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:

Prodigy ≠ Perseverance

“The One About Age…”

“How it feels to be an old fart among shooting stars.”

“Still or Sparkling, ma’am?”

I wasn’t sure what to call this post, to be honest. I’m not even sure how to start it without sounding like a pathetic, whiny bitch. So maybe I’ll just start out like that, like a pathetic and whiny bitch. It’s my birthday today, and I’m a Scorpio, and I know I’m not the only one who’s a whiny bitch, so let’s just go for it, yeah?

First off, you can’t measure hurt.

Hurt is hurt.

Everyone gets their say in what hurts them, and one hurt isn’t “worth more” than another.

This is my hurt; allow me to walk you through it…

This year, I’ve seen a lot of people write their first book, label it the book of their heart, after which they sign with their agent, believing 100% that their love for their book was what got them the agent. I’m not discrediting that—not discrediting them and their experience—but I’ve written eight heart books so far, none of which have resulted in an agent offer for me. Either I’m incapable of putting my heart in a book (which, fair, maybe I am), or perhaps writing a heart book isn’t a guarantee that you’ll get an agent.

This year, I’ve also seen young writers lamenting that their traditionally published books aren’t taken seriously by their peers and critics because they themselves are young. Once again, I’m not discrediting these experiences, and I shouldn’t, but I also can’t help but think that I’ve been attempting to get an agent for ten years by now, which amounts to half the life of these young people. Maybe they’re not taken seriously—I’m not at liberty to judge that—but they do have an agent.

Bottom line: my experience is the direct opposite of the examples above.

I actually suspect that my side is the more common one, yet it’s the side that’s talked about the least—because who wants to be a horse when they can be a unicorn? So, please, allow me to talk about my life as a horse, here, at length, in the safe space I’ve created for myself and for you. Hopefully, I can do it justice. I’ll certainly try to do so, as best as I am able.

When I was 18, I swore to be agented by the time I was 21.

This was also around the time that I queried my first book.

We don’t talk about that 2012 book. Not even here. Sorry.

We’ll talk about the next book, though, 5 years later.

It was a SASE query, sent from Denmark to the US, and that was back in 2016. When I was 26. I’m not sure what I was thinking back then, both in terms of querying one of the first “real” books I’d written (fanfiction and half-finished original books notwithstanding), and in terms of sending a damned SASE from Denmark to the US, querying only one agent. Neil Gaiman’s agent, no less. Shoot for the stars, eh? More to the point, I probably wasn’t thinking. Probably didn’t know what to think, to be honest. I was young. I was Danish. I didn’t know how the American publishing industry worked. I barely knew how anything Danish truly worked.

I only had something I wanted, and I was trying to get it.

I’m still trying.


10 years later, after I first swore to be agented by the age of 21.

I’ve done life-altering things in between, to be sure, but my chosen career as a professional writer is the one that eludes me. It’s the slippery one. The one I can’t get.

When I want to feel hard on myself, I imagine that agent (Neil Gaiman’s agent, my god, what was I thinking?) opening that envelope back in 2016 and… well, I don’t know what her reaction would be. I don’t know her, after all. Sometimes I picture laughter. Sometimes pity. Sometimes confusion. At my worst, I imagine ridicule. It really depends on my own mood at the time—but it’s an image I return to often when I need to not be positive. When I need to feel pain, only so I can cleanse myself of it afterwards. Just for five minutes. Or an hour. Or a whole day.

It’s a good image, in a way, and not one I’d want to live without.

Right, so, obviously, I didn’t get agented by 21.

And, so, I set a new goal: 25.

I wrote a new book. I queried that. It must’ve been in 2018 or thereabouts. I didn’t use SASEs this time, but I still didn’t know that I wasn’t supposed to attach files to query emails, so I bet a lot of queries never even reached agents for this particular book. Which, in hindsight, was a good thing since it was a book that definitely wasn’t for me to write. It was a cultural appropriation book. I know that now. And I’ll freely admit it, as I should. I’ll never write a book like that again because I know better now.

I did get one full request for that book, though, which was nice—because it gave me faith.

Faith that this could actually happen.

That I could get a foot in the door, you know?

Moving on, I obviously wasn’t agented with this book either.

And, so, I set a new goal: 30.

This was when I started to realize that storytelling and writing are two separate crafts—and that I was woefully ignorant when it came to storytelling. Maybe because I never had any formal education in creative writing. Maybe because I’m Danish, so my storytelling is different. Maybe because I had no IRL network to teach me about writing because I wrote in English, not Danish. There are many maybes. Either way, I decided to self-study. To read tons of English craft books. And I did. I read many craft books. And, more importantly, I built solid and trustworthy relationships with English-speaking critique partners and beta readers, found via twitter, who helped me improve my craft as I helped them improve theirs. This might be a slight tangent here, but let me just quickly stress that we put so much pressure on mentorships these days that I feel like we often forget our peers are also our mentors. We learn from them, and they learn from us. At least in terms of craft, if not in terms of network.

And so I wrote a new book—and that one got requests.

Not many, but a few.

They all ended up as rejections.

So, I wrote another book. Again. And, just to clarify, I’ve written books that I’ve never queried, but these are not the books we’re talking about here. This book, however, was a better book. I was fully sure of that, and I still am. It’s stronger in craft, both in storytelling and in writing. Around that same time, I also landed a job teaching creative writing. But then the pandemic happened, and the publishing industry all but (reasonably!) collapsed, just like the rest of us. Which ultimately meant that most of my queries for this “better” book went unanswered (still are? I’m not even sure at this point?). I got zero full requests for that book. Basically, I regressed in the query trenches despite having a “better” book.

It’s my birthday today.

I’m turning 31.

By now, I would ordinarily set a new goal.

Maybe something like “get agented by 35.”

But, you know what… fuck it. I’m done doing that. I’m not gonna be a prodigy story. I’m gonna be a perseverance story. And it’s been hard to accept that, in this day and age, in this world. But, finally, I’m gonna damn well lean into it and be proud. I’ll write my next book, and my next book, and my next book, and if it takes me ten more years, then it takes me ten more years.

I’m a better person now. I’m older. My books will reflect that. They will be better books than anything I could’ve written 10 years ago, and when I do get an agent, I’ll be hitting the ground running, with a backlist to be proud of and one that can help me become a full-time writer faster than otherwise.

Others have it harder than me, for sure, but I can only speak for myself. And, in doing so, I hope some of the things I’ve said here can perhaps resonate with you.

Lastly, just for shits and giggles, here are my query stats.


2012 book: 0 requests

2016 book: 0 requests

2018 book: 1 full request

2019 book: 3 full requests, all rejected

2020 book: never queried

2020 book: 0 requests

2021 book: not queried (but will be)!

2022 book: who the fuck knows, but I’ll write it anyway