I’ve noticed more and more authors lamenting the treatment of women in fantasy novels. Despite widespread agreement that there should be a more concerted effort to depict strong women, I wasn’t necessarily coming away with the impression that agency is something a character has to have. I asked a swathe of fantasy authors about their thoughts on the subject. Some of the questions I asked the authors to consider were:
- What is agency?
- Why is it important?
- Why do we find more male characters with agency in fantasy novels than females?
- Is it OK if a character doesn’t have it?
- Can a character still be interesting if it lacks it?
- Can a book be good if none of the characters have it?
Author of The Emperor’s Knife, Mazarkis Williams
A character with agency can speak for herself and make her own decisions. Her actions are grounded in her free will, her beliefs, and her desires and hopes. But it is not enough for the writer to know that is the case; when a character pulls a lever and saves the world, it is an empty event unless the decisions and choices the character made on the way to that lever are written into the story.
In gaming there is a term for bad GMmanship: “railroading.” It means the GM pushes you along the adventure when there is no reason for your character to be there. Some powerful person or god is feeding you clues and making sure you encounter the right bad guys and the right time. Your character has little say in the matter; all you need to do is to be there and roll the dice when it’s time to fight. It’s no fun. You want to go to the tavern or buy a magic sword with the money you got from the last adventure, but here you are traipsing through the salt plains for no discernible reason.
But does a character stuck in an intensely plot-driven book lack agency? No; It just seems that way sometimes, because the story focus is elsewhere. And for me this is where agency and writing choices get mixed together, especially where female characters are concerned. There are cases in which a character truly lacks agency – based on her situation – and this is legitimate, though tricky to write. (And it should be temporary – characters are flat-out uninteresting if they can’t make choices and influence the path of events.) Other times, a character appears to lack agency because she exists only for plot-y reasons, or is badly written. ‘Badly written’ can include having a man, or a god, or anything else telling her what to do all the time. Technically she does not lack agency if she chooses to do whatever she’s told, but oh gods is it dull. And makes me raise my eyebrow at you (not really – I can’t do that cool thing with my eyebrow).
In all of these cases, I feel any perceived issues can be fixed with better writing. Give the characters depth. Let them walk a path filled with choices and errors and hopes – a path that leads to that last, big moment. Make us not only understand why they are pulling that lever, stabbing that guy, or poisoning that wine but put us right there with them, cheering them on (or hiding our eyes). And don’t just tell. Make us feel. By bringing out the humanity of our characters, male and female, we enrich our stories. That can never be bad.
Mazarkis Williams is an enigma and the author of the novel The Emperor’s Knife. Williams straddles the Atlantic like the Colossus of Rhodes. This author’s gender is unknown, which is irrelevant normally, but may have some bearing on this conversation.
Elizabeth Bear Knows What Agency Is
Michael J. Sullivan on Character Agency
Bad GMs Don’t Allow Agency – Mazarkis Williams
The Weekend Edition of Character Agency (Long)
Is Robert Jackson Bennett a Secret Agent?
Robin Hobb Brings the Agency Discussion to a Close