Fiction Through the Lens of Agency

We’re in a time (again) where we’re asking questions of agency - does our vote count? Are we, and our fellow citizens, really exercising our own wills when voting? Will our voice be heard? Can we do anything?

Climate change; major powers making bad collective decisions that will impact us all; Russia setting out to turn the whole thing over so it can be more powerful; technology changing around us at a rapid pace and putting giant, almost uninfluencable corporations in charge of key elements of our daily lives... agency is something a lot of us are worried about. 

Colonized people, people of colour, and women will be familiar with the feeling; but now we all get to share it, even straight cis middle-aged white guys like me. To have any more hegemony, I'd have to be rich or dead, and yet there are still times when I look at the world and feel a lack of agency.

Since fiction is a thing I think about a lot, as both a writer and a reviewer, this therefore seems to me like an appropriate time to look at fiction through the lens of agency.

I'm not setting out to be Joseph Campbell here. Please don't take it that way. This is not “the way everything works all the time”. It’s a lens, one of many we can look through, that might show us things that are not as visible through other lenses.

Having mentioned Joseph Campbell, let's briefly discuss the Hero’s Journey, which (whatever Hollywood and its writers may have suggested to you) is only one possible story structure among many. The Hero's Journey is both a celebration of agency (typically of young white men), and an imposed shape that bends the hero on his inevitable, predictable arc. The “fated hero” can neither be kept from his triumph, nor can he avoid his journey and its predetermined steps - and his companions, having less agency, usually bear the cost.

(My short story "Gatekeeper, What Toll?" takes the idea of the fated hero and examines it through the eyes of an outsider, who has seen many such heroes come and go and knows what disruptive forces they represent. I didn't set out to write a story that did that, and only realized afterwards that I had done so; perhaps it was my fate.)

Anyway: Agency in contemporary Western fiction is typically expressed through protagonism, and the impact of the characters on the world, but also elements of coincidence, the help or hindrance of other characters, obstacles, and complications. (For the difference between an obstacle and a complication, see the Writing Excuses podcast, season 14, episode 13; but briefly, an obstacle is a challenge that the character encounters and either overcomes, or doesn't, on the way to their goal; a complication turns the plot into a new direction.)

A typical template for a Western protagonist is: Circumstances are such that they must attempt to change the situation, or terrible consequences will ensue; but in making this attempt, they encounter opposition. In overcoming this opposition, they will have many defeats as well as victories, which will both shape and reveal their character. Ultimately, they will either triumph through their inherent abilities, the skills and knowledge they have gained in the course of their adventures, and the help of allies they have won through their right conduct or special identity; or they will fail through an inherent flaw, in which case the story is a tragedy.

That's a story about agency. The character is (unless it's a tragedy) ultimately able to change their situation for the better. But they don't have unlimited agency; the opposition they face reminds us that they, too, like us, are human and subject to limitations, and it's their struggle that makes the story interesting, just as their motivation to act makes it relatable, and their triumph makes it cathartic and inspirational.

We love this story because we want to be that person: the one who will fight for what we care about, the one who will make right choices (or, if we make wrong choices, will learn from it and change and become a better person), the one who will draw others to our cause, the one who can change the way things are (or put them back how they should be, according to taste), and the one who, as a reward for all of this, will achieve our goals and receive the admiration of people who are important to us. That's not, of course, how life always goes; that's one reason the story is so appealing. It's a wish-fulfilment fantasy, about being better people than we often are, and about the world being fairer than it often is. It's a fantasy of agency.

There are some inherent failure modes associated with this story format, and I'll discuss them in another post. A third post will deal with different attitudes to agency, and different degrees of character agency, in different genres and subgenres (mostly SFF - science fiction and fantasy - since that’s what I mainly read). And a final post (unless I think of another one as I go along) will discuss how admitting new, diverse voices and different life experiences to the conversation of literature can change how agency works in fiction.

Stay tuned. Or not; you get to choose.

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Mike Reeves-McMillan lives in Auckland, New Zealand, the setting of his Auckland Allies contemporary urban fantasy series; and also in his head, where the weather is more reliable, and there are a lot more wizards. He also writes the Gryphon Clerks series (steampunk/magepunk), the Hand of the Trickster series (sword-and-sorcery heist capers), and short stories which have appeared in venues such as Compelling Science Fiction and Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores.

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