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 Riyria Revelations, Michael J. Sullivan.
Justin Landon from Staffer’s Musings sent me an email regarding the subject of agency, and in particular how it applies to women characters and fantasy. I’ve actually only run across that term once, during a particularly negative review (that I would prefer to just fade away), but not being one to shrink from controversy I told him I would give a few opinions on the subject.
As I understand it, “agency refers to the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices.” – thanks Wikipedia.
As a fantasy author who writes in an invented world that closely resembles Medieval Europe, I have followed the social conventions of that age. In that context, women do indeed have fewer opportunities than men. Does this mean that I think women shouldn’t have agency? Not at all, and in fact I have a six book series where women break the bonds of convention and become as strong and independent as any of their male counterparts. It’s true that early in the series some women are portrayed as locked in established roles, but I did so to provide a contrast to what they develop into.
So why doesn’t agency come up in relation to men? Well mainly because men have always had agency and have been portrayed as such. I’m old enough to have lived through the feminist movement of the sixties and seventies, and my wife obtained an Electrical Engineering degree in 1984 when only three of her graduating class of several hundred had been women. For my daughter’s generation it’s hard to imagine a time when women’s choices were indeed limited, and if fact it wasn’t all that long ago. Since writing mirrors society, it will take time to balance the scales.
Justin also asked if a character can be interesting if they lack agency. My answer is yes, and in some cases it is a legitimate technique to have characters subjected to trials and tribulations that have nothing to do with decisions they make. While I’m sure most didn’t think of him this way (maybe because the character was male), Forest Gump is the perfect example of someone who floats through life allowing others to decide his fate. He joins the football team, not because he wants to play the game, but because others saw his ability. He joins the army, not because he wants to, but because a recruiter approaches him at the exact moment he was trying to decide what to do next. Even his lucrative fishing career wasn’t Forest’s idea, but a fulfillment of a promise to a dead friend. I did enjoy the character of Forest Gump and was invested with his ups and downs. For me I was riveted to see where the winds of fate would take him, so lack of agency doesn’t always have to be negative.
Michael J. Sullivan is the author of the very successful Riyria Revelations. Initially self published, Sullivan sold thousands of copies on his own before the series was purchased by Orbit Books. To learn more about him and his series, visit his website or follow him on Twitter.
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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