Making sure your character has agency


Hey y’all – so sorry for being late with a post today! I’m out of town in a cabin that’s supposed to have internet access but it’s broken – d’oh!  So, I’m sorry this post is (a) late and (b) short, but I wanted to at least give y’all something to be thinking about with your writing.

One of the things it’s easy to forget about when structuring a plot is the agency of your character.  Put simply: your character needs to be driving the plot.  They need to be the one tripping the inciting incident and making the active decision to move into the story.  Even if their actions are just in reaction to external forces, they need to be taking the steps forward. 

Think about the movie Romancing the Stone: Joan Wilder hears that her sister has been kidnapped and is being held ransom and she makes the active decision to go after her.  You might think that she doesn’t have an option, but technically she does.  She has a choice to make and she chooses to rescue her sister — and then she takes action.  Someone else doesn’t make the decision for her, they don’t show up to her apartment and hand her a plane ticket, and they don’t usher her to Colombia.  She’s an active character.

And that’s just something to remember when you’re looking over your WIPs and outlines — ask yourself: is my character making active decisions or is someone else dragging them through the story?


9 comments to Making sure your character has agency

  • Thank you for this, Carrie. It’s exactly what my critique partner pointed out as the problem for this one section of my WIP that had been giving me serious trouble. Realizing that — and having the main character acting, not reacting — is definitely making for a better story. It’s great to know that we’re on the right track!

  • Razziecat

    This is a reminder that I needed, and I think it’s what’s “off” about a couple of things I’ve been working on. Thanks! 🙂

  • Julia

    Carrie, I’ve just been wrestling with this problem in my newest project. I’m still in the early stages of plotting (which I really struggle with) and I realized that one of the reasons the plot wasn’t working was that my main character didn’t have agency. Looking back, this has been a problem with other novels I’ve written. So I’m excited to have at least *diagnosed* the problem.

  • Oooh, and then there’s what we used to call “doing a Cartwright” in our old gaming group. This was where another team/NPC (their leader’s name was Cartwright) swept in and saved the day, even if it looked like we were doing well. Don’t let another character, or group save the day or solve the problem. It severely annoyed us in the game whenever the GM had that happen.

  • (slaps own head) I am an idiot. I am an idiot. I am an idiot.

    THAT’s what wrong with last two scenes. Thanks. Deadline for this WIP is close and I let the last scenes get away from me — in *just* that way.


  • This is a severe problem in my (hopeless) w.i.p. How do I fix it? I like every part of the story, and I can’t wait to really get down to writing it, but the outline shows a pinball hero who watches things happen around him. I wish I had noticed this problem in an earlier stage!

  • Great point I recently realized I needed to bulk up some secondary characters, and once I did something still seemed wrong–and now I’m pretty sure it’s because I left the MC on the sidelines watching this newly important secondary characters rather than driving the action herself!

  • Megan B.

    Ten points for talking about an awesome movie that I haven’t heard anyone mention in years 🙂

  • quillet

    This is such a great point. I don’t suppose you’d like to do more on this sometime, when the Internet is more accessible? Like how to balance the agency of the MC against the agency of secondary (but still pretty major) characters? That one’s a toughie, because as Sisi mentioned, when a secondary character has agency it sometimes sends the MC to the sidelines, which isn’t so great.