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.

Santa’s Secret Pen ’21 – Prompt: “Cinnamongate”

I love traditions, especially around the winter holidays. Until I met Fredrik, my silent assassin, kills you with kindness, more tattoos on him than a Victorian noblewoman, Norse hunk of sugar and spice–I thought I had a fairly good grasp on what Christmas was all about. I wrongfully assumed it was mostly the same everywhere. I mean, it is, sort of, but the devil is in the details.

Isn’t it always.

One of the more surreal things about a Swedish Christmas–or Jul, let’s be fair, no one calls it Christmas up here–has got to be the Eve itself. Julafton, December 24th, is the culmination of an entire month of preparation.

There are advent candles everywhere, but don’t you dare light them all at once or you’ll be excommunicated; sweet saffron bread, some with almonds, most with raisins; pepper cookies, mistranslated as gingerbread because both contain ginger; more spices than you can shake a cinnamon stick at; a decorated tree, potentially involving angels, but not necessarily; Every December 13th, children dress up to celebrate Saint Lucia with singing, wearing candle wreaths and long white robes.

Ham roast prepared with mustard and cloves; julegröt obliterated by powdered cinnamon and sugar, devoured for breakfast, lunch or dinner; and the Yuletide cousin of the smorgasbord, the julbord, groaning under the weight of all the weird and wonderful treats of the season. Come Julafton, you’ve had so many julbord already you should be sick of the stuff, but it still feels special on the day.

However, this isn’t a story about Jul in general, but my very first one. The time I almost irreversibly transplanted my foot to my mouth over something as (I thought) inconsequential as spice.

One of the most stressful things in anyone’s life is going to meet the family of the person they love more than anything in the world. Right? The pressure to, maybe not outright impress the parents, but at least leave them with the overall conclusion that you’re a good person. Reflect well on their adult child and their ability to make adult life choices. I think we can all agree on that.

Now, imagine, if you may, how to make it worse. You’re off to see your boyfriend’s family, parents and all, in a foreign country. Daunting! But there’s more.

A foreign country, over the Holidays.

More specifically, Christmas. In a country that doesn’t even call it Christmas.

Sweden, in December. I was about to experience juletid, not as in neopaganism, but an actual, modern Jul: and all the pitfalls associated with unfamiliar traditions.

So. First time I met the parents, we made it there the night before December 24th, as in Christmas Eve. I knew they celebrate a day early by my standards, but although Fredrik told me it was more about the food and the ornaments than anything outright religious, I really didn’t know what to expect. His confidence made me feel less apprehensive, but only by a very slight margin. Apparently, people weren’t all that religious, and especially not over ‘Jul.’

Fredrik even went so far as to say the religious schtick was mostly window dressing, an excuse to carry on with the ‘old traditions,’ whatever that meant. Altars? Winter solstice blood sacrifices? Not so much. I’d tried my hand at research. I know my way around a search bar or two. Saffron in pastries was one of the weirder stuff I’d found. More spices, and in quantities I didn’t expect of Viking country. Cinnamon and cloves and nutmeg, cardamom, hot mustard. But, as I was about to find out sooner than later, nothing could’ve prepared me for the genuine article.

As we stood outside the door in a cookie cutter neighbourhood barely decorated by US standards, everything covered in snow, Fredrik gave me a final flurry of advice.

“If you get the almond in the rice pudding–porridge–tomorrow morning, don’t just eat it. Announce it to the room. It’s good luck.”

And, “Don’t pick the raisins from the saffron buns. Bad form, bad manners.”

And, “Dad insists on lutfisk every year, don’t ask me why, but if you have to try it, go bananas with the sauce. It’s the only edible thing on the plate, including the potatoes.”

But the most important thing, out of all the very many things he said, was this: “Whatever you do, when we have breakfast–don’t forget the cinnamon.”

Ominous as it sounded, I didn’t dwell on it. Surely he was kidding. He’d never been one to care how or what people ate, for whatever reason. I don’t particularly enjoy the stuff, and it’s never been a problem in the past. I figured, to my own detriment, that it was #NoBigDeal.

Mom and Dad, Harry and Agneta, both wore understated knitted sweaters with Norwegian style snowflake motif. They greeted us at the door, with bright smiles and firm handshakes from Mom and a bear hug from Dad, everything was sunshine and happy days. The aroma of strong coffee permeated the small house from decades of shameless caffeine addiction. Coffee, candle wax, and the obligatory pork roast lovingly prepared on this, the night before the big day.

We sat in the living room, getting acquainted, while Dad proceeded to stuff me with a lifetime of treats I’d ‘missed out on,’ and Mom looked embarrassed on his behalf. We talked about work, and the weather, and traditions: Dad talking about Christmas as one big amalgamation of global culture. A national treasure, the Christmas tree, but ultimately imported goods. Just like Santa.

“Yes, we have the bearded man in the red suit,” Dad told me with a twinkling in his eye. “But we also have the Yule gnome. They’ve morphed into the same entity over the years, strangely enough. And every year, we perpetuate the charade that he’s brought Christmas presents. I blame Disney. And Coke! They invented Santa, you know!”

“Oh, Harry,” said Mom with a genteel smile. “We set out rice porridge for Jultomten on the porch every year, too, so he won’t go hungry. It’s a big night, delivering all those presents.”

Again with the rice porridge. I didn’t say anything about cookies or milk, because I had a sense this was a moment where all I had to do was sit back, listen, and soak up the Yuletide spirit. Jultomten, I was beginning to realize, was a different beast than Santa Claus. By the end of the evening, spent playing Bingolotto until midnight, I’d had so much coffee and spiced treats I couldn’t sleep.

Me and Fredrik slept in the sofa bed downstairs, right there in the living room with the Christmas tree. If Santa left something under the tree, he’d have to’ve pulled a Mission Impossible on us, because I was wide awake for the most part, trying to sort through all the conflicting information about Swedish table manners, Yuletide traditions, what to eat and how. Fredrik reassured me I’d be fine, and I chose to believe him, spending most of the night listening to his soft snores and the gurglings of my own, overstuffed stomach.

Come morning we gathered at the kitchen table in our pajamas and robes. I’d ‘ve worn a hat indoors if I didn’t care about being polite, it was so cold. A pot filled to the brim with coffee shared the space with a carton of milk, and a porcelain dish groaning under the weight of the biggest roast ham I’d ever seen. Next to it sat my Nemesis: the silkiest, fluffiest white rice concoction you could imagine. Dotted around the table were tiny porcelain figures, of little bearded men in blue or gray vests and red pointy hats.

Dad ladled out the stuff, proudly announcing he’d whipped the cream by hand. Mom carved the ham, and Fredrik was already scraping butter over a wedge of crisp bread.

Dessert and sandwiches for breakfast, what a concept.

Between the milk and the porridge, the ham and hot mustard open sandwich (which Fredrik said was a must), and the tiny little porcelain men in somewhat lewd poses staring up at me, I committed what is possibly the greatest sin of all.

Not being queer.

Not wearing mixed fabrics.

Not having meat on a Friday.

Dear reader. I forgot all about the importance of cinnamon.

For about ten seconds, I sat there sampling the strange mix of foodstuffs, thinking no wonder the Swedes love their spices if everything has a sweet/salty flavor profile, until I glanced up at Harry and Agneta. Such polite, friendly, hospitable people, I thought, now replaced by their doppelgangers. Like in that movie. They looked exactly the same, but pale, void of the warmth I’d already come to associate with them. Harry’s eyes were blank chasms, Agneta went paler than the porridge, and my only saving grace was I didn’t know any better.

Fredrik, unsung hero that he is, knocked over the powdered cinnamon right on top of my bowl, obliterating my pristine porridge, and in doing so, kicked up a cloud that covered the entire table. Once the coughing subsided and the bark-brown mists cleared, all was back to normal. Agneta aimed at a polite smile and delicately sipped her coffee; Harry cleared his throat, saying no problem. They had another 470 grams of the stuff.

Crisis averted, we could all go back to initiating me into the weird and wonderful phenomenon of Julafton, including the nation-wide, practically obligatory viewing of an episode of Disney’s The Wonderful World of Disney from the 1950s. Santa’s workshop mingling with Donald Duck trying desperately to take photographs of birds in the wilderness, Goofy’s chaotic attempt to steer a caravan down a mountain, and Robin Hood making an appearance right along Jiminy Cricket, Snow White, and Pluto–engaged as always in a bitter feud with Chip and Dale. No one opens any presents until it’s over, and it doesn’t even start until 3 P.M.

So, what I learned from that first Christmas in Sweden, at my darling Fredrik’s parents’ house, is that the holidays, no matter your religion or lack thereof, are about celebration and cherishing the people we love. It’s about family and friends, in whatever shape or size they come. But in Sweden, Jul is more than anything else about the food, and the treats, and the baking: preparing for the big eve. The otherworldly takes second place. It’s about tradition. Love, compassion, and understanding. From All of Us to All of You.

As long as you remember to put cinnamon on your porridge.

BY @CollideWords

Santa’s Secret Pen ’21 – Prompt: ” Boredom, Elitism, Luxury, Love, Envy”

Thin whispers of silver moonlight creep through gaps in the satin curtains, not quite reaching my body. Shadows and darkness surround me. Inside and out. The silence is uninterrupted, leaving me with only my thoughts for company. It would be peaceful to many. This whole life would be a dream to most. It was to me once. Having existed within it for so long, it is no longer. I tire of fancy gowns I may only wear once. I yawn during the extravagant meals, wondering what happens to the copious amounts of uneaten food. Military displays are always the same, birthdays and balls have no unique qualities, every day is like the one before. Is there nothing new in life anymore? Is this the curse of growing old? One of many such curses. It is not always easy for me to leave this luxurious bed in the mornings these days. Sometimes it is not possible at all. My joints do not work like they used to. Let alone my eyes, my ears, my hands, the list continues but I care not for it. Those pains make filling my time an ever more challenging task. I have already read through all the books in the library, what else am I to do? What new worlds am I to travel to? There are few hobbies befitting of me that I can manage. Even fewer that I am allowed to do. Would the ordinary folk care? Truly? I find it hard to believe that they would. The staff are the only people I think would. Arguing for freedom now is purposeless, they are far too entrenched in their mindset regarding me. The funny girl. The most peculiar one.

 What happened?

Once upon a time I had ambition. I had energy. I sang my wishes in the street, my desires for a more exciting life. It was not to be. I found the love of my life, yet never the thrills I wanted. No matter where I looked. No matter what I did. Do those moments I longed for exist? I will never know first hand. I know not whether I care. My husband knows I am unhappy though he knows not what to do about me. I know not what he can do for me. He does love me dearly and I do love him with all my heart. I am forever grateful to have him. But he was born into this life. He knows no different, he does not understand. At one point I enjoyed all the pomp and ceremony he loves. Reveled in the flamboyance. Now it is all so tiresome. I am sure he wishes he could help. He does in little ways. He brings me tea and wine, he holds my hands, he reminds me frequently that he loves me. Although now I cannot see why he does. Without him I dread to think quite what state I would be in. Well, I know, do I not?

 Am I merely selfish?

My surroundings are far more than comfortable. The foods I eat would be called exquisite by the little people. I never fear the cold, or the sicknesses. Perhaps I am. Others have it worse. My problems pale in comparison to theirs. What problems do I really have? Those little people seem happier than I despite them. They have purpose. They work in some form or another. Every day they have tasks they must fulfil. Be that making bread, selling eggs, caring for books, even my husband deals with all manner of politics. He has a purpose. He talks to me of work often, I know much of his duties. However I could never assist him. No. That would not do. I have knowledge aplenty, I could be valuable. He ends his days exhausted and stressed, forever wanting extra hands. Though not mine. What am I expected to do? Smile and look pretty was what the staff always told me at all the functions when I was young. I cannot imagine being able to look pretty now. Let alone smile. Especially not for some foreign, self righteous nobleman with a lecherous gaze. How did I ever? How did I ever smile?

 This night grows long. Sleep eludes me still. Perhaps on some level I do regret my choices. Never finding an art form of my own. Never making time for others in my prime. Having children instead of enjoying my youth. Would it be different if they were not estranged? I wish it were not like this. Their father is no beast, he has been rid of his curse for decades now. If only they would listen. I tried. Oh I tried. My words fell on deaf ears, my letters were viewed by blind eyes. What more could I have done? The young people in the town these days have no idea what happened back then. There is no remnant of the curse within him. How could anyone think otherwise having met him? Having known him? My understanding can only go so far. As can theirs, evidently. Some day they surely will change. They will have to replace him. When they do they will see his work and what good he has done. Could it not be before that? Could it not be within my lifetime? I very much doubt it. How much longer do I have now? Not long at all I would hope. What purpose does hope serve other than to make us suffer? To show us a reality that will never be realized?

 Ah, finally the black tides are encroaching on my somber mind. Soon the next dull day will greet me. My knees do not ache. Nor does my crumbling spine. This slumber seems as though it will be deeper than most. So long as it drowns out my thoughts, it is enough. A few merciful hours of mental silence before I have to watch out over the quiet lands and listen to my dreary self again.

BY @JadeBlack21