Imagine if Frodo did not volunteer to take the Ring.
Imagine if Jay Gatsby did not allow Daisy to drive his car. Imagine if Dorothy did not choose to follow the yellow brick road. Imagine if Sontag did not save that book from the fire. Imagine if Alice decided to stay put instead of following the White Rabbit. All of these imagined cases would make for a very boring story. That’s because the Hero in stories must take action and make decisions. This is called agency.
A great story requires a great protagonist, also known as a Hero (not to be confused with your narrator, which may or may not be the same.) In some cases, there are multiple Heroes, such as books with multiple points of view. But in these circumstances, each protagonist must play their Hero role when the point-of-view is from their perspective. And at these times and at all times, the Hero must be given agency. Just as in real life, we make little choices everyday that guide our life. Even if we choose to stay on the couch and do nothing, we still make the choice not to do something else.
A character with agency is keenly engaged in the action. They are not passively reacting to the plot. Your characters’ actions must have an impact on the story and affect the plot. If your character does not have agency, the plot progresses randomly or through the actions of other characters. Without agency, the story happens to the character and they become a prop without purpose. For example, if Alice fell down the hole instead of chasing the White Rabbit and then a bottle of magical fluid was shoved down her throat instead of her choosing to ingest it and so on, Alice becomes a prop and of no interest to the reader.
If a character doesn’t act or make choices (good or bad choices, it doesn’t matter) the reader has a difficult time getting to know who they are and, hence, caring about them. This is particularly important for your protagonist, the Hero of your story, but can also be used for all important characters.
ROUND VS. FLAT
Characters with agency are round and dynamic. Protagonists should always be round and dynamic. A round character is fully developed, complex, unique and flawed in sometimes surprising ways. They encounter conflict and are changed by the conflict. A dynamic character changes significantly throughout the course of the story.
Characters that don’t have agency are flat and static. Flat characters lack emotional depth, only have a few discernible personality traits, are two-dimensional and uncomplicated. Only supporting characters with brief scenes should be flat. A static character does not change throughout the story. Their personality remains stable. A static character may be round or flat.
GOALS AND MOTIVATIONS
According to Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, there are 8 different archetypes that your characters might fit into and they can fit into more than one. These include the Hero, Herald, Ally, Mentor, Trickster, Shapeshifter, Guardian and Shadow. Each archetype comes with its own set of goals and motivations. The goal is what the character wants. The motivation is why the character wants it. By knowing your character’s archetype, you can better understand what guides their choices.
The types of choices your characters make are important. Their choices must be consistent with their personality, motivations and goals. Put another way, you can reveal much about your character’s personality through the choices that they make. Their choice immediately reveals if they are compassionate or narcissistic, if they are confident or insecure or if they are brave or cowardly.
For the Hero, the goal is always to complete their (metaphorical or real) quest and return to their (figurative or literal) home, however that may look in your story. They are motivated by their desire to know themselves and to be whole.
The reader follows the Hero on their journey and experiences the story as the Hero experiences it. The Hero will be called to action, leaving behind the world they know for new experiences. This can be a metaphorical journey, of course, and the action might not be any more than an emotional catharsis, but still, there is change. The Hero goes through changes from the beginning to end. They must make decisions, sometimes sacrifices. Most importantly, they drive the story’s action.
For example, Dorothy gets caught in a tornado and lands in the Land of Oz. Her very literal goal is to return back home to her family. Dorothy is an orphan who is often made to feel like she is in the way at her farmhouse in Kansas. Her greater motivation, though she might not realize it, is to find belonging. She soon learns that home is in her heart and discovers wholeness. In this case, it is important for the reader to know Dorothy’s backstory, what happened before she arrived in Oz, to better understand her motivation. At the end, when we learn that she could have gone home any time she wanted, knowing her backstory helps this plot arc to make sense. Then Dorothy’s true motivation is revealed to the reader and the story is more impactful.
Even an Anti-Hero, a protagonist with very few, if any, likable characteristics, such as Humbert Humbert in Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, must have agency. Humbert Humbert’s goal is to get pubescent Lolita to fall in love with him. His motivation is to normalize his perverted instincts, making him feel whole or complete. We don’t have to like him, but we do have to understand him and the choices he makes.
RAISE THE STAKES
For a truly compelling plot, characters make meaningful choices under pressure. The higher the stakes the more important the choices are that your character makes. If it is a life or death decision, we will gain even more insight into the character and the story will become more intriguing.
For high stakes, consider your character’s goal. What would be the worst thing that could happen that would prevent them from meeting their goal? What would be the best thing that could happen if they made the right choice under these circumstances? What do they risk by making this choice? What stands in their way of making this choice?
But not every story is action-packed. For one Hero, they may be executed if they make the wrong choice. For another Hero, they may destroy their marriage. For another Hero, they may not get to go to the prom. There are different degrees of high stakes, but what is important to the story, is that the stakes are high for your Hero and that they act and make decisions in line with their goals and motivations. In other words, they have agency.
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