On Writing & Agency: Easy Strategies to Make Sure Your Characters Have It

Stifling Creativity_

Does the main character in your novel have agency? Continue reading to find out!

Many years ago, I remember getting my feedback from a writing judge after entering one of my first writing competitions – “I was intrigued…there are some strong elements here…yada, yada…but your main character lacks agency, so you were not selected.” After my devastation of not becoming an instant best-seller after my first work, I remember vividly thinking, What the heck is agency and am I stupid for never having heard this word?

After much research, I came to realize that character agency plays a vital role in fiction and is many times the thing that separates the best stories from the mediocre. Here is my definition for character agency:

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So, how do you know if your story has agency? Read on for a quick test…

Does your main character have agency?

A writer friend shared with me the “Swap Out Your MC Test” to gauge whether or not your story has agency. The basic idea is that you remove your main character from your story and replace it with another popular character and think about how your plot changes.

Here are some of my favorite characters that you could use:

  • Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean
  • Gandalf from Lord of the Rings
  • Harry Potter from Harry Potter
  • Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables
  • Rumpelstiltskin from Once Upon a Time
  • Sheldon Cooper from Big Bang Theory
  • Cruella de Vil from 101 Dalmations
  • Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh

If all that changes is some stylistic stuff but the plot remains relatively the same then you know that you have a problem. Your main character shouldn’t just be allowed to be pushed around like a pawn in a story. Your main character should move the plot along and cause changes based on their choices because of who they are.  

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Didn’t do so well on the agency test above? No problem! The following points are a list of things I’ve come up with that will help your main character gain agency in your novel.

How can you give your main character agency?

  • Ensure that you have a strong main character. And by “strong” I do not mean you need a spitfire character who could kick someone’s butt. I also don’t mean you need a sassy leading lady who runs a Fortune 500 company. Labeling a character as “strong” should have nothing to do with that character’s physical abilities or their intelligence. In fact, that is misconception I see over and over again. Strong characters can have tons of faults and frequently fail at their goals, but what they should have is action in the story. They should make decisions that affect their path.

[Side note: Am I the only one tired of the super model female leads who can kick the crap out Mr. Thor-like character? In real life, the girls who can kick the crap out of people have a little more meat on their bones. And if they aren’t an athletic prowess, they’re Ms. Brainiac. Seriously, can we get a MC without brains and without brawn? There are 100s of other qualities that make people interesting.]

  • Ensure that your main character is well-developed. Well-developed characters are fully fleshed out. They are unique, identifiable, believable, and memorable. [I’m planning to write a whole post on this, so be sure to follow my blog so that you’ll get a notification once I get it posted!] Some writers write full profiles of their characters with every single aspect of that character documented down to their shoe size and favorite superhero. People have different views with how deep you should go with character development, but the important part is to know your character like you would know a close friend. What she looks like is just scratching the surface (although important too!). You should know her history. How she typically reacts to different situations. Her secrets and her fears. You need those things to keep your characters consistent and believable. And after you do all that homework comes the hard part. Because the real talent is getting all of your ideas onto the page in a way that pulls in the reader and accurately portrays who you created in your brain.

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  • Ensure your main character constantly has a goal to aim for. Once you’ve gotten strong, well-developed characters, you must give them something to work towards. These would be the main things that drive your story forward and help provide your characters with agency. When I first start writing a novel, I usually take some time to write down a list of my main character’s wants or goals throughout the book. While I have one overarching character goal for my novel, I also include a character goal for every chapter when I start outlining. If you aren’t into outlining, try stopping every so often to think about what your character is currently working towards. What do they want? If you’re having a hard time answering, you might want to reconsider whether or not your character currently has any agency or are they just a pawn in the story.  

[Tip: I use a google spreadsheet to outline each of my chapters with a series of columns, descriptions, and word counts. It helps keep me so much more organized than when I used to organize using Roman numerals and just a blank sheet of paper. In my spreadsheet is a column called “Character Goals” where I write what my POV character wants in that chapter. Right next to that column is a list of “Obstacles” where I list all the things that will get in the way of my character’s goals. {I plan on making a post with exactly how I outline. Follow my blog so you get a notification when I get that post up!}]

  • Give your main character many choices to make. Because a big part of agency is that your character’s choices will affect the plot and drive it forward, it’s important to make sure you are providing your character with times in which they will make a decision that will alter the course of the novel. These decisions shouldn’t have an obvious answer, and what your character ultimately decides should match up with his/her personality and goals. An important part of this is that the writer should not force the characters to make choices that they would not realistically make just because that is the direction the writer wants the plot to go. You never want your reader to think – [Insert Character Name Here] would have never done that! I’ve closed books before due to that error.

Thanks for reading! Let me know in the comments your thoughts and what strategies you use in writing characters who have agency!

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