Posted by: Kathy Temean | February 27, 2019

Character Agency by Katia Raina

Katia Raina

Series: MFA for Breakfast

Character Agency: What It Is, Why It’s A Must, and How To Make It Happen

I graduated from Vermont College of Fine Arts, Writing for Children and Young Adult Program four years ago. On the one hand it feels so long ago. Since I graduated I started a new career as a teacher and got a debut book deal. I have re-crafted my writing routine and moved my family to another state.  On the other hand, it was only just yesterday that I stood before the podium, hands cold with tension, and delivered my graduate lecture about the importance of character agency and how to develop it. Now years later, as I continue developing my craft — because it never stops, now, does it? —  as I continue my search for truth through drafts, attempts and revisions, I always go back to character agency. In this series, I would like to continue what I started years ago on my own blog: share the wisdom I’d learned through my years in the program, and since then. And to kick off this series, I am starting with my own lecture! What you will find in this post are some of the bits, suggestions and hopefully helpful lists from it.

What is character agency and why it’s so important?

Agency is a fuel that drives your character, which in turn drives your story. Agency is your character’s power. It is their passion, their movement, it is how active they are. Citing from my lecture (January 2015), agency is “the degree to which your main character owns her story.”

It’s just like real life, in a way: like I always tell my teenage daughter, focus on what you can control. I tell her — and remind myself often — that we can craft the kind of life we want. Or at least, we can try to. Exercising agency can lead to a more rewarding and exciting life’s journey.  Character agency, in turn, can make your character more relatable and your story more engaging to read.

Developing character agency: A Starting Point (with more lists and snippets from my lecture):

A character has agency when her story:

  1. Could not happen to anyone else
  2. Becomes a product of who she is, where she comes from and where she is going.

Agency comes from deep characterization. What’s your character made of? Here is a list of possible ingredients.

–          Strengths (loyalty, talents, curiosity, etc.)

–          Flaws (arrogance, self-centeredness, close-mindedness, these are just some examples.)

–          Relationships (with peers, with pets, with parents, with friends, with enemies, with the clerk at the grocery store)

–          Their beliefs about their world, from more casual opinions (summer is the best season, green vegetables stink, some pop songs just grow on you), to their core beliefs, or what Kathi Appelt calls “the truest truth:” things like, racism is wrong, or magic is real.

–          The past: what they once treasured, what they got robbed of, their pain, or as Martha Alderson calls it in The Plot Whisperer, “their wounds,” which constitute their backstory. Lisa Cron calls it “misbelief” in Story Genius — something the character has come to wrongly believe about themselves as a result of a traumatic experience, an erroneous certainty that the events of the story will (hopefully) help her overhaul.

–          Their yearning, or, as my grad semester advisor Louise Hawes said in her July 2008 Vermont College of Fine Arts lecture on desire, “know not just what they want, but why they want it!”

–          Often directly related to desire, but not always, a vital part of characterization is something and someone to love.

–          Fears

–          The challenges they face. As Robert McKee explains in Story, “Your character, indeed all characters, in the pursuit of any desire, at any moment in story, will always take a minimum, conservative action from his point of view. All human beings always do. Humanity is fundamentally conservative as indeed is all of nature.”  It’s a question of survival. Because your character won’t rise to the occasion, unless challenged, you are going to need to throw some big obstacles her way, some antagonists to rile against.

–         ( By the way, make sure your antagonists are active too.)

All of those traits will become part of your character’s essence. This list is where all good action should come from.

Lights, camera, action!

Of course we can list pages and pages of personality traits, from memories to beliefs, to fears, but ultimately, none of them will be real, not until our characters start doing things.

Meaningful action can consist of:

–          The smallest of actions, from picking up a rock, to taking a sip of water

–          Routine actions that are part of a job or chores can be illuminating

–          Romantic action, from kisses all the way to home base, especially when it’s sought out or initiated by your main character

–          Words can totally count as action. For example, talking back, speaking up, revealing a secret.

–          Asking questions

–          Even non-action can count as action sometimes! For example, a refusal to do something.

–          In the same way, silence can also be active. A character’s refusal to implicate a friend, for example, can be an act of courage, under certain circumstances.

–          Mistakes. Remember to allow your main character to stumble plenty of times, and to face the consequences, too. As we all know from real life, mistakes help us grow.

Chicken or Egg? Character or Action?

What comes first, in character’s agency: character or action? In my opinion, it’s a chicken or the egg question. All action stems from character, and yet character is but an empty shell, without action.

So ideally, the two inform each other, feed each other and build on each other, adding up to strong agency, and creating an impact.

If your main character is truly active, there’s a really good chance she will bring about some sort of change in her world.  But also, the impact works both ways. Strong agency often leads to your main character’s own internal transformation. A fully fleshed out active character will transform herself through her own actions.

And that interaction between character and action is where character agency comes from!

Exercise:

If you are stuck in your draft, or are contemplating revisions, try writing lots of childhood scenes for your protagonist, not expecting them to necessarily end up in the story, just searching for truth in the sights and sounds and sensory details. Dig into their fears, loves and hurts by going to a blank page and imagining your character. Then, ask them a few questions indirect ones, perhaps, to start with, so you don’t spook them, so your overly eager left brain won’t try to barge in with surface answers. Ask your character to tell you about a nightmare, about a first time they met a good friend. Ask what irritates them. Start with small talk. Eventually, such explorations might bring you deeper and give you the clues you need.

When you go back to the words on the manuscript page, for every single scene you write, ask yourself, what is the protagonist’s goal here, and how can it be translated into action? And then watch your character fumble and persevere, watch them make mistakes and try again — watch your characters become active and real.

Katia, thank you for sharing your time and expertise to write up this article about “Character”. I look forward to readin next months article from you.

Talk soon,

Kathy

 


Responses

  1. OMG! Post was so inspiring I didn’t get half way through before I had the idea and drafted an entire PB ms! Thank you, Katie and Kathy!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I found your site as recommended by a common friend. We are in the throes of thinking about character agency.

    Like

  3. Wow! So much goodness. Exactly what I needed as a I tackle an R&R. Will be bookmarking this for future re-reads. Looking forward to next month!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Just what I needed to read today. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    • You are very welcome — I am glad!

      Like


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