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?
Nebula nomatined author of God’s War, Kameron Hurley
Author of Shadow Ops: Control Point, Myke Cole
and a quick hit from…
Author of The Alchemist of Souls, Anne Lyle
What is agency?
Kameron Hurley: Agency is about having the ability to determine your own future and be the hero of your own story – not just the sidekick in somebody else’s. Secondary characters in fiction fall into this trap even more often than heroes. It’s vital to remember that even sidekicks believe they’re the hero of their own story. In a perfect world, they’d be depicted as actively engaged (or not) in the hero’s story for reasons that relate to their journey, not the hero’s. If a character is being passively controlled by the interests of others, or exists only as a faceless satellite circling your protagonist’s shining star, congratulations! You’ve created a character without agency.
Why is it important?
Kameron Hurley: Truly engaging characters are those imbued with the whims, desires, frustrations and passions of real people. If they act like dolls or puppets jerked around on the protagonist’s (or the plot’s) coattails, they’re far less interesting. It can also be much more insidious than that. When entire classes, groups, or types of people in an author’s body of work are consistently portrayed as having no personal agency, or agency subsumed by a hero from the dominant culture, it also sends readers a message that these people are just objects that exist to support the hero’s journey. If we’re all the heroes of our own story, then we, as writers, are training an entire generation of heroes to objectify the people in their lives, and see them merely as vehicles for getting what we want.
Myke Cole: Whether or not a character has agency will seriously define them in the eyes of the reader and the other characters in the novel. We have all met people without agency in real life, and it can be tough to respect folks who allow themselves to slapped around by life’s waves. Such characters are less likely to make compelling protagonists, though I will say that the struggle to develop/recognize/obtain agency for a character is a fascinating thing and makes for a great protagonist/story.
You don’t want to set up a false dichotomy here: More agency – good. Less agency – bad. Having little agency can be part of an interesting story as well, and the fact is that in life, some folks don’t have much agency. Good stories have characters that reflect this range. It’s also important to keep in mind that having agency doesn’t necessarily mean that a character will achieve their goals in life. You can have all the agency in the world and still lose.
Why do we find more male characters with agency in fantasy novels than females?
Kameron Hurley: It’s interesting that this question wasn’t an “if” question but a “why” question. Ten years ago (or on another blog, perhaps), it would have been an “if” question. Men’s experiences have been given greater weight and importance than women’s in both history and popular culture. It doesn’t take more than a couple history or English class reading lists to figure that out, if you didn’t already pick it up from general media. There’s a very long history of narrative that positions women and “Others” stories as subservient to the goals and desires of a male hero from the dominant culture. Prioritizing these experiences over those of others not only teaches women and those from disenfranchised groups that they their stories are less important, it also teaches men from the dominant culture that this is as it should be. It reinforces power imbalances and reduces alternative narratives.
Myke Cole: There’s a difference between females having less power/being oppressed and not having agency. Even females in the most dismal conditions (medieval settings, for example) can have incredible agency. In fact, it is a female’s ability to find ways to shape events, advance her goals and protect her interests in the face of a deck stacked horribly against her that shows the greatest agency of all.
A good example of this is Arya Stark in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Arya is both a female and a child in a society that isn’t particularly nice to either. Yet she exhibits incredible agency. She resists attempts to make her into a docile, compliant court lady and homemaker (like her sister Sansa). She faces down intense social pressure and threats to her life to carve her own path in spite of the obstacles laid before her. Contrast her with Sandor Clegane (“The Hound”) who, despite being a physically powerful male and a skilled warrior, basically just tugs his forelock and does whatever the depraved boy prince/king tells him. The small, female child shows incredible agency, while the socially enfranchised, physically powerful male warrior shows very little.
Societies can oppress females, discriminate against them, try to force them into subservient roles. But no one can take a female’s agency unless she lets them. Many would argue that women with great agency are more interesting, but I find Sansa Stark (who is almost bereft of all agency) FASCINATING. She’s fascinating the way watching a car wreck is fascinating, but it’s still a great story.
Is it OK if a character doesn’t have it?
Can a character still be of interest lacking it?
Kameron Hurley: Not everybody is willing or able to take an active role in their own lives, it’s true. But most of us do. Sure, you can write about a character that doesn’t have agency. The trouble comes when you have an entire subset of people operating without agency. Not only does that perpetuate a lazy cultural narrative, but that same laziness means that those characters won’t be terribly interesting. A character without agency is a Cinderella, a woman of Gor, believing that if she is just good enough, and subservient enough, she will be rewarded for her passivity. There’s nothing wrong with a story like that read in isolation (it’s creepy, but not wrong), but when you’re just reproducing a lazy stereotype, taking part in the retelling and reinforcing of these stories, which have been done for generations, across multiple media, it’s no longer “just a story” but instead, part of the tacit instruction manual for leading a “normal” life. Your work becomes part of cultural narrative designed to favor one group’s experiences over another. You become part of the problem. Without a multiplicity of stories, we risk touting a single fictional narrative as “the way things are supposed to be” instead of presenting many ways that things can be.
Myke Cole: Yes. I’d argue that it’s pretty hard to get behind a protagonist who lacks agency (unless the story is about the protagonist’s struggle to develop/awaken to their own agency). That said, there are plenty of characters who lack agency who are still compelling and fascinating. I have already given the example of Sansa Stark (even if she disgusts you, she still INTERESTS you). I think our fascination with characters who lack agency is similar to our enjoyment of reality TV. We’re either watching hoping that they will find a way to turn things around and take possession of their own course, or we’re hoping they will reap what they’ve sown. Either way, we’re WATCHING, and that means the writer has done his/her job.
Can a book be good if none of the characters have it?
Kameron Hurley: “Good” is such a wildly subjective term. Lots of people enjoy watching powerless people caught up in epic events beyond their control, moved about like croquet balls by the gods. It’s how we all feel sometimes. But for me, as a reader, characters who attempt to take some control over their lives (even if they fail) make for more satisfying books. Eliminating a character’s need to make a decision about
whether or not to leave their spouse, or spare their enemy, with a violent earthquake or timely heart attack also limits their agency. The more interesting, powerful story is the one that forces characters to make hard choices. The scullery boy or farm maid who just sits around waiting for great things to happen to them is an incredibly relatable character, but not exactly an inspiring one. Alternatively, handing a woman a gun and some sexy pants and having her run off to do the bidding of a group of guys and calling that agency isn’t terribly interesting either. If her story’s just in services of theirs and their goals, we haven’t made much progress.
Stories are powerful things. “Oh, it’s just a story,” people will say, “why get so worked up?” But stories contain the power of possibility. They inspire different ways of thinking. They tell us how life can be. There’s nothing wrong with a few “be a good girl and good things just happen” stories. But when you’re raised on nothing but “sit around and wait for your hero” stories, odds are you’re going to be sitting around in your mom’s basement folding laundry for a long, long time waiting for your fortunes to change.
And wow, let me tell you – that would be a boring story.
Myke Cole: Here, I’d have to say no. Stories are ultimately about people facing conflicts/obstacles and doing what they must to overcome them. This is, by definition, an expression of agency. While supporting characters can lack it, protagonists and antagonists need it to address that core principle of story-telling. Otherwise, they’d be faced with the challenge and just throw up their hands. “Get the One Ring to Mordor? Dude. Waaaaay too complicated. Let’s go play X-Box. I’m sure someone will figure out a way to stop Sauron. Are there any Fritos left?” or “Storm Troopers massacred my parents while I was talking to you, Obi-Wan. I know you want me to go to Alderan, but can I just live with you until this whole thing blows over? The Rebel Alliance will take care of the Empire. I just need a place to hide.”
See? Not very interesting.
Kameron Hurley is the author of the Bel Dame Apocrypha from Night Shade Books. Her debut novel, God’s War, has been nominated for the Nebula Award for best novel. The final novel in her trilogy, Rapture, is due out this fall.
Myke Cole is the author of Shadow Ops: Control Point, a new blend of urban fantasy and military thriller. He’s a member of the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve and a tremendous advocate for genre fiction. He also prefers his beer fruity.
To me, for a character to have agency they must have the freedom and will to make plot-relevant choices independent of other characters in the story. A character who is always a follower and never the leader, even for a moment, lacks agency. This is perfectly fine in a sidekick or minor character, because this kind of person exists in real life, and they can still be interesting if they have a distinctive personality. The problem comes when you have a major character, either protagonist or (more rarely) antagonist, who is like this.
Male characters lacking agency are much rarer than female ones, undoubtedly because it’s an unconscious assumption in our culture that men are the doers, the movers and shakers, whilst a woman’s role is to be supportive and compliant. This is frustrating for female readers in particular, who have just as great a desire as men to see their own dreams and aspirations reflected in the heroes of stories.
In genre fiction especially, many readers are looking for an escape from their mundane life, which is often one of passive reaction to circumstances beyond our control. Reading about a character who is similarly passive – lacking in agency – fails to satisfy that need. Through characters who have agency, or who struggle to attain it, we gain a glimmer of faith in our own ability to control our lives.