Consider, if you will, a story about a woman who wants to gain esteem by winning an important legal case. Things are going along fine until she gets fired from the firm for her unusual fact-finding practices. She ends up being forgiven and rehired, but her babysitter bails, leaving her with no one to watch her kids. Then, at a critical point in the case, she gets so sick, she’s unable to keep working.
It could be an interesting plotline. Obstacles are blocking her from her goal, which is a good thing. But it falls flat because the character isn’t driving the story; the events are. Instead of making things happen, she’s just reacting to what’s thrown at her. She has no control over her destiny.
But look what happens when we rewrite the story with her in charge:
To make ends meet, Erin pesters her lawyer to hire her as a secretary. In the scope of her work, she discovers information in a seemingly innocuous file that doesn’t make sense. She secures permission to do a little digging, but there’s a miscommunication with the boss, who doesn’t expect her to spend a full week off-site doing research. He fires her before realizing that her fact-gathering revealed a huge human rights violation—something Erin discovered when she took the initiative to investigate. So she’s reinstated. But then she loses her babysitter. This doesn’t set her back for long because she quickly finds a replacement in the guy next door (taking a step toward an important romantic relationship in her story). The case progresses to a critical point, at which time she falls deathly ill. But she soldiers on and goes to the office anyway, where she learns that decisions about her case have been made expressly behind her back…
Both summaries tell Erin Brockovich’s story, but the second one puts her behind the wheel. Each time she’s hit with a problem or roadblock, she makes a choice or acts in a way that pushes the story forward and inches her closer to her goal. This is the essence of character agency.
It’s not a simple element to define, but at its most basic, character agency is the character driving story events through choices. When conflict happens, she doesn’t just sit there; she takes action. She chooses, and by doing so, determines what comes next.
Agency is important because, without it, it’s not really the character’s story. She may be in it, but if she’s not making things happen, accelerating events, and actively working toward her goal, what’s the point? If nothing the character does changes the outcome of the story, why is she in it?
The fact is that you don’t see many successful tales about protagonists with no agency; most of the time, they just don’t resonate with readers because the character is a bystander in their own life. To write a compelling story and inspirational protagonist, put the hero in the driver’s seat so they can navigate the roadblocks and reach the finish line in their own unique way.
How do we do that, exactly?
One of the things we discuss in the first volume of The Conflict Thesaurus is the 3C cycle of conflict, choices, and consequences. In a nutshell, when conflict is introduced for a character, a choice must be made, and consequences will follow. This cycle is repeated many times throughout a story. Sometimes the character makes a choice that propels them toward their goal. Other times, their decision pulls them in the wrong direction. Either way, they have a say in what’s happening to them.
The conflict scenarios you introduce, and the choices that stem from them, are key to giving your character agency in their story. Plan with this in mind and use conflict with purpose to encourage (or discourage) decisions that will get the character where they need to go.
Include a Goal in Every Scene
Change doesn’t happen overnight. Success for your protagonist consists of many baby steps that get them to that final objective. This is why a story has scenes, and every scene needs a goal of its own.
Let’s say your protagonist is a cop with questionable methods whose overall objective is to rescue someone from a captor. At the start, he won’t know much, but every scene will include a goal that will get him closer to finding the captive. The objective of one scene might be to speak to the neighbor who last saw the victim. Another goal could be to interview a key suspect. He might need to win over a supervisor who doesn’t think he can handle the case.
If your character lacks agency, it could be because your scene-level goals aren’t defined enough; if he doesn’t know what he’s working toward, then his choices won’t matter. He might make decisions, but they’re going to be all over the map because he lacks direction. And a protagonist who wanders aimlessly doesn’t have agency. So know your character’s goal in each scene.
Every Scene Needs Conflict
Once you know your character’s scene goal and you’re sure it belongs on the roadmap to their overall objective, add conflict that makes it harder for them to get there. Conflict makes things interesting, yes, but it also requires a response.
In our scene where the cop needs to interview a suspect, maybe the guy asks for a lawyer, which will make it difficult to get answers. How does the protagonist react—does he try to convince the suspect that he doesn’t need legal representation? Use force to coerce him? Bug the guy’s briefcase so he can get the information (illegally) without an interview?
Every scene needs conflict because it provides opportunities for the character to go one direction or another. The decision to use physical force or blackmail could get the cop his answers, but if he’s trying to turn over a new leaf and act ethically, it could push him farther from that internal objective— something he’ll have to address in later scenes. However he responds to the conflicts that arise, he’s choosing, and those choices will help determine his fate.
Your Character Must Do the Choosing
Conflict alone won’t give your character agency. If the events in their life don’t give them a choice—if they are forced to adopt a certain way of thinking or comply to a course of action—then someone else is running the show. If our cop is essentially a puppet who was given the case because it’s political and his supervisors want things to go a certain way, they will be dictating his actions. Whatever conflict comes along will already be decided because he’s going to do what his boss says. “Yes” men and followers don’t typically make the best protagonists, so create a way for a pinned-down character to resist and go rogue.
You can get the same problem in stories with supernatural elements. Monsters, magic-wielders, demigods, and the like will have an edge over mere mortals. Or consider Mother Nature—how can the protagonist overpower an earthquake or tsunami? They can’t.
Basically, any antagonist with an inordinate amount of power or leverage has the potential to steal your character’s agency. Keep that in mind and find ways to make your protagonist the decision-maker.
A good example of this is found in the first Lord of the Rings book. On their trip to destroy Sauron’s ring, the fellowship has to get over a mountain. But Saruman sends a supernatural storm that makes it impossible for them to cross. Instead of shrugging their shoulders and plodding back down to safe ground, they call a meeting in the middle of the blizzard. Caradhras is a no-go, so what route will they take next? Only after Frodo has made the decision to go through Moria do they leave the mountain.
This could easily have been a situation where the characters allowed story events to displace them and move them around. But Tolkien didn’t let that happen. He gave them the opportunity to choose. That choice had consequences, as we see in later chapters, but it also allowed the characters to set their own course.
And this is how you build character agency: by making choices as the author that provide choices for the protagonist—the results of which will impact their story. Simple? Yes. Easy? No, sadly. But if you plan and/or revise with this in mind, it will become second nature. And you’re sure to start your character on a path that puts them in charge of their own destiny and story.
Want to take your conflict further?
The Conflict Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Obstacles, Adversaries, and Inner Struggles (Volume 1 & Volume 2) explores a whopping 225 conflict scenarios that force your character to navigate relationship issues, power struggles, lost advantages, dangers and threats, moral dilemmas, failures and mistakes, and much more!
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.