Yesterday, my walking buddy and I were discussing several movies from the 1930s and 40s, and she was complaining about a couple that she strongly disliked because, she said, the main character lacked agency, and had to be rescued from various plots by other people. I did some pro forma arguing because I liked a couple of the movies in question, though I was pretty much in agreement about the importance of agency to stories (and especially their resolution).
But the subject kept nagging at me, so when I got home, I started poking around the Internet. Agency turns out to be a popular (though sometimes nebulous) concept in literature – the word gets thrown around a lot without anyone ever actually defining it beyond occasional general statements like “the power to make choices” or “the ability to act” or “the true way to success.” I didn’t hit pay dirt until I started looking at philosophy (!) and sociology.
The best short definition I found was “Agency is an actor’s ability to make purposeful choices.” (“Actor” in this sense being “a person who takes action,” not “Robert Downey, Jr.”)
Note that in order for a character to have agency, he/she has to have a choice to make. If you are out in the rain with an umbrella, you have a choice: put up the umbrella, or don’t put it up. If you have no umbrella, you have no choice: you are going to get wet. Also note that the definition talks about the ability or capacity to make choices, not whether someone actually uses their capacity, and certainly not whether the results are what the person choosing wanted or expected.
And that’s where fiction comes in. When you start looking, agency is all over all kinds of fiction, from different angles. There are stories about people who made good or bad choices in the past and then suffer the consequences; stories about people who face current choices, large or small, personal or public; stories about people who have no choices and want some, or who struggle to find or create choices where there seem to be none. Fiction is, to a large extent, about the choices characters make and the desirable or undesirable results those choices have.
A character who gives up and accepts his/her fate at a critical moment in a story – especially someone who still seems to have choices, but who refuses to do anything about them or make any further moves to achieve his/her goals – loses a lot of readers, even though choosing not to act when one is able is, theoretically, still a choice. It is almost always a huge, horrible let-down when someone who has struggled through half a novel or better, against increasingly heavy odds, decides to give up the fight.
As always, there are exceptions. The two that come to mind are the character who has truly exhausted all his/her choices, and the character who still has choices but who has succumbed to despair and thus can’t see or act on any of his/her few remaining options. They both require a fair bit of groundwork and setup, and both are still tough to pull off. For my money, the character who succumbs to despair is a bit easier than the character who truly has no more choices, because if there is any other option that the reader can see (and readers can get really creative when it looks as if their favorite character is about to succumb to some inevitability or other), they will never believe that the character couldn’t/wouldn’t think of the same thing. And having a choice but not using it is far worse than having no choices at all. (Sitting and thinking hard about the best move to make next is a kind of positive action, provided it doesn’t go on so long that the reader starts getting impatient.)
Matters are a bit different when the story opens with the character paralyzed by despair. It can be hard to get the reader interested and involved with such a character, but the assumption is usually that things are going to change (else why are there all these pages after Chapter One?), and watching someone climb out of a hole when it initially looks as if they have no options can be interesting.
There are also stories where the whole point is a character’s moral and spiritual decay, like Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984; the entire plot is a slow stripping away of whatever agency the characters started with, until by the end they have no choices left. Note, however, that in both cases it takes the author an entire novel to get the characters to the point where they have no options – this is not a surprise plot twist that can be thrown in at the last minute, not if it going to be convincing.
For most stories, though, the point is that the main characters have options, and usually the power to choose among them – in other words, they have agency. It is annoying and frustrating when they don’t exercise their agency (which was the real problem, I think, with the movies my friend was objecting to – the characters still had choices, and could have picked a more productive course of action, but instead sat around waiting until someone else came to the rescue). It is especially annoying and frustrating when characters refuse to make choices or to act at a turning point or climactic moment in the story. So don’t let them do that.