Activate all agents

Hi folks,

Sorry for taking a few weeks between drinks – things got away from me, and then last week’s awfulness with the Orlando shootings made me feel that no-one needed to hear me blather about unimportant things for a while.

But I’m back on board, I’ve got some space between freelance tasks, and it’s time to talk more about the fascinating topic of character agency.

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The question of how to emphasise agency – how to write specifically for agency – is on my mind a lot right now as I re-examine the Raven’s Blood MS and continue working (more slowly than I would like) on Raven’s Bones. Both these books focus on a single protagonist, Kember Arrowsmith, and are meant to be driven by her actions. But there are also times when Kember isn’t the most powerful or active character in a scene or chapter, and I’ve been thinking about how to deal with that – how to make sure she still has agency and that her decisions matter even when her actions aren’t pivotal.

Here’s what I’ve come up with (and some RB examples), framed as a response to some of the agency-diminishing traps I suggested last time.

Explore consequences

Whenever the character acts, show the consequences of that action. If the reader feels that a decision or action changed the status quo of the story, or had an impact on the plot, then they immediately feel that the character matters. Not every action has to change everything forever – minor consequences can still be engaging, especially if they’re emotional consequences for characters – but some actions should really shake things up.

In Blood, pretty much everything Kember does has a direct effect on the situation – sometimes making things better, sometimes worse, but almost never inconsequential. She starts fights, provokes gods, angers allies and hurts enemies (and friends); she also does less impactful stuff, but I gloss over a lot of that to keep the focus where it matters. In Bones, I’m trying to keep that same approach, but I have to adjust the set of appropriate consequences to fit (and change) the new status quo in that book.

Let plot emerge from character decisions

Writers throw around terms like plot-driven or character-driven quickly and easily, but everyone has a different idea of what they mean and how they differ. I’m a bit leary of such labels, but I think it’s fair to say that some stories revolve around things happening to characters, and others around characters causing things to happen. The latter are the stories that emphasise agency – where actions start chains of consequences, and the story is following one or more chains to the branching end.

The way I tried to make this happen in Blood is simple – I didn’t plot that far ahead. I had a beginning, a vague idea of an ending, and as I wrote each scene, I tried to make the next one emerge fairly organically from the characters’ actions. Sometimes that worked, something it didn’t, and sometimes I had to revise both my ending and how I could get there. With Bones I’m working from an outline, so the plot is already more pinned down than last time; I still don’t know if that’s going to work for me.

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Give characters the information they need

The reasons mysteries are fun isn’t because the detective doesn’t know who did it – it’s because they find out who did it and then use that information. Similarly, decisions aren’t interesting if they’re made from ignorance; they’re interesting when characters know something about the possible outcomes and then make a choice. If your characters don’t know what’s going on, make the story about finding out, at least for a while, then about following through on that information.

There are a couple of mysteries in Blood, but Kember solves the biggest one by the end of the first act. That was very deliberate – I wanted the story to revolve around her dealing with that knowledge, rather than about her pursuing it. Bones also has some mysteries, but solving those will take longer; what I need to work on is making sure the search for answers is engaging and leads to interesting consequences, rather than just jumping through hoops.

Reveal and modify setting through character action

In quantum physics, the observer effect means that observing a system also acts upon a system – that is, watching something changes it. (Look at me, I’m dumbing down complex philosophical concepts for the masses!) I think good storytelling should do the same thing – that when a character observes the setting, they should change the setting. Again, that can be minor or major, but every time a character interacts with the setting they should leave a mark – revealing it to the reader, then reshaping it through their actions so that it’s different than it was just a page before.

Observer-Effect
Like this, but less crazy

This is probably the technique I’ve been best at with the Ghost Raven project so far. Blood is full of scenes where Kember explores elements of Crosswater (my fantasy city), then causes them to explode/catch fire/be the scene of a pitched battle through her actions and decisions. I plan to do the same with Bones, but maybe alter the balance a bit; spend some time showing how she’s affected the greater setting, with less focus on individual elements.

That’s all I have in my head tonight. Last time I also wrote about preferencing tone over agency, and I think that’s something that can be addressed, but I can’t quite work out the how/why of it yet. Maybe later.

…hmm. This post was a bit dull, wasn’t it? It’s good for me to work out my ideas, but I don’t know if that’s useful for anyone else.

Maybe next post will be more interesting, as we move from the topic of character agency to discussing why 2016 has been rubbish. So rubbish for so many of us.

3 thoughts on “Activate all agents

  1. Hi Patrick! This post wasn’t dull at all. Or if it was, I guess I’m dull too? My potentially unpopular opinion is that it’s possible to give your protag “too much” agency, which is something I see a lot in my fave genre (urban fantasy, the one I read and write in.) There’s gotta be a balance; things *must* also happen *to* characters, or you end up with what I’ve come to think of as the aggressive-asshole-on-a-mission plot, which gets boring after the umpteenth time you come across it. Agency comes into exploring how a character responds to something happening to them, too. Like you said, it’s about consequences. When something big happens to a character and there’s no response, oof, there goes your agency. Anyway, thanks for the blog, good stuff.

  2. Intersting post, and it neatly complements your other recent discussions of agency.

    My gut reaction is that character agency is so important because it’s an important element of character relatability. This can work for even a character who should be unlikable (eg: when an antihero lands a perfect quip).

    On the matter of balance, if a character is being extruded through a dystopian existence, they’re likely to have less agency than a hero in an epic fantasy. Things happen _to_ them, rather than them having a grand effect on the world. Both styles of story can interesting (and even the shift between those styles, unless we’re talking about “Matrix” sequels), even though the relationship between character and their world is vastly different in those examples. IMHO, that balance needs to be appropriate to the style of storytelling and world/setting. Genre helps set those reader expectations through its established norms.

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