Agency (Not The Literary Kind): Giving Your Characters Power

What do The Shawshank Redemption and The Hunger Games have in common?

You’ll hear or read me use the word “agency” a lot when it comes to how your protagonists behave. “Agency” is a term for a person’s ability or capacity to exert power; to make choices.

Your protagonist must have agency. She must make deliberate choices and deal with whatever consequences arise from those choices.

And there should be severe consequences (in the context of her story).

My favorite example is from the first book (or movie, if you like) of The Hunger Games. Imagine for a moment Katniss’s sister, Primrose, being selected for the games, and Katniss’s response goes something like this:

“Oh, man. Dang! Man. That sucks. Aw, Prim. So sorry, sis. Gosh, that really does suck.”

Do you want to read that book? Me, neither. No, what makes the story work is that Katniss has agency and makes choices. Deliberate choices. With consequences.

Now I know at least one of you are out there smirking to yourself and saying, “Yes, but my novel is about a person trapped in prison!” or “My novel is about a person whose mind is controlled!”

That’s fine. The characters in Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption (again, book and movie) are literal prisoners, with every moment of their lives regimented and their actions overseen by brutal prison guards. And that is the entire point: These characters take what little action they can to give themselves a sense of purpose, or a goal, or — in the case of the reveal — something much larger. They do not sit back and let things happen to them.

If your mind-controlled protagonist absolutely positively cannot make a choice on his own, then I’m sorry, he’s a puppet and a boring protagonist. Now if your novel is about a protagonist who is mind-controlled and struggling to break free, then that’s a good story! The struggle is what matters. That we readers can see and empathize with his struggle, that’s the good stuff.

Keep writing!

~ Tom