direct quote, copy/paste job follows):

  • 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?

Where do we see characters without agency in literature?

We can start with every Mary Sue ever. So, Katniss Everdeen. After volunteering as tribute, she basically lets the plot unfold around her… Or does she? 

  • I like her choice to shoot the arrow through the apple into the crowd – it demands their attention. 
  • I like her choice to threaten the outcome of the games by taking nightshade with Peeta. 

I think she shows agency in a number of ways, but some reads of the book say she didn’t really make the choice, it was the only choice available. I disagree. Thoughts?

Segment 4

So how do you do it? How do you ensure your character has agency?

Back to Meg LaTorre and this link:

  • Drive the plot — determine each character’s motivation and that will help you determine what each character does when faced with a choice
  • Create “choice” scenarios — the best scenes are ones where there a multitude of possible outcomes. Conflict comes from competing choices. Who will prevail?
  • Let natural impulses reign — if you have established the character, they have instincts and instincts are always the first response
  • Examine each beat for its decision and the person / people who make it.

We’ve said before things like, “I needed this to happen,” or “I had to get the characters to this place.” If you know where you need to go and let the plot get there, you have a plot-driven story. If you know where you need to go and let the characters choose their path — that just happens to go there — you’re creating an agency-driven, character-driven plot.
One last “about me” story and then we’ll give the obligatory g’bye stuff. One of the pieces of feedback I received from my developmental editor on After December was that Tabby, Joel’s girlfriend, was the only member of the group without agency. She needed depth to explain her motives, just a few carefully placed details that told us why she was such a killjoy, why she disliked Brian, and what we could expect her to do in the future. Easy enough. She’s an older sister. Firstborn. Bossy. Used to having people do what she says. And Joel does. Except when it comes to Brian. So it’s a power struggle over who will influence Joel.

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Excellent topic and discussion!


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