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?
In fact, I looked at the heading of your message and your first question and my answer was, “Agency is the guy in New York who does all the boring parts of being a writer in exchange for 15% of the take. In my case, The Lotts Agency. And it is a very fine Agency indeed! I am a writer and I got Agency.” In that sense.
It’s not a word I would use in the way you’ve described as I suspect it has migrated to literature from philosophy or sociology. People using that word undoubtedly know what they mean by it when they apply it to characters in a story, but I don’t.
Not speaking specifically of ‘Agency’ but of any specific quality in a fictional character (intelligence, charisma, endurance, physical trait), I would say that it’s fair for a reviewer to call the reader’s attention to the presence or absence of it. If there are no women in a tale, or no left-handed vegetarians, that’s a fair thing to mention if the reviewer’s readership is specifically interested in tales that feature women or if it’s for the Left-handed Vegetarians Journal. After all, readers read book reviews to find books they will enjoy.
As a reader myself, I like a wide variety of characters, with all sorts of talents, aspects, attitudes and backgrounds. So, for me, for a character to lack a specific trait, or for all the characters to lack a specific trait is not a big deal. It’s simply how that story is told. Example: I am completely unbothered by the ‘lack’ of female characters in Lord of the Rings (book). The makeup of the Fellowship fits the society he created in the story. And a character does not have to be female for me to identify with him. So, for me, it’s not an issue. Nor is it a ‘lack’.
Lord save me from having to pander to my readers’ special interests in order to rate a ‘good book’ label!
I write the characters who live in my world. Then I invite the readers in.
If I read a book and find that the characters don’t work for me, I put it down and read a different book. So I guess that I, as a reader, have agency, too!
Robin Hobb is an International Bestselling author of bunch of books. She has recently finished writing a four-volume series called The Rain Wild Chronicles. The volumes are named The Dragon Keeper, Dragon Haven and City of Dragons, with Blood of Dragons forthcoming in 2013. Her other recent release, The Inheritance, is a collection of short fiction published by Subterranean Press.