I’ve been going back through some of my oldest work and mining it for names, concepts, stuff like that. Going as far back as university when I was putting out a lot of (bad) writing. One thing I have noticed, that stands out like a neon warning sign, is a lack of agency in many of the protagonists there. Thinking back, it was practically endemic to the creative writing groups I was part of during that time. There were so very many stories where a character would make it right up to the finish line and then leave things to fate, or to sheer narrative momentum masquerading as fate. It’s a lack of decision-making agency.
I think that a large part of that is because when you start writing a story, you generally have a pretty good idea of how it’s going to end. Unless you’re on the very extreme fringe of the gardener side of the gardener/architect binary you have at least a rough notion that somehow the bad guys are going to lose, the good guys are going to win, it’ll be a heroic or a pyrrhic victory, maybe the bad guys will win. You know that but your characters don’t, and so at some point you forget that they need to make the decisions that get them to that end.
Let’s go back to The Hobbit, because I almost always fall back on the works of Tolkien for examples.
At the start of the book, Bilbo could have maintained the status quo. He could have stayed home and not taken Gandalf and Thorin up on their offer to see the world and go on an adventure. He could have maintained his comfortable rural lifestyle indefinitely, hid out in Bag End. Instead he makes the conscious decision to break his routine, step out the door and accept this burgling contract. Along the way he discovers things about the world he might never have known, he is exposed to new people and cultures, he learns about loss and bravery and hope. He has acted upon his own agency as a character and made a decision to leave his comfort zone and grow as a result of it, and he is both rewarded and punished for making that decision. The story simply would not have worked as well or resonated if he had let Gandalf make the decision for him, or simply been swept along in the wake of fate. There’s another part, later on in the novel where he makes the other one of his tremendous decisions, as he’s in the tunnel approaching the dragon’s hoard:
“It was at this point that Bilbo stopped. Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterward were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.”
That’s key. That’s the game changer. That’s where he comes into his own as a person and you really, truly empathize with him. It’s his last huge decision and it directly influences everything that happens after. There isn’t as much character agency in the following chapters because he is swept up in events beyond his control, but there by himself in the darkness he does the bravest thing by making a decision to do something he doesn’t have to. It’s the point where all the character development throughout the rest of the story coalesces around him and turns him into an actual hero. Once Smaug is gunning for him or he finds himself in the middle of the Battle of Five Armies there really aren’t that many choices to make beyond an instinctive attempt to survive, but getting to that spot all comes back to the tunnel.
Comparatively, I thought that my characters were making decisions at the time, but they were only deciding to do what they’d always done. It’s not a hard decision to make, it’s why so many of us get stuck in ruts in real life. Besides more copious outlining and drafting, I think that the biggest improvement I’ve made to my writing over the years is that I constantly question if my character is displaying enough personal agency throughout the course of the story of if he’s simply making the comfortable decisions. I look for it when I’m reading, too. It’s the fastest way for me to fall in love with a new story; a character is presented with a difficult decision and what he does is influenced by who he is as a person. Either dictated by his basic flaws if the decision is made early, or as result of all he’s learned on a journey if it’s made later in the book.
Inaction can be a decision to. Jumping back to Tolkien, let’s look at Frodo’s journey. Frodo is a remarkably passive protagonist compared to just about everyone else from the trilogy, he is swept along by greater and more powerful forces from the moment Gandalf shows up onward. But his choosing not to take dramatic action is itself a display of agency and a way of showing his growth and his character. Being kind to Smeagol and preventing Sam from driving him away is a deliberate choice, a choice not to fight, a choice to be good even when it’s dangerous and difficult. Too many people equate bravery with fighting against terrible odds, but it works just as well if not more so than showing compassion to someone who could potentially be a danger to you.
By doing so, Frodo sets in motion evil’s amazing capacity to defeat itself. His continued patience with Smeagol/Gollum throughout the journey is what brings the ring to Mount Doom and places it in a position where it can be destroyed by one of its own servants celebrating. These, too, are demonstrations of agency. If anything the ring, the power of Sauron condensed, is coasting along on narrative causality and momentum. It never needs to make a decision, it simply continues doing what it always has done and always will do. It craves power and wishes to return to its master, and that single-minded pursuit brings it right back to the heart of the volcano where it was forged, and thus to destruction. And if Frodo had taken the easy way out and not shown mercy to the broken creature he saw so much of himself in, it never would have made it so far.
This is echoed in plenty of other stuff, too. It’s what makes Stephen King’s work so eminently readable. There are echoes of Tolkien somewhere in the horror, where the monsters are the ones who let themselves get caught up in fate and become slaves to their nature while the protagonists have to make hard decisions and grow. The Stand is a great example of this, and it’s directly influenced by The Lord of the Rings. Really, anything with Flagg as a character, because he exemplifies this struggle and the self-destructive nature of wickedness even when it looks as though it’s on the cusp of victory and the heroes are choosing to do the right thing even at their own expense.
Terry Pratchett’s the other big one. It’s practically a running theme for his Watch books and the Witches’ series. Sir Samuel Vimes is one of my favorite characters from fiction specifically because he refuses to give in to fate through sheer bloody-minded spite at times. Even when there’s no one around and he can give in to his base impulses, he tells himself that his own internal watchman would know. Granny Weatherwax’s nature is that of the wicked witch and everything she does fights that nature. The grim reaper in these books cares tremendously for human life, against his programming. These are enduring figures particularly because their approach their own agency and seize it by the throat. I’d read about any of them doing something as simple as gardening or drinking coffee because that constant struggle shows through and makes them so very relatable, and I think that’s the baseline that every character should shoot for.