May 17, 2016

Plot Obstacles & Character Agency

Stick figure in a maze with text: What Do Your Characters Choose?

I’ve said many times that I love when my readers ask questions in the comments. Questions here or on social media often make for fantastic post ideas, and they save me from having to think of a topic. *smile*

Today, we have a question from Ashley that gets at the heart of strong, proactive characters, especially in how that applies to literary fiction rather than genre fiction.

In the comments of my last post about plot obstacles and how to make sure our obstacles aren’t too easy or too hard, Ashley asked:

“I’m curious – it seems like this would apply primarily to genre fiction, not necessarily literary fiction. (I’m thinking of a classic or two where off the top of my head I can’t think of ANY obstacles. A character could make choices which don’t necessarily count as an obstacle, like choosing between two suitors.) Would you agree with that at all?”

My regular readers here know that I’m a genre girl and don’t consider myself an expert on literary fiction. But that’s also a great question, so I’m going to take a stab at coming up with an answer. *smile*

Stereotypes of Literary Fiction

Literary fiction definitely comes with the baggage of stereotypes. “Navel gazing.” No plot. Authors too in love with their own voice. Dense. Pretentious. Etc., etc.

However, there are all kinds of literary fiction stories. While some don’t have much of a plot, others do. Many classic stories are lumped in with literary fiction—even though they probably would have been considered genre fiction at the time of their release.

But to answer Ashley’s question, let’s focus on the type of literary fiction that doesn’t seem to have many things happening…

What Is a Plot Event or Plot Obstacle?

I emphasized the word “things” in that previous paragraph because that’s how we tend to think of plot events, especially in the genre world. Plot events and obstacles are often tangible things that get in the way of our protagonist’s goals:

  • the protagonist’s car runs out of gas
  • our character has been kidnapped
  • a clue is lost or being sought
  • an authority assigns a new goal
  • another character steals the goal from the protagonist

The possibilities are endless. But in each of those examples, something is tangibly happening to the character, so it’s easy to identify the event as part of the plot.

However, the ties between plot and characters matter. With each of those (or any other tangible plot event), the character is faced with a choice of how to react. Those same reactions occur with non-tangible plot events too.

Reactions are, in fact, a huge element of how plot reveals characters or their struggle, as we’ve discussed before with how plot isn’t the same as story.

As Ashley observed, even in literary fiction, characters are usually (with some exceptions) still faced with making choices. So something is still triggering those choices.

What Plot Looks Like: Genre vs. Literary Fiction

In genre fiction, the events and obstacles that force change might seem more energetic or powerful than the character’s resultant choice. Characters might be forced to make choices with a (sometimes literal) ticking clock cornering them into a decision point.

On the other hand, in literary fiction, the events and obstacles that force change—through a character’s choices—might be really, really quiet. *smile*

A literary fiction character might not seem forced into a decision at all, as the story gradually nudges them into a situation where they internally feel the need to change. (Imagine a situation where the character simply can’t deny their unhappiness anymore.)

Either way, change (usually) happens, and those changes are triggered by tangible or non-tangible events and obstacles. That’s the essence of plot that applies to most stories, genre or literary.

Obstacles Force Action

So another way to think of plot—and specifically plot obstacles—is to think of those triggers that goad our characters into action. Whether those moments are big (explosions!) or small (a scent reminding a character of their childhood dreams), there will usually be a cause for our character’s actions.

The exceptions to this perspective—and there are some within the halls of literary fiction—are when our characters don’t make choices. There’s a difference between change and choice, and that difference is important to understand for both literary fiction and some genre series.

In genre fiction, those choices might be whether the character should cut the red or the green wire on the bomb. Those choices exist even in some genre series where characters don’t change at all.

Similarly, the literary fiction exceptions are far fewer than we might think because choice is the focus—not necessarily change. In literary fiction where the characters don’t change, those choices might entail the character deciding to ignore the “call to adventure,” succumb to the fear of the unknown, suppress their dreams, etc. Those choices are action—even if the characters don’t change.

What’s Character Agency & How Does It Relate?

Agents and editors often talk about how characters need to be active (or proactive) rather than reactive or passive. New writers often struggle with what that means:

Should characters cause their own problems? Is the plot not allowed to happen to them?

Another term for this concept is character agency.

  • Characters without agency are author props. They’re puppets to the plot.
  • Characters with agency create the sense that they’re responsible for the story in some way.

Chuck Wendig shares his explanation (as always with Chuck’s work, language at that link):

“Character agency is, to me, a demonstration of the character’s ability to make decisions and affect the story. This character has motivations all her own. She is active more than she is reactive. She pushes on the plot more than the plot pushes on her. Even better, the plot exists as a direct result of the character’s actions.”

Given that description, we can see that some genre stories will have characters with stronger agency than the characters of some literary stories. Genre characters are more likely to take actions the push the plot into a different direction.

However, literary characters have agency as well. Especially if we can recognize how most literary characters do make choices, and those choices do affect the story—even if that means the story remains in the same direction, following them in Podunk, Wherever rather than to a Parisian adventure.

Why Are Characters with Agency Important?

Character agency is important for all characters, but especially for certain types that typically suffer from a lack of agency, such as “strong female characters,” secondary characters, diverse characters, and even antagonists.

For example, a damsel waiting to be the “prize” for the hero when she’s rescued from a castle tower doesn’t have agency, but neither does a mustache-twirling villain who’s being evil just because the story needs an antagonist.

When we’re writing diverse characters, we want to ensure they have agency too. No one’s impressed by diversity when the characters are simply stereotypes and caricatures that are puppets to the plot.

No matter what, we usually want to avoid passive and reactive characters—those without agency—who go with the flow, make no decisions, and don’t affect the story because they’re always one step behind. Many ancient Greek and some Shakespeare stories revel in this exploration of fate and our inability to affect events, and fittingly, the characters in those stories are puppets and not well-rounded.

Unless we’re following that model, any character beyond a nameless spear-carrier should have their own reasons for their decisions, not just because we, as the author, need them to react a certain way. If we want three-dimensional characters, we have to ensure they have agency through their choices, and once we understand how obstacles trigger or get in the way of our character’s choices, we’ll have a better grasp of how to make sure our characters don’t suffer from being too passive.

In genre fiction, we can ensure our characters are creating the plot by reacting and making decisions that change the story’s direction. In literary fiction, even if they’re constantly reacting to the curve balls the antagonist (or life) throws at them, if their reactions then affect the story in some way, they won’t be completely passive, which might be enough. *smile*

Do you disagree with my take on literary fiction and the differences in expectation from genre fiction? Does it make sense how character choices can help define plot events and obstacles, even for literary fiction? Do you struggle with the concept of character agency, or does this explanation help? Do you notice when characters don’t have agency?

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Comments — What do you think?

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I think your analysis is right on target. No matter the genre, a story is a story, and the writer must observe the rules of storytelling.

However, as you rightly point out, there are different ways of handling those rules within each genre. Readers have different expectations for each genre, and woe to the writer who doesn’t anticipate them. So while agency is expected in both a thriller and a literary work, the protag’s reactions in a literary story may be more emotional/cerebral than in a thriller, where the reaction is expected to be more dramatic.

Davonne Burns

I have a lot of issues with literary fiction (and the literary society at large) and this point has always been one of the major ones. I had to read a lot of literary fiction while in college. Only one ever stuck with me because the character in that story had agency, he made things happen and even when he wasn’t making things happen he was reacting internally. I think this is why characters from genre books are so much more memorable to me. We want to be shown people who do things, who feel things, who react to and overcome things. Not people who talk about things.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Oh I like this explanation of character agency, of them making choices that affect the direction of the story, even if it means keeping the story going in the same direction. Haha my characters constantly debate on what to do next, who to trust or not trust, what if XYZ happens, etc., lol. So yes, their final decisions on what to do definitely affect their fate, so to speak, even though external forces also have a powerful influence on the final outcomes. So it’s sort of like a mix of free will and determinism; I think this reflects my personal belief that free will and determinism co-exist. 😀 (In the Christian context, I would say both God’s will and free will exist at the same time too, somehow.)

Haha so that’s another case where our own beliefs and philosophies influence the stories we write.

Karen McFarland

Excellent Jami as I am writing literary/Commercial fiction and feel that agency is important to the plot. But, would that not be referred to as a character driven story, making things happen by means of agency? I do like the way Mike put things also. 🙂

Jenn Sharko
Jenn Sharko

Thanks for the descriptions and definitions. It made me think about the plots and characters I’m writing about. I’m glad I signed up for your blog?


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