When reading submissions, either for mentorship contests or in the slush pile, the most common problem I find is a lack of character agency. In a rejection letter, this often translates to “I didn’t feel as swept up in the story as I’d hoped,” or even the dreaded “I just didn’t connect.” It can be difficult to pinpoint exactly what those rejections mean, or how to turn that rejection into actionable feedback, but speaking from experience, your best bet is to take a look at your character agency.
Character agency is vital to any story. Most interesting characters are successful in captivating readers because they take an active role in their own story. These characters don’t have to be physically strong, hyper-intelligent, witty as heck, or even likeable in order to be fascinating; they just need to push the story forward through their actions and choices.
Take, for example, Katniss Everdeen. Katniss is, by all means, a multifaceted character in many ways, but she is also highly relatable because she’s something of an everygirl. Any one of us can find something in her that feels familiar, and this is a technique that’s used often to create characters that anyone can see themselves in. What makes Katniss exceptional is not that she is chosen for the Hunger Games; it’s that she chooses the Hunger Games. Anyone can have their name pulled out of a hat, but Katniss makes a choice to save her sister and put herself at great personal risk to do it. Without this choice, she would just be a random draw, nothing special about her. With this choice, she is brave, loyal, and fierce–the kind of character who makes readers care.
We can’t all write Katniss Everdeens, but we can all take steps to increase our characters’ agency to make them more engaging, and make our plots more character driven… with a little help from our good friend Spreadsheets!!
Last week, Jenny Howe gave us her revision tool: the reverse outline. This will come in handy here so you don’t have to double up your workload. Grab your reverse outline, or if you missed it go ahead and create a list of every chapter/scene in your book. You may want to make a clean copy of this if you’ve already made notes on your reverse outline. If you want to start fresh, click here for a blank spreadsheet specifically for this exercise.
In the first column, go ahead and list out your chapters/scenes in order. In the second column and beyond, list the events that occur in that scene or chapter–this means everything that happens at all, big or small. Give each event its own cell in your spreadsheet.
Once you’ve done that, take a look at each event and think about what causes that event. You’ll need at least 3 highlighters if you’re working on paper, and if you’re working on a spreadsheet, you’ll need at least 3 carefully selected color choices–and you should spend at least 10 minutes thinking about this, let’s be real.
With your first highlighter/color, look for events that are caused by an action your main character takes. You may need more than one color here if you have more than one main character.
With your second color, highlight any event that is caused by the action of a side character, including the villain unless your villain is one of your main characters (again, you may want more than one color for this—or perhaps different shades of the same color).
With your third color, highlight any event that is caused by an external force or minor/offscreen character, like a tornado or a new law passed by the government. You can also simply leave these unhighlighted if you prefer.
Now, take all of the events that are not highlighted for your main character and consider if these events force your MC to make a choice or take an action. If so, circle them–or bold them.
Congratulations, you made a rainbow! Joking aside, you now have a visual representation of your character’s agency and to what level they affect the plot. Using this map, you can see if there’s an imbalance:
- Are too many spaces highlighted for external forces?
- Some things need to happen to the MC in order for them to take action, and that’s okay. If you’ve circled or bolded these events because they force your main character to take action, they might be just fine! Look at the bolded/circled events too, but focus on the ones that don’t make your character act first.
- This might be indicative that your character has low agency. You can resolve this by examining how your MC can cause the event to happen through their own choices and actions instead. This might mean changing the cause, and it might mean changing the effect, but that’s okay! Revision is change, and change is good. Don’t be afraid to shake things up.
- Are too many spaces highlighted for side characters or the villain?
- It’s good to have side characters and villains affect the plot as well, so don’t immediately change all of these! You want your antagonist to be active as well, and side characters shouldn’t be all set-dressing with no substance. It’s good if they’re active, but are they overshadowing your main character?
- Look at where side characters might be stealing the show. If you can give those choices to your main character instead, that’s a possible solution.
- If a specific side character is overshadowing your main character, take a good hard look at why they’re a side character. Would the story be better if you told it from their POV? Are they really the main character of your story?
- Are too many spaces highlighted for your main character?
- This is super unlikely, since you want your main character to have the majority of spaces highlighted, however it is possible to overdo it! This might be indicative of an underdeveloped world/setting that doesn’t affect your character’s story enough, a villain that lacks a dynamic role, or ineffective side characters that act more like set-dressing than people.
- To solve this problem, try combining side characters if there are a lot of them–this can help make your side characters more engaging and well rounded. You can also look at deepening your side characters’ and villain’s motivations.
Don’t forget to account for the ripple effects of changing these character actions. Adjusting your story’s character agency should have larger effects on the entire plot, on relationships, and on the character’s internal arc. These changes shouldn’t be isolated, and if you find they are, it’s probably not a big enough change.
Don’t know where to start with developing your character’s agency? Don’t worry! Just chart it out as it is now, and come back next week when we’ll give you the next step.
Rosiee Thor is the co-creator of BYOMentor and the author of the YA novel TARNISHED ARE THE STARS, forthcoming from Scholastic in 2019. You can follow her on twitter at @rosieethor or on her website, www.rosieethor.com
4 thoughts on “Character Driven Narratives: Charting Character Agency”
Great post Rosiee of the purple hair.
I’m doing all of your suggestions.