Character Agency - the new buzz word, but what is it?

These days the publishing world is alive with every writer expressing his opinion on something called "character agency", and while the topic is making for some excellent blog fodder, the definitions seem to be popping up with examples-- like hipsters sporting bags of kale chips and glasses of coconut water-- but does anyone know what they're talking about? Where does the term come from? What does it actually mean?

I'd not ever heard the term until September 2013. HarperCollins editor, Diana Gill, was tweeting about what she looks for in a submission. (I can't find the original tweet. Twitter seems to have eaten it.) She mentioned the characters needing agency. I replied asking what she meant by 'agency'. Here's what she said:

Here's how Merriam-Webster defines agency:

1 a : the office or function of an agent b : the relationship between a principal and that person's agent 2 : the capacity, condition, or state of acting or of exerting power : operation 3 : a person or thing through which power is exerted or an end is achieved : instrumentality <communicated through the agency of the ambassador> 4 : an establishment engaged in doing business for another <an advertising agency> 5 : an administrative division (as of a government) <the agency for consumer protection>

"Agency." Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 11 June 2014. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/agency>.

So in our case, we're looking at definitions 2 and 3: "the capacity to act" or "a person through which an end is achieved". A protagonist must have the capacity to act-- in other words, she must be the one making the decisions, driving the story. It must be your character solving the problem. It must be your character's decision to face the antagonist, even knowing the consequences of her actions. It must be your character through which an end is achieved-- the end of the antagonist, the end of the story. These things must not come from any other character (nor should they come solely from the writer).

But that's not all.

Wikipedia further defines agency into "moral agency", "human agency" and "agency in sociology", and classifies agency as "purposeful, goal directed activity (intentional action)". Ah ha! Now this is what we want from our characters. Goals. Purpose. Intentions.

A protagonist decides she wants something (she has a goal), and sets out to achieve that goal. This action of making this decision, of setting out to achieve it, results in consequences (also known as a set-back or conflict), which happens to be the antagonist working his own agency, setting out to achieve his own goals, taking his own actions, but that damn protagonist is in the way. The protagonist, having compelling motivation to achieve her goal, must make another decision: face the consequences, figure out what to do next, with the result being further consequences for those actions. And so on. The pattern continues with the actions and consequences escalating until the protagonist finally faces down the antagonist, and deals with the root of the problem once and for all.

Back and forth it goes like a tennis match, protagonist and antagonist squared off in the tennis court of your novel. I think most writers know all this on some level, but when in the trenches of scene construction can forget it. The result is weak, boring characters. How does it look when your protagonist is poised to strike a return hit, when suddenly her side of the court is full of other characters volleying the ball back to the other side? While this can happen occasionally (no more than once per novel please), it's better if it doesn't happen at all. The reader is looking to witness a great save, a trick shot from the protagonist. If another character swoops in and makes the hit, the reader is cheated and the protagonist has just been shown to be unworthy of being on the court.

The best example of a character with agency is Harry Dresden (of The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher) or Stephanie Plum (of the Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich). These characters have a knack for trying to do something, only to wind up causing trouble, and spending the rest of the novel trying to fix all the problems as things escalate out of control. These characters also face antagonists with agency. Those bond skippers don't want Stephanie to catch them any more than the creatures Harry faces want to be taken down by Harry.

The worst example of character agency is probably Elektra Nachos of the movie Elektra (the 2005 movie starring Jennifer Garner.) The full plot summary is on Wikipedia. In the first place, Elektra is not created of her own free will. She's killed and then revived. (That's fine. Peter Parker didn't choose to be bitten by the spider, after all. But what should have followed was a progression of how Elektra chose to deal with this. Instead, we got something else.) Elektra is being trained by the one who revived her, but then she chooses to leave. Why? We have no idea, save that she has rage issues. But what is her goal? What does she want? She decides to become a contract killer. Why? What lead to that decision? Of all things why be an assassin? That's not a choice the rest of the world makes every day, so we kind of needed the motivation behind it. (So far we have a character making choices because the writer wants these things to happen. This is not character agency.)  So she's sent to spend some time on an island with a father and daughter-- and she ends up being told to assassinate them. Why? Okay, I get that the writers wanted to set up a romance but come on. There was only the three of them on this island. Elektra is smarter than that. But what do the writers have her do? She leaves them. Why? She has to know the bad guys know this father and daughter are on the island, obviously or she wouldn't have been sent there. Why did she not choose to get them to safety first? Why did she not choose to find out why they're targets? Why did she choose to stupidly fall in love at that time? As it turns out, this was a test for Elektra, but for the audience finding this out towards the end of the movie was a cheat. Elektra the movie was a failure because the protagonist lacked definable goal and motivation, and because she was not in charge of making her own choices, of taking her own action. Stuff happened to her that she had to deal with. Stuff should have happened because she was trying to make something happen. Not because the writers wanted it that way. Sure, as writers we have things we'd like to write about, things we want to see on the page, but ultimately, we have to give the choices over to the characters or we end up creating a pile of crap.

I've seen it mentioned that The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is an example of lack of character agency because Katniss doesn't get many choices. She's thrown in to the game and forced to play. But I would argue that agency is not measured in numbers of choices, but in quality: the choices should be difficult, which Katniss's are. She also has a strong goal (to survive), and compelling motivation (to get back home and continue to be the provider of her family). And when bad stuff happens to Katniss, she takes action. Bad stuff happening can always be used as a catalyst to start the story, but after that we want to see protagonist and antagonist volleying on the court. I think The Hunger Games has that.

I think of character agency as the story's vehicle. There should be a destination (character's goal), enough fuel to make the trip (compelling motivation), and plenty of bends and turns in the road to make things interesting (taking action from difficult choices).  Without a destination, the story drones on to no end. Without fuel, without compelling motivation, the trip is short, the character fizzles, and all the plot action in the world won't save the story. Without bends and turns, the destination is in clear view and the trip couldn't be more boring or predictable. A good story will present the protagonist with difficult choices, and we the readers/audience will not know how she will choose/react/take action. The action taken might even be surprising. As long as all three elements (goal, motivation, choices) are present, there is agency and the story moves.

I think character agency is a protagonist (or antagonist) taking action that determines the plot, and that action is clearly motivated and goal-oriented, and arising from difficult choices.

What are your thoughts on this? How do you define character agency?

Further reading: Chuck Wendig The Passive Voice Writer Unboxed Fantasy Book Cafe Staffer's Book Review