Making Your Characters Do Stuff

Good morning, Pub Crawlers, and Happy NaNoWriMo 2016 for those of you participating! I thought I’d talk about Character Agency today, as this is a huge part of the drafting process, and some of you might find it useful as you are drafting your novels.

As part of my job, I read a lot of queries and a lot of manuscripts. I help edit my clients’ work before submission and identify weak areas. Something I’ve often noticed (and I’ve touched on this in other posts and series, but I’m going to talk expressly about it here), is a lack of character agency.

What is Agency? I like to think of it, in simplest terms, as your character’s ability to Do Stuff. To act upon something. To make a choice. Why does your main character have to Do Stuff? Because they are the main character, and are therefore the one whose goals and actions move the story forward. If they aren’t making choices that advance the plot toward the ultimate goal, then they are not your main character.

Doesn’t make a lot of sense, right? You’ve been writing about Person A – but if Person B is the one making all the choices and advancing the story, then it’s Person B’s story. If you as the writer don’t want that to be the case, then let’s identify how characters lose their agency and figure out how to give it back to them.

The biggest mistake I see is a narrative structure that acts upon the main character. Something happened to her that upended her life. Okay – this is often part of the Inciting Incident, the part where the hero’s status quo is undone and she is now forced to deal with this new situation. But instead, what I’ll often see is this: rather than the character developing a goal that she then makes choices to reach throughout the book, the character is instead punted from situation to situation by other characters or events. Other forces make the decisions on where to go, on what to do, on how to deal with what’s going on. Being in the character’s head can fool us, as the writer, into thinking they’re still in charge of the narrative. But if a character’s choices are not directly affecting the outcome, then they are lacking agency. They aren’t Doing Stuff.

One thing I really like to do before I ever start working on a book is write a query or a short pitch. Why? Because in a query, you must outline the conflict, the character’s personal stakes, and what he does to accomplish his goal.

If, in your query, you are having a hard time identifying just what your character actually does to accomplish his goal and what is at stake for him, then this is a pretty good indication there’s a problem. If you haven’t started writing your book yet, then this is fixable. Identify your inciting incident, what your character’s goal is once the status quo has been altered, and make your character Do Stuff in each and every scene to accomplish it.

If you have started writing (like those of you doing NaNo), and perhaps have even finished an entire draft, then I suggest you remember this: writing is rewriting. The first draft is nearly always a practice round – the place where you dumped out your words and characters and your plot, and now you get to go back and rearrange and identify weak areas. If your character is lacking agency, now is the time to look at each and every scene, and figure out what your character is Doing, what the conflict within that scene is, and how that advances your character into her next action.

I know we’re already a week and some change into NaNoWriMo, but hopefully this is useful to those of you who are already thinking about how you’d like to revise and rewrite come December!


2 Responses to Making Your Characters Do Stuff

  1. Marc Vun Kannon Nov 7 2016 at 3:58 pm #

    What about when a character acts based upon his knowledge of his circumstances, but his knowledge is incomplete?

    • Hannah Nov 7 2016 at 4:03 pm #

      Characters can certainly (and arguably, should!) make choices despite not having a full understanding of the situation – that’s what creates conflict down the road!

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