Agency: Not Just For Characters

One word which crops up time and again among writers’ groups is agency. You gotta make sure your characters have agency. Your characters can be good, bad, ugly, beautiful, have a myriad of character tics, discourse markers and fascinating mannerisms, but without agency, they’re just cardboard cutouts, shadows of what they could and should be.

It’s probably useful to try and provide a practical definition of agency at this point. Some people may distill it down to a character having reasons for doing the things they do in the text, but I feel it goes slightly deeper than that. Agency is the provision of verisimilitude to the extent to which a character may affect, drive, and in turn be affected by the world, as well as making those affectations resultant upon his or her believable motivations. In short, they have to feel like part of the machine that you’ve built; as though the whole thing would not function without that particular character.

It’s true that most of the time a story is well served by characters who are driven by and who in turn drive the world – I suppose there are exceptions, which I’ll lazily leave to other people to identify, but as a general rule of thumb, and especially when you’re at the beginning of your writing journey, it’s a good idea to create fully rounded characters who are able to influence the world in some way, and have good reasons for doing so, even if the consequences of their actions are not always what they expected.

As much as this mantra is repeated across conversations in writing groups (here’s a good one from SFF Chrons initiated by my good friend Rabbit), I’ve started to get the impression that a lot of writers don’t apply this rule to themselves. The (correct) perception that the provision of characters with agency is a good thing demonstrates the inherent value of having agency in a dynamic and complex world. Yet it seems to me that a lot of writers, at best, only partially effect agency of their own when trying to bring their story into the world. What I mean is that, save for investing in the process of the actual writing of the book, there is an established procedure for getting your books into the world. You either submit your work to an agent, and rob yourself of any agency in the decision-making process (assuming that you’ve made the best possible job of the submission itself), or latterly you decide to self-publish, which demands that you generate an audience from literally zero.

To be clear, I include myself in that category. For ten years I laboured under the apprehension that to become successful you can only tread the path already taken. I didn’t give too much thought to how I might distinguish myself.

My current feeling is that this is the norm: too few writers really think about how they’re going to distinguish themselves from the several other hugely talented writers out there (other than attempting to write a whizz-bang book). And that’s a good point in itself; most of my immediate circle of writing friends and colleagues are immensely talented; if their work was submitted to an agent thirty of forty years ago, I think it’d be published in a snap; thanks to the proliferation of books, technology, information and distribution, I truly believe that the quality of most submitted manuscripts really is that high these days. The downside is that the sea is incredibly crowded, and to rise above the shoals one has to think of other ways in which to be spotted. That makes a tricky business for writers who, while on the one hand are empowered by their proclivity to self-confinement, are failed by it at the thorny end of letting their darlings loose unto the world.

The people I know who have had a degree of success have taken steps to make themselves visible in other ways before getting to the point of submission or publication. In making themselves available to people who have some degree of influence in the writing/publishing worlds, and leveraging that in some unique way. I’m still ascertaining how exactly that works, but I believe that it’s probably different for every individual; every person has their own network of friends, colleagues, associates, which will be interconnected in slightly different ways, but will lead to different means by which they can set chains of events in motion. That, to me, is the definition of agency in a fictional character, and ought to be the model that we apply to ourselves in real life also.

Like a story, we have to allow for time for events to play out, to provide the optimum moment for payback. If your revenge novel culminates in bloody revenge immediately after the original wronging of the protagonist, it’s a dud. For the moment to pay off, it has to be done with some heft behind it; for the character to develop their agency and move the world. Writers ought to do the same. I sent out The Hole In The Sky and The Green Man to agents the moment I thought they were good enough. And maybe they were, and maybe they weren’t. But I do feel now that having some other means to interact with the movers and shakers of industry, and then striking with a manuscript once a relationship has been established, must be advantageous.

I have very little (read: zero) scientifically corralled data to back this up, save for the empirical observations I’ve made over a number of years of those who’ve had success. It wouldn’t be fair to name names, but anybody who’s knocked about in the world of writing and writers for long enough can probably see that the people who’ve enjoyed some degree of success are the ones who’ve put themselves out there in supplemental ways to actual submissions/ publishing processes.

Maybe the best way to get to an agency, is with agency.

Published by Dan Jones

I'm a science fiction writer and podcaster. My debut novel Man O’War was published in 2018 by Snowbooks, and I’ve had a few short stories published here and there. I also host Chronscast, the official podcast of SFF Chronicles, the world's largest science-fiction and fantasy community. Away from writing I work for the UK Space Agency on a programme of space robotics for advanced satellite and planetary exploration technologies. All of which comes in rather handy when coming up with new ideas for science fiction stories.

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