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.

ARC Review: “The Book Eaters” by Sunyi Dean

(thanks to Sunyi Dean for granting me an unproofed ARC of this book!)

Read if you like: mystery, genre-blending, vampires/parasitic creatures, history, cults, books, family dynamics, queerness, dual timelines, ticking clocks, bad blood, secret societies, emotional burdens, hard choices, the struggle for freedom, sacrificial mothers, sassy kids “acting” old beyond their years, cursing, tension, suspense

Triggers: alcoholism, addiction, blood, murder, arson, human trafficking, drugs, profanity

Goodreads Summary:

Sunyi Dean’s The Book Eaters is a contemporary fantasy debut. It’s a story of motherhood, sacrifice, and hope; of queer identity and learning to accept who you are; of gilded lies and the danger of believing the narratives others create for you.

Out on the Yorkshire Moors lives a secret line of people for whom books are food, and who retain all of a book’s content after eating it. To them, spy novels are a peppery snack; romance novels are sweet and delicious. Eating a map can help them remember destinations, and children, when they misbehave, are forced to eat dry, musty pages from dictionaries.

Devon is part of The Family, an old and reclusive clan of book eaters. Her brothers grow up feasting on stories of valor and adventure, and Devon—like all other book eater women—is raised on a carefully curated diet of fairytales and cautionary stories.

But real life doesn’t always come with happy endings, as Devon learns when her son is born with a rare and darker kind of hunger—not for books, but for human minds.

(Goodreads book profile here)


My Review:

This is a genre-blending book that’ll stay a favorite of mine for years to come.

I’ll be buying every special edition of this book that I can get my hands on.

It ticked so many boxes for me, both on a structural and emotional level, and I’ll try to peel them apart below here, but I can only apologize if I fail. The books we love most are often the hardest to deconstruct, after all. It’s much easier to be specific about what we don’t like than what we like.

Let’s start with the emotional level.

This book absolutely ripped my chest open, pulled my ribs apart, and plucked my staccato heart from my body as if I was nothing but a deflated, fleshy reliquary for something bigger than myself—and I was totally fine with it, actually, don’t let my death rattle stop you on your way out the door. Put less viscerally, this is a book that depicts an ugly truth so beautifully that you can’t look away from it. The truth in question?

Love makes monsters of us all.

Even mothers. Especially mothers. Especially those that we love in return.

“The Book Eaters” is the first book I’ve read in a long while that handles this theme as delicately and thoroughly as it does. It always tethers on a tightrope. Too much love; not enough love. Too much loyalty; not enough loyalty. Too much sacrifice; not enough sacrifice. It’s ultimately a book about choice.  Every book is about choice, of course, in the sense that choice creates character engagement and investment—but this book specifically addresses the struggle of choice. The cost of choice. The cost of freedom. The promise of freedom.

This grand emotional toll of the book is in large part due to the complexity of characters, which leads us into the more structural aspect of why I loved the book. Dean writes characters that straddle your chest, clasp your face between their hands, and force you to look at them. To see them at their very worst, yet root for them regardless. This is a high demand to make of a reader, and it’s a hard balance to strike for an author.

Dean also peppers the character dynamics and interactions with a wry, uplifting sense of humor. It feels very “if-I-don’t-laugh-I’ll-cry”. It’s a humor that fits the theme of the book. After all, when your five-year-old son’s starvation for human minds makes you a serial killer, it’s hard to do anything but laugh off the pain.

What truly shone for me structurally, however, was how the dual timelines of the book slowly inch towards each other, finally meeting at the end, gradually unveiling (purposeful!) holes in the plot until everything suddenly makes sense. This suspenseful thriller of a book doesn’t deal so much in twists as it deals in mysteries—and I’m here for it. Dean masterfully distracts you from the obvious, from putting two and two together, and so when the obvious thing does happen, you slap your forehead and scoff at yourself—because you should’ve seen it coming.

Then, of course, there’s also the worldbuilding. This is technically a contemporary setting, but a lot of the worldbuilding stems from an older and more traditionally rooted age. An Arthurian-inspired age. In many ways, the world also mimics that of classic vampires in that the main characters are parasitic non-human creatures that feast on humans while living secretly among them. Only in this case, the feasting isn’t blood, but books and brains. Literally. And yet, while the world feels culturally steeped in old tradition, the origin story is distinctively science-fiction. This is a book that blends elements from so many genres that you never quite know what to expect. And perhaps it’s this unpredictability of the world that distracts you from the obvious and from figuring out the mysteries prematurely; you’re so busy piecing the world together that the plot itself kinda just cruises along, bringing you along for the ride. You need to understand the world in order to understand the plot, and Dean keeps both elements so close to her chest that you only really understand it when she wants you to understand it.

I could keep going, but I think I’ll leave it here with one last note: I’m not a mother, struggling or otherwise, but this book made me feel like one, and that fact speaks volumes.

If you like character-driven books that blend genres and keep you rooted to your seat despite (because of?) the trainwreck you know is about to happen, then this is a book for you.


PRE-ORDER LINKS

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ARC Review: “Saint Death’s Daughter” by C. S. E. Cooney

(thanks to Rebellion Publishing and NetGalley for granting me an ARC of this book!)

Read if you like: lyrical writing, necromancy, family, legacy, inheritance, thematic worldbuilding, setting as character, multicultural setting, linguistic detail, nontraditional gender norms, skeletons, ghosts, fierce women, soft men, birds, catacombs, whimsy, death magic, epic battles, history with consequences.

Triggers: animal abuse, emotional abuse, physical abuse, child neglect, child torture, mutilation, dismemberment, gore, blood (note: while these triggers are present, they’re not overly graphic, and since the main character is a necromancer, she doesn’t describe these things with a “horror” intent in mind, hence why this book can also be described as whimsical; this juxtaposition is part of its style)

Goodreads Summary:

Life gets complicated when Death gets involved.

To be born into a family of royal assassins pretty much guarantees that your life is going to be… rather unusual. Especially if, like Miscellaneous “Lanie” Stones, you also have a vicious allergy to all forms of violence and bloodshed, and an uncanny affinity for bringing the dead back to life.

To make matters worse, family debt looms – a debt that will have to be paid sooner rather than later if Lanie and her sister are to retain ownership of the ancestral seat, Stones Manor. Lanie finds herself courted and threatened by powerful parties who would love to use her worryingly intimate relationship with the goddess of death for their own nefarious ends. But the goddess has other plans… 

(Goodreads book profile here)


My Review:

What ultimately shone the most for me in this book is the way that theme, metaphor and worldbuilding all blend so seamlessly together to the point that I even struggle pulling them apart now, but I’ll do my best.

Let me start with the things that I enjoyed about the worldbuilding, specifically.

We’re dealing with a protagonist who performs death magic (Lanie Stones). This makes the setting and the plot inherently macabre, yet somehow Cooney manages to make death feel… whimsical and aphrodisiacal. There is a colorful whimsy to the world, particularly with the way that Lanie’s death magic works, and it gives me strong Studio Ghibli vibes. I’ve seen this book comped to Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir, but I honestly don’t think that’s a good comparative title. If anything, it’s only a comparative title insofar as the necromancy itself goes. And I even hesitate to say this because Lanie’s necromancy doesn’t carry the same vibe as Harrow’s. Rather, it carries the opposite. Lanie’s necromancy—indeed, Lanie herself—is all about love. Lanie loves death as a mother, treats death as a mother, as the God that Death is—and she makes us love death in return. She helps up make peace with death. And that’s where the theme sneaks in, but I’ll save that for a couple of paragraphs just yet. So, let’s continue with what I enjoyed about the worldbuilding.

I enjoyed the multicultural setting. We have three nations whose cultures and histories are so interlinked that they become mirror images of each other. This doesn’t mean that they’re not distinct. On the contrary. They are incredibly distinct. What it means, is that we’re dealing with a setting where natural assimilation between cultures has occurred over decades, maybe even centuries, yet each culture still retains its own independence. From my own point of view, this reminded me a lot of the relationship between Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. To give an example: the nations share (some of) the same Gods, but call them by different names. To give another example: there are schools dedicated to one nation within another nation. Another example: each nation has wizards with wizard marks, but they all have a preferred type of magic, dependent on the God in question.

Speaking of the wizard marks, I found those to be a fun conceptual twist to the more familiar concept of a witch mark as these have been used both in fiction and in history.

But, going back to the multicultural setting, this also helped ensure that all the characters had incredibly distinct voices. One nation’s speech is built around rhyming and body language, to give an example. A lot of thought has gone into the linguistic elements of this book. Both in this sense, but also when it comes to placenames and people’s names. You have a constant sense of all these cultures mingling, yet staying distinct at the same time, all based on the terminology used.

Lastly, I loved the constant, but always subtle, subversion of gender norms both through clothing, make-up, and mannerisms. You won’t find traditional gender norms here—and it’s a delight to read.

Transitioning from the worldbuilding into the theme, this wasn’t really a book about death for me. This was a book about love. And that’s why I personally find Harrow the Ninth a misleading comparative title. This book has so much love—unfurling from Lanie’s own large capacity for love—that it didn’t give me the same vibe of Harrow the Ninth at all. But you also have to read a good part of the book before this starts to become apparent to you. The book opens with death, grief, echo wounds, and a literal allergy to death, but it ends with love as the answer to death. It’s about coming to terms with death through love. It’s a love-letter to funerals across the world where people smile through their tears.

Adding onto that, it’s also a question of where you put your love.

In the Gods? In your family? In your friends? In yourself?

Lanie uses love through death (magic) to set herself free from the bonds of her family legacy, all the while still honoring that legacy. And Cooney asks us, the readers, to remember that death is forever the sister to love. Or perhaps daughter, in this case.

As a last and slightly more critical note, I’ll say that the pacing and the plot both slow down at times. I struggled slightly towards the middle, personally. It’s a long book, basically, and that means it naturally will lose momentum at times. For most readers, that is. And especially for YA Crossover fantasy, which is what I would classify this as, age-wise, although there seems to be a general confusion about this (both from the audience and the publisher side). Cooney has magnificent prose, and that prose is allowed to flourish in this book, which can both be good and bad insofar as the pacing of the plot goes. Primarily, for me, it was good, even if I did struggle in places.


PRE-ORDER LINKS

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INDIEBOUND
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