Several of last year’s more controversial reviews included charges that female characters lacked agency. Not surprisingly the comment sections on those reviews reflected a great deal of confusion about what it means for a character to lack agency, and furthermore some disagreement about whether it was a legitimate criticism. While those examples brought the issue to my attention, 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.
Given the wonderful Women in SF&F series currently being conducted by Kristen at Fantasy Book Cafe, I thought now might be an appropriate time to ‘survey’ a wide 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?
2005 John W. Campbell Award Winner, 2008 Hugo Award Winner for Best Short Story, and 2009 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novelette, Elizabeth Bear.
Agency, as we use the term in literary circles, is–quite frankly–the thing that makes characters interesting to the reader. As much as we talk about tactics of characterization that may or may not appeal to any particular reader (making the character accessible, making them funny, making them identifiable)… the one thing that I have found that does not fail to connect to the audience is giving a character agency.
You ask what it is: it’s actually quite simple, for all that many writers have a hard time internalizing and writing it.
Agency is when a character has an agenda, and is making attempts to complete that agenda. This is the so called try/fail cycle of the three act structure of genre fiction; when internalized, it’s the striving that drives literary fiction. It’s what the character wants, and what they need, and what they are willing to do to get it.
We also refer to it as “protagging,” because it’s what protagonists do.
Kurt Vonnegut famously offered this bit of advice to writers: “Make your character want something, even if it’s only a glass of water.”
Rick in Casablanca says, “I stick my neck out for nobody.” His refusal is active. It can even be heroic, as when a protagonist chooses not to fight in an unjust war, for example.
And when the protagonist converts to pursuit of a different goal, he actively pursues that goal.
So agency is having an agenda. Being an agent. From the Latin, agere: “to do”
Agency is doing stuff. Not because somebody else tells you to, but because it’s got to be done.
A lot of people use the term “strong female character” to mean ”kickass heroine.” I think this is silly. In my estimation, one of the strongest women in Range of Ghosts never picks up a weapon. She’s a fourteen-year-old-girl who escapes execution for being pregnant with the wrong man’s child by running across a desert at night in her bedroom slippers.
That’s pretty damned tough. She wants to live, and she wants her child to live, and she does what she has to do to make it happen.
Readers love agency. It lends narrative drive and connection better than any other tactic (I’d say any other three tactics) that a writer can use.
As for why female characters have it less often than male ones? Well, there’s an implicit assumption in the question that I’m not sure I agree with. Do they really? Does Lessa have less agency than F’lar? Does Juliet have less agency than Romeo? Does Jessica have less agency than Paul? Does Elizabeth have less agency than Mr. Darcy?
Women may have traditionally had to express their agency in more limited ways–but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. Just that they were pushing a bigger boulder uphill to express what they want, and their options on what to do to get it were more limited.
But for the moment taking the question in the spirit in which it was offered, I’d say that if women are written passively by some authors (for reasons other than to make a literary point–which we’ll get to in a moment), it’s due to two things:
- bad writing and
- failure to interrogate an internalized social construct that men are active and women are acted upon. Which has probably never been true, but it’s one of the founding myths of the patriarchy, ain’t it?
As for the question of whether a character can be interesting and a book can be “good” if none of the characters have it–well. Waiting for Godot is still taught and performed, and the entire point of that play is that none of the characters have the least little bit of agency. Not a scrap, not a speck. They exist in a blur of existential despair.
But that’s a special case, and we’re not all Samuel Beckett, and frankly, I’ve read Waiting for Godot three times, I’ve seen it performed, and I hate the fucking thing. I mean, I admire it: it’s a hell of a technical accomplishment.
But it’s boring and painful.
And as genre authors, we’re generally not trying to be boring and painful, because we’re here to entertain as well as enlighten. Literature doesn’t have to *hurt.*
Now, as a counterexample, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Again, a play in which nobody has a hell of a lot of agency, for literary and thematic reasons. They don’t really want anything, and when they kind of start to, universe itself thwarts their attempts at agency! As it is written, so it shall be… and I kind of love it.
Because it’s funny.
Now, your mileage may vary. There are those who love Godot and hate R&G.
But I’d suggest that unless a writer is Tom Stoppard or Samuel Beckett, a writer might want to go with making their characters a little more active. Especially when writing for a genre audience–and a genre audience of which about half is going to be seriously upset with the work if they notice that all the women just sit around waiting to be rescued.
(And yes, GODOT and R&G are both rather light on female characters, but they were the contrasting works I could think of that demonstrate how to use lack-of-agency as a thematic technique.)
Elizabeth Bear is the author of a shitload of novels and short stories, nearly all of which are reputed to be awesome. I’ve only read Range of Ghosts, and I can testify to its awesomeness. I suggest everyone who enjoyed this post to read it.
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