The Thing About Character Agency…

You don’t get very far into publishing before you start hearing about character agency.

You’ll often meet it as a roadblock in some form of way. A shut door. A rejection. An R&R.

Character agency is really just a fancy word for the relationship between action and reaction when it comes to your main character’s behavior as it influences the plot of your story. It’s about how reactive and how proactive your character is. About the balance between the two.

Often, you’ll see character agency equated with (pro)activity.

In my opinion, this is a slippery slope to go down.

The “active over passive” advice is like the “show, don’t tell” advice. Or the “prologues are bad” advice. It comes from a place of merit and value, yes, but the understanding of it remains too narrow and exclusionary in scope. We, as an industry, need to do better at understanding that passivity is a way of life for many people, for many reasons, and these people relate to passive protagonists. Passivity can sell.

Still, the “active over passive” advice does have some merit. The idea that a character is engaging because they have an external goal that drives them forward in their story (aka makes them active) is valid enough…

…but I still maintain that we tend to think of goals in a narrow way that excludes neurodiversity, cultural storytelling differences, stories of trauma/survivorship, and much more.

Character agency isn’t a way of praising the best stories, to be perfectly frank, but a way of praising the stories that sell in an instant-gratification, mass-consumer, hustle culture. And I’m gonna make some people angry by saying this, I think, but I’m gonna say it, anyway.

Now, yes, the market is important. We all need the market to exist and for that market to be somewhat predictable—but it’s also our job to challenge the market. It’s our job to make sure that the market doesn’t only own us, but that we also own the market in return. We can influence the market. We should influence the market, being its main suppliers.

I don’t think that character agency is inherently bad or good. Rather, I think it’s important for every writer to understand how character agency is viewed by the industry and the market. In that way, we can figure out our own preferences for character agency and make the right choices for our careers and optimize our chances for a successful and sustainable future.


Adding Activity to Passive Characters:


I personally think of characters as passively inclined and actively inclined.

For me, it’s about how the main character approaches the action they take. A more passively inclined main character would weigh the pros and cons differently than an actively inclined one. They might try to manipulate the action from afar rather than entering the direct crossfire. They might deflect attention away from what they’re doing, while an actively inclined main character might carry more of the attention themselves. A passively inclined character works in the shadows, and an actively inclined one works in the limelight—but they’re both working, mind you.

When I teach my students how to write active characters, I give them what I call the Soup Advice. Or the Balcony Advice, in case they don’t like soup (soup is awesome; I love soup).

Basically, if you have a dialogue scene, then have your character make soup while they talk. Have them cut vegetables. Have them find a pot and stub their toe. Or have them struggle to scratch an itch on their back that they can’t reach. Don’t just have them stand and do nothing except for talking. It’s the same with the balcony advice. If you have an opening scene where the main character stands on a balcony, then don’t start the scene there. Start the scene five seconds earlier, when the character actively steps out onto the balcony.

Basically, the trick is to give the character a smaller external goal for the scene. Eventually, if every scene has a goal like that, they will add up to an overall feeling of activity.

If your goal is to write more active characters, then this is a solid practice as a starting point.


An Advocacy for Passive Characters:


I believe that character agency is flawed in that it can be exclusionary to specific types of narratives. Often, it’s the marginalized ones. Such as stories of trauma, stories of survivorship, stories of disability, stories of neurodiversity, stories of abuse, and non-western storytelling traditions on the whole.

First off, we need to accept that surviving (trauma and otherwise) is a decision. It’s a choice. It’s an action.

If we keep using my passively/actively inclined framework, then these characters are passively inclined in that they are working on overcoming trauma that has affected their mobility to act and make choices on a base level. They can’t make any active choices yet, because they first have to regain that ability. That is their active choice: regaining the ability to make choices. And someone who tries to survive will likely work in the shadows, unlike their limelight counterparts.

Additionally, character agency is built around a neurotypical framework that delegitimizes neurodiversity in that choices must “make sense”. Well, yes, they must “make sense”, but what’s “sensible” to a neurotypical character isn’t necessarily “sensible” to a neurodiverse one.

Lastly, not all storytelling is traditionally conflict-driven and linear like the western three-act structure. There are so many other story traditions around the world. We have stories-within-stories, braided storytelling, kishoutenketsu storytelling, daisy-chain storytelling, robleto storytelling, and much more. In an increasingly global world, with English as a lingua franca, it only makes sense that cultural storytelling traditions will cross over into foreign languages and that we should make room for that to happen.

To wrap this up, I want to talk about horror as a genre.

More specifically, horror as an example of a genre that relies on passive characters.

To be even more precise: horror as an example of a genre where the audience has no problem with passivity.

Horror relies on passive characters to a certain extent. It relies on getting reactions from the reader, via the lens of the character, and so a lot of horror stories have passive characters. They have reactive characters struggling to survive through their circumstances. Take King’s MISERY, for example. The main character doesn’t leave his bed for most of the book. Or take Moreno-Garcia’s MEXICAN GOTHIC. Or any other haunted house story, for that matter. Khaw’s NOTHING BUT BLACKENED TEETH, for instance. Or take Solomon’s SORROWLAND. The characters in these books are largely reactive—and it works just fine for the audience. The audience expects it, really, and they love it.

Passive/reactive characters can work just fine for all genres and stories, as long as the passivity is purposeful and representative of all lived realities, for all people, for all cultures.

Understanding Story Structure via Midpoints

This idea seems really simple, right?

The midpoint is, of course, the middle of a story.

What’s hard about understanding that, yeah?

Well, for me, it used to be incredibly hard—because it left me with the problem as to what a middle actually does for a story. What’s the point of a middle? Quick, tell me the answer, in one sentence, go, go, gogogogo—but you can’t, right? And if you can, it doesn’t feel like enough, does it?

We all know what a beginning and an ending both do. They start and conclude. Build and tear down. It’s the framework of a barn. The outline of a geometric figure. Two points that naturally connect. It’s payoff. It’s cost and outcome. It’s cause and effect. The midpoint doesn’t do any of that. In fact, the midpoint can sometimes feel as if it stands in the way of the barn framework and geometrical outline—and that’s where a lot of writers go wrong, I think, in that they view the midpoint as an obstacle. They want to get from point A-B rather than A-B-C.

And I think that’s a very natural thing, actually. And I think it relates to how we learn about stories as children, in part. As children, we’re told stories because they have universal, basic lessons that help us grow as human beings. They have morals. Ideas. Values. This is all very intangible stuff—and intangible stuff is clearest if you think of it as A=B, not A=B=C. Beginning and end. Payoff. No middle in sight.

In my opinion, two factors contribute to the “sagging middle syndrome”:

  1. A lot of writers (myself included) naturally understand stories via A=B payoff.
  2. A lot of writers (myself included) are inherently afraid of telling too much to the reader.

I already talked about the A=B payoff, so let me talk about the second factor.

A lot of writers make the mistake of keeping their cards too close to their chest, afraid that the mystery of their book will disappear if they don’t—but that only means they end up leaving the reader too confused, with too much mystery, and that leaves the reader frustrated.

Think of it like a carrot on a stick that you’re dangling in front of the reader, yeah?

You have to show that carrot, enough of that carrot, for the reader to keep running for it.

For me, what I tend to initially think of as the ending of my story… is actually my midpoint. This is because I’m inherently afraid of telling too much to the reader. I’m afraid of showing them too much of my carrot. And this is a mistake. It drags the pacing down. It undermines the full potential of my story. I always have to let go of that fear when I start a book. Always.

It amounts to this: “Don’t save the cool stuff for later, but trust that even cooler stuff will come if you don’t.”

A lot of agents will also tell you that this is a mistake writers make when they write trilogies. They save too much of the cool stuff for the later books. When the agents reject their books, the writers say that the really cool stuff happens on page fifty, so please keep on reading. These “laters” are red flags. If you save all the cool stuff for later, then what about now? We’ll never get to the cool stuff later because we’ll never get past the uncool stuff right now, you know?

I don’t claim to be an expert in story structure, but I will claim that story structure has been my greatest weakness, which has led me to study it in far greater depth than I’ve studied anything else insofar as storytelling goes.

And this is why I’ll confidently say that I never understood how story structure worked until I understood that the midpoint is what makes or breaks your book.

More specifically, it makes or breaks the pacing of your book.

And, honestly, pacing can make or break your book in turn.

Or, at least, the first draft of your book.

Focusing on the midpoint in a first draft will give you solid pacing from the get-go, meaning less developmental edits for your later drafts, and it will also allow for more freedom insofar as acts go.

If you have a solid midpoint, then it doesn’t really matter if you have a three-act structure, or a four-act structure, or a seventeen-act structure, you know? You have a middle. You have a focal point that can stretch in two directions, left and right, up and down, and then you can stretch it however much you want in both directions, yeah?

You can think of it like drawing a circle with your compass; the tip of the compass is your middle and the circle you draw is your story. Or the potential for your story, I should say, because starting with the middle as your focal point demands that you scrabble through a lot of potential beginnings and ends before you find the ones that fit together—but once you do, your structure will inherently be well-paced.

This is less of a linear way of thinking about structure.

If this “freehand compass method” clicks with your brain like it does with mine, then it assures that the middle of your book won’t sag, and I fully, absolutely, 200% recommend that you try thinking of structure like this.

And, because I’m a proud nerd, please have a very simple, conceptual visualization of what I mean by this method:

ESL Writers – How Our 1st Language Affects Our 2nd

This article starts with a re-tweet that I came across the other day.

This one, below here:

This tweet hit home for me.

I saw myself reflected in it.

It spurred me to consider whether there might be a link between my own underwriter nature in English and the fact that my mother tongue is Danish (ergo Germanic). Maybe my English writing is concise and abrupt because Danish as a language is more concise than English? Because it has a smaller vocabulary than English, and thus it’s hard to make it flowery/lengthy?

I know my conciseness in my English stories often is my weakness in that I say too little and leave reader confused, even though I personally think I say enough and that the rest can be inferred (spoiler: it often can’t, shucks). This past year, I’ve worked a lot on my prose, trying to explicitly be more lengthy. Both to improve my craft—to expand what I can do with my craft—but also because I want to get better at hitting the proper (read: market-friendly) word count in my first drafts.

All this rumination about myself made me want to see whether my ESL friends felt the same. Whether my friends, for whom English is a second language, can see threads of their own native language weaved into their English storytelling, and how these threads show themselves.

So, of course, I went and asked them on twitter.

I had an Italian and Spanish friend both say they’re overwriters in English, which would fit the theory that native romance languages foster descriptions and complex sentence structures for ESL writers.

I also had a Brazilian friend who said the same, namely that they’re an overwriter in English as a second language and that Portuguese as a native language has lush prose.

Then I had a Hungarian friend who also saw themselves reflected in this theory, saying that Hungarian can be quite rambling, and that this fits their own tendency to overwrite in English. 

Lastly, I had a Dutch friend who finds themselves an underwriter in English, fitting the idea that Germanic languages are very matter-of-fact compared to English. Just like Danish.

I think we can infer a lot from all of this, and I suppose this is where my fondness for cultural studies makes me go full nerd—because I think we’re looking at something that goes beyond language here.

First off, I think it’s fascinating that there is this difference between storytelling and writing when it comes to your second language, even if you’re perfectly fluent in that language. There’s something to be said for your formative years, here. I’ve read more English than Danish in my life at this point, yet it’s obvious that my rudimentary understanding of “How To Tell A Story” remains rooted in Danish, not English. This also shows that storytelling is more than written text. Even more than oral storytelling. We’re going beyond stories, grasping for culture itself as a concept.

This makes sense, doesn’t it?

Language is inevitably linked to culture, after all.

It reminds me of another tweet I saw recently, namely that the stories-within-stories concept is told best by non-western ESL writers. Based on my current knowledge of this, I agree. EMPRESS OF SALT AND FORTUNE, by the Viet-American Nghi Vo, comes to mind. The plot of that novella focuses on a cleric who listens to stories about the recently deceased empress. The cleric isn’t the actual story; the story that the cleric is being told is the actual story. CHRONICLES OF THE BITCH QUEEN also comes to mind, by the Filipino-Canadian K. S. Villoso, in which the narrative oscillates between past and present with the main character chronicling their own story to us, the readers.

The tweeter argued that non-western ESL writers are good at this type of narrative because their culture looks at storytelling differently in that they generally revere and preserve the past more, while being less focused on the future such as western culture traditionally is. I can see this being true, and I can see this making non-western ESL writers into masters of the story-within-story narrative.

To sum up, I find it so fascinating how writing and storytelling aren’t only two separate crafts, but also that you can essentially write in your second language, yet at the same time be storytelling in your native one.

I mean, not to toot my own horn and the horns of my ESL friends, but that’s massively cool, isn’t it?