- 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?
Shirley Jackson Award winner, Robert Jackson Bennett.
Agency can be a tough thing to nail down. We can definitely tell when a character has it, and when they don’t; though what they have, precisely, isn’t quite so distinct. As it’s already been pointed out, “agent” essentially means “to do,” but it’s perfectly possible to have a character doing all sorts of things, yet they feel like they have no agency. So what does it mean?
To me, a character has agency when they’re a player in The Game – when they’re invested in what’s happening, when they have an agenda, and they’ve thought out how to pursue it and are actively working to achieve it. If a character has no agency, then they’re either on the sidelines, watching, or they’re not part of The Game at all, and might as well be offstage for the story.
Now, like I said, just because a character is actively doing something in a story, it doesn’t mean they have agency. If a character is trying something and repeatedly failing and not adjusting their actions, and seems wholly ignorant to the idea that they might want to do that, then they are not so much an agent as a device, committing the same action over and over, and not taking in information or contemplating their situation.
An agent must not only have an agenda central to the story that they are actively pursuing: they must also connect and communicate with the world around them in a reasonably intelligent fashion, and adjust their behavior accordingly.
And yes, it’s possible to have a main character be a device more than an agent: it’s just usually not very satisfying to read about.
As to whether or not agency is important, that depends on the story. The story sets the frame and the objectives of The Game. And sometimes the objectives don’t concern the characters’ actions at all. Elizabeth has examined two great examples in Rosencrantz and Guildernstern are Dead, and Waiting for Godot; I’d also suggest looking at something like Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian or Suttree, where the characters feel very small, dwarfed by the landscape of the world, and their actions frequently have little effect on the story. Because that’s not what the story’s interested in observing – if anything, the story’s interested in how little the world cares about what people do. The point of those stories, especially Blood Meridian, might be in examining how people don’t have agency.
I do think the majority of contemporary popular culture frequently relegates women to the capacity of device more than agent. There’s even the character type of The Girl, as in “Does he get the girl at the end?” which does not quite acknowledge her as a person as much as a component in a story structure. The Girl is backdrop; The Girl is a goal, an objective; The Girl is not a player in The Game.
Though sometimes female characters can accompany a main character in attempting to accomplish something – a sidekick role, frequently spunky, often not romantically involved with the main character, because that’s reserved for The Girl – they aren’t directly invested in The Game: they’re invested in the person they’re helping, frequently male, even if it is in a platonic fashion.
And I think a lot of this is self-perpetuating. People write stories like this because these are the stories they read, and these stories are ubiquitous. And I think these writers – almost entirely male – are also rather divorced from interacting with girls and women throughout their lives. I know I was: as a kid, there was something of a floating, unspoken rule among male society that girls were not to be made friends with, that they were For Later, though exactly what that meant we didn’t know. There were things girls did, things boys did, and the twain should never meet. So in many subtle and unsubtle ways, I do think our culture encourages a lack of contact between the sexes, perpetuating a system in which a young man can come of age without ever having really talked to, or come to understand, any woman in any way at all. (Viz, the internet.)
So you have boys growing up that way, and when these boys decide to write stories, female characters become just sort of a big blind spot, a vast unknown that they don’t know how to apply agency to. Women then become devices and components in the story, framework to hang characteristics on and perhaps serve as interesting backdrop, and not much more.
I do think agency isn’t quite as necessary as everyone might think, depending on the book. It’s possible for an author to approach a character as a case study, examining their reactions within a given set of circumstances, which isn’t the same thing as agency. And I think a writer – and perhaps this requires a higher level of talent – can make a character without agency interesting and compelling.
After all, sometimes we feel we don’t have agency in our own lives: sometimes we only get to sit and watch. In the right hands, this can be no less involving and compelling than, say, a character racing through a mortgage lending firm, trying to find and defuse a very dangerous bomb.
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