Stories do not "happen" to high agency characters. Instead, it is high agency characters that make great stories happen.
This kind of character is extremely fun to write. They make your story flow out of your mind, they add color and life to “dead” scenes, and they can surprise you in the most interesting ways.
So, how do you write a high agency character?
I'll show you. Read this, and not only will you write extremely active characters that your readers love - you will love them, too.
Agency is a combination of your character’s ability and desire to act.
Agency is your character’s ability to make their own decisions, act on their motivations, and create meaningful developments in the story. Without agency, characters are little more than leaves, pulled along by the river. They don’t make an effort to change their situation, therefore we don’t care about them.
High agency characters act on what they believe (or, they act on what their complex set of emotions convince them to do). High agency characters don’t always make the right choice, but they always make an interesting one.
It is the act of choosing - and getting to watch the consequence of their actions - that keep us readers glued to the page. High agency is the key to writing addicting characters.
No! Not every character should be high agency, and side characters often have low agency.
Low agency characters can even be the coolest, or cutest, or most charismatic characters in a story... but they are never the favorites. They are like rain on the water’s surface: they make beautiful ripples, but they don’t change the course of the river.
They add color and sound and feeling to your world, but with or without them, your story generally remains the same. Low agency characters are not the reason we devour books or shows or any kind of story.
As a human being, you are never one emotion.
You are a whole flock of emotions: competing desires and reactions and needs, all trying to figure out which direction to fly.
Eventually, that flock decides on a direction. That’s where agency comes in. It's about the Prime Motivation - the #1 thing your character believes matters right now. If they’re dying of thirst - nothing matters but grabbing that glass of water. Agency is about how hard they will try to get that water.
High Agency characters will do anything, no matter the effort involved.
Low Agency characters will take the path of the least resistance.
This is why it’s so critical to find the right character motivations - because powerful motivations will naturally give your characters high agency.
Agency is relative.
In any one scene, it’s not about who has agency or who doesn’t (usually). It’s about who has the most agency, and how they use that to influence the situation.
Even side characters may have high agency in one scene, and almost none in the next. And that’s how it should be. In fact, some of the best conflict comes from two characters with equal agency, disagreeing with each other. Isn’t that what the whole Hero/Villain dynamic is about?
Different stories will demand different ranges of agencies. Let’s talk about that.
Agency is a scale, and your characters may move up or down that scale:
But again, the will to act is relative. I find it more helpful (and more compelling) to look at my characters through these three categories:
These characters always take action. Always.
We can’t imagine them sitting in the back seat. However, they can exist alongside “growth agency” characters, because they make great side characters, as we’ll see in a moment.
Characters who always have high agency are perfect for plot-driven stories, like thrillers and super-power fantasies. Why?
Because plot-driven stories thrive on one question: “What happens next?” And these characters are always barrelling full-steam ahead, which means all we have to do is follow them, and we’ll find the answers.
They may be high agency, but failure is key. Failure makes it addicting to read about these characters. They will try - and fail - and try again. It’s always one step forward, and nineteen steps back. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and keep trying.
These try/fail cycles can make up a scene, or last an entire novel - and they will keep your readers hooked.
Gandalf is not just any wizard - he’s the most powerful wizard to have ever lived. But Middle Earth is vast, and under siege by many dark forces.
He’s also the starting gun for the Hobbit. The old wizard has a burning goal of reinstating the Dwarves in their rightful home. But there’s obviously some larger, more world-spanning motive.
Throughout the adventure, he keeps the party headed in the right direction:
...most importantly, he inspires Bilbo to do the right thing at the most important times.
Andy Weir’s Project Hail Mary is more fun than The Martian.
The protagonist is almost identical in his agency. He knows two things really, really well: astrobiology (the study of life outside of earth) and high school physics.
When he finds himself waking up on a ship, hurtling near the speed of light away from Earth, with no way to get back home, physics and astrobiology are the only powers he has to figure out:
But he never gets discouraged. He never stops. He just finds the problem, isolates it, breaks it down into smaller parts, and gets to work. That’s the whole book, and it’s simply addicting.
This was an easy add to my “Best Science Fiction of 2021” list. You’ve got to read this book. It’s so much fun, and the high-agency protagonist makes it impossible to put down. I finished it in two sittings.
Characters who grow their agency over time make fantastic protagonists and antagonists both, because it’s addicting to watch somebody take the reins of their life and dramatically affect the outcome of the story (whether for good or ill).
Often, the whole point of the story is to watch the Main Character move their agency from “barely anything at all” to “the most active character in the whole story.”
Each new situation should be tough. Sometimes, your hero will fail and their agency will backslide. But the general trend should be up, so that by the end of the story, your hero is completely unrecognizable from the first pages.
You’ll end up with a high-agency protagonist who can change the whole course of the story in a single action.
Bilbo starts off as a small-town person who mildly dreams of (and fears) adventure. When the call to adventure comes knocking, he chooses to refuse it. And then… he changes his mind.
Along the bumpy road, Bilbo decides he made a mistake coming out here with all these uncivilized dwarves. He sees numerous opportunities to back out, but he signed a contract to help them, and he chooses to stick with it.
The story culminates in a moment where Bilbo realizes his friend, and the king of the dwarves, is leading them all into disaster. Bilbo decides to stand up to the group, to risk his neck, and to do the very thing he swore he would never do, all to save his friends.
Nora is another fantastic example of a low-agency character who grows into high agency.
This book came out in 2020 and was simply incredible. I’ll try not to spoil too much, because I think you really need to read it to get the full effect of how her agency grows. Here’s a quick look:
Nora is suicidal. And I don’t mean “I hate my life,” suicidal. When the book opens, she is ready to end it. This is the ultimate “I give up,” moment. This is the last act of agency.
Then, she finds herself in some weird, hybrid afterlife/purgatory place. A library in the void, absolutely filled with books. Each book is another life she could’ve lived.
And when she opens one, and starts to read about her life as a rockstar, or a scientist in the arctic, or marrying her first love, she falls into that world and lives it.
With each life, Nora gains a better understanding of what she wants. And thus, she starts to actively seek the perfect life.
I won’t spoil the ending, but this book is absolutely fantastic. I rarely give anything 5 stars (fewer than 5% of the books I read), but this book was so wonderful and heartwarming and philosophical at the same time. Such a delightful and empowering read.
Nora becomes so filled with agency, she makes it feel like you have total control over your own life.
Recommended Reading: The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
Situational agency is when a character's agency changes depending on the situation. Simple.
You can have a simple set of rules that govern your character’s agency:
...or, you can go the complex route. You can let your characters’ agency be an interplay of motives, emotions, circumstance, and power dynamics between characters.
Many discovery writers write main characters best through this method, because all you have to do is simply feel how the character would feel at that moment. This can create some nuanced, emotionally rich, and moving characters. These characters are lauded throughout literary history. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray come to mind.
I once read that human beings are not one, nor two, but a whole flock of emotions in a strange dance with each other. In that case, complex situational agency may be one of the best ways to write main characters, because it must spool out of the author’s own emotions.
In any case, situational agency can yield highly-realistic, beautiful characters that can pop out of the background when necessary, or loom front and center, taking us with them on truly emotional experiences.
Thorin Oakenshield is integral to The Hobbit. But, in many cases, he can replaced by any of the dwarves. Or he stands off to the side, brooding.
Only in the scenes that require a King’s action does he take a stand, always to a great consequence. Sometimes, it’s wonderful. Other times, it is the height of hubris.
In Oscar Wilde’s one and only novel, Dorian Gray is a man lost in his own beauty, and the hedonistic pleasures of the world. You see, once, an artist painted a portrait of Dorian. Instead of growing old, Dorian remains forever young - while his portrait ages in his stead.
At times, Dorian is a force of great change (and even murder) in his world. At other times, he spends years and decades, doing nothing. Letting the world happen around him.
Sometimes, he is the hunter. Others, he is the hunted. If you want a great, early example of situational agency in a protagonist, read this book. Ironically, this book about immortal beauty has aged surprisingly well.
Want to craft instantly-addictive characters that your readers will never forget?
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How do you fix low agency in your characters?
It’s actually quite easy. The hardest part is recognizing that you have low agency characters (more on that in a minute).
These tools will help you push your characters into action immediately:
Stronger motivations will make your characters want to act more immediately.
A character who can see the problem from more than one side will have more than one solution. This will let them create more interesting plans.
When a character sees what’s at stake, they should want to grab the wheel and smash the gas pedal.
The idea is to create a ticking clock to add urgency. This pushes your character to act faster. Maybe even more recklessly.
For every scene, write X things they might do. Pick the most interesting. This will make YOU get more creative with your solutions.
Characters who always do the wrong thing are annoying
Characters who do the wrong thing because it will help someone else more are beloved
If the scene is hyper-relevant to your character’s largest problem (e.g. they’ve kidnapped his child) or his greatest weakness (e.g. they’re in a helicopter and he’s scared of flying), it can make your character act in some fascinating ways.
There’s an easy test.
Swap out your character for another. Does it change the story at all?
For example, in The Hobbit, the dwarves get captured by the elves.
We can tell that Bilbo, Gandalf, and Thorin Oakenshield all have high agency, because they would all take a different route to free their friends.
If your main character is low on agency, I strongly suggest you go back and make them more active. There are limitless options at your fingertips. All you have to do is think of one, and make it work.
Happy writing. 🙂