Conflict + Choices = Character Agency

Note From KMW: Character agency is a hot topic these days, but truly it was always an important topic for writers. Why? Because a character (particularly a protagonist) with no agency is a character who isn’t likely to be very interesting. More than that, a character with little to no agency won’t be able to generate and/or respond to conflict. The result? The plot grinds to a halt.

So how do you create characters and plots in which agency is baked right into the mix?

I’m glad you asked, because today I am happy to once again be hosting the lovely Becca Puglisi (of Writers Helping Writers) with a quick and easy formula for adding character agency to your story’s recipe. Keep reading: she offers four specific tips for adding, enhancing, and troubleshooting this vital element in your fiction.

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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…

The movie Erin Brockovich shows how powerful character agency can be given even to characters who don’t start out with much power.

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.

4 Ways to Enhance Character Agency in Your Fiction

Character agency isn’t a simple element to define, but at its most basic, it 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?

1. Use Choices

One of the things we discuss in the first volume of The Conflict Thesaurus is the 3C cycle of:

  • Conflict
  • Choices
  • 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 characters make choices that propel them toward their goals. Other times, their decisions pull 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 characters 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.

2. 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. A protagonist who wanders aimlessly doesn’t have agency. Know your character’s goal in each scene.

3. Add Conflict to Every Scene

Once you know your character’s scene goal and you’re sure it belongs on the roadmap to the overall objective, add conflict that makes it harder 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 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.

4. Make Sure Your Character Does 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 characters 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 Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. 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.

Even in story situations where the character’s choices are limited, such as the Fellowship of the Ring getting trapped on a mountain in a blizzard, can be enhanced with a thoughtful use of character agency.

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.

This is how you build character agency: by making authorial choices that provide choices for the protagonist—the results of which will impact the 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!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! How have you included character agency in your story? Tell us in the comments!

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About Becca Puglisi

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and other resources for writers. Her books have sold over 900,000 copies and are available in multiple languages, are sourced by U.S. 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 resource for authors that's home to the Character Builder and Storyteller's Roadmap tools.

Comments

  1. Thanks so much for sharing with us tday, Becca!

  2. Great post, Becca! Thanks. Fits right in with what Katie teaches. I hadn’t heard of the Conflict Thesaurus, but I’ve got the Positive and Negative Trait thesauruses and like them. I’ll have to check out the one on conflicts.

  3. I should be writing and not reading emails, but Becca’s blog was particularly helpful in that infinitesimal mindshift that kept me on course today. I’m writing memoir of an aimless teen forced into adulthood through a string of summer conflicts. My hero is no hero – “it’s just me,” and that’s some sort of syndrome Mary Karr [“The Art of Memoir”] may have discussed in this childbearing push of writing memoir. Thanks Becca for reminding this author that the aimless teen on the pages had choices to make and a story to drive. You’ve changed my writing today.

    • beccapuglisi says

      What a nice thing to say. You’re doing the hard work of recognizing the need to continue learning and finding excellent resources like Katie’s blog to keep you moving forward. Best of luck with your memoir!

  4. I am writing two novels-One is a diary of a teenage mermaid from the 13th dimension and the other is of her ancestor who is also a mermaid who becomes immortal.

    The conflict is that the teenage mermaid is going to have to one day fight the evil person with the powers she has as well as do self-defense skills.

    I have never heard about your book.

    In the diary book- the teenage mermaid whose name starts with an L gets training as a healer/warrior.

  5. Roger Preston says

    I have been in a funk for a few months, unable to write anything interesting for my current first draft. With 95k words invested the difficulty has been to imagine what my characters might do now (?). How will they get to the finish line? And man, I want them to get to the finish line…ya know?
    Maybe I’m not the only one who has ever waited for some magical Juju to jolt their writing senses. The worst part is the idea that it might never happen! Great…an unfinished manuscript. One that I’ve had to set aside for weeks and weeks, desperate for the moment we would call the “aha”.
    Finally, and thank you so much! I’m so grateful for this blog! This is the answer, and I can see why my characters have fallen flat. I needed this to see the issue. Better yet, my brain is flooding with ideas and words again. My Protags are gonna wake up and start making some big decisions today!

  6. In the dairy also is an arranged Marriage between two clans so the character has to marry this person.

  7. Grace Dvorachek says

    I love writing conflict, especially conflict between characters. I always make sure that every character has an agenda—whether it’s as small as wanting a discount on canned peaches, or as big as world domination. I don’t think there are any two people who completely agree on every subject, so throwing a cast of disagreeing characters together is bound to create loads of conflict.

    However, I do have a tendency to let my protagonists passively go along with whatever newest tragedy has befallen them. This post is a helpful reminder for me to make sure they’re still driving the story. After all, no matter how many other goal-driven supporting characters there are, the MC has their own goal to look out for.

  8. My protagonist has an interfering sidekick. He’s good-intentioned, but clueless about navigating the road to the story goal. So when my characters encounter a scene disaster, I make sure to let my sidekick go through his “who-what-why-what-next” routine. It creates conflict with my self-absorbed main character, forces him to process what happened, and makes him pick a new scene goal just to shut the sidekick up.

    • beccapuglisi says

      Problematic characters are great for adding conflict. The trick is making sure that the trouble they generate is pushing the character toward (or away from) his goal. Sounds like you’re on the right track.

  9. This is a pertinent post for me. I’m struggling to plot a historical novel where the young female heroine is sent out of the way of the armies. (The story is about the changes she experiences as a refugee.) She is a teenager. This is her father’s decision. She has no agency in it. It’s hard to think how to recast the opening section of the story to avoid that fact.

    • beccapuglisi says

      If she has no choice in the leaving, I wonder if there’s something she CAN be in charge of in that moment—something that has bearing on the overall story: Where she’s going? What she takes with her? Her attitude (is she determined to make the most of it or determined to make life a living Hell for the people she’s staying with)?

  10. Thank you for these wonderful tips. My character likes avoiding conflict, so this will be fun!

  11. Ah, this is a timely post. I was in an online seminar the other day where people were discussing character agency, and someone posted a misconception where a character is a victim or experiencing general oppression. One writer assumed oppression and victimization meant a character wasn’t supposed to have agency.

    But, no. Even if the character is experiencing hardship, oppression, or is, Idunno, tied to a chair, they are still required to have agency. A character shouldn’t be treated like a voodoo doll: you stick pins in it, and it doesn’t cry out, or fight, or attempt to escape. It just has pins stuck in it, and pins keep getting stuck in it until a deus ex machina arrives to rescue it.

    Even if a character is experiencing physical torment, e.g., “I must not tell lies,” (Harry Potter) you’d do well to show how the character is coping mentally to resist the temptation to say there are five lights when there are in fact, four (Star Trek: The Next Generation reference).

    If a character is oppressed, e.g., “colored people can’t use this library,” you might still show her trying to access the books some other way. She might organize a protest, or visit a different library, or sneak in at night to read, etc.

    The key here is exactly what you said: the character must react. Something bad happens to the character. What does he do about it? I love the Lord of the Rings reference, because it’s an excellent example of something inflicted on characters that’s out of their control, but nevertheless requires them to make a decision.

    Voodoo dolls — inert, passive, acted upon — make terrible characters. If a character never makes a choice, never reacts, never responds, and never has a goal, that character is a voodoo doll. Even if the story is about oppression, the point is for the character to overcome it.

    Thanks for this post, Becca. I’m glad I have it to share with other writers, who will really benefit from this.

  12. Colleen F Janik says

    This post has been particularly helpful to me, as I have a tough time creating tough character who are able and willing to fight. I love the example of Erin Brochovich, a real life hero. This single mom is such a fantastic example of how a woman who gives the illusion of being someone completely focused on her own little world sees a horrible injustice to people who are strangers to her, but she is willing to fight for them. As the story continues,we quickly see what a tough, intelligent, determined woman she is. Wow, so inspiring!
    I love those guidelines for how to transform my characters into fighters and heros. Thank you!

    • beccapuglisi says

      It takes the course of the story for most characters to make that transformation. That’s a lot of conflict to get them to that point :).

  13. Kathy Roberts says

    I’m working on a short story for a contest.
    After reading this post — eww, my protag is so passive. Yuck!
    In depth re-write coming up. Thanks Becca. Thanks Katie.

  14. Wow, just what I needed! Thank you both.

    Just as a point of curiosity, does anyone have an opinion regarding character agency (or the lack) in the Hunger Games trilogy? Point #4, perhaps?

    • beccapuglisi says

      If people have a beef with The Hunger Games, it’s with Katniss’ lack of agency. There are lots of online discussions about it. I think it’s true that she’s largely controlled by other people’s decisions and reacting to the people she’s with (Gale vs Peeta, etc.).

      She has decisive moments—volunteering as tribute, shooting the apple out of the pig’s mouth in the training center, breaking her word to Peeta and leaving to get his medicine while he sleeps—but there are a lot of other story moments where she’s being guided by other people’s choices. Despite loving those books, I think she’s a good example of a character without enough agency.

  15. Excellent. But am I missing the place where you informed us about your podcast no longer being available? I loved being able to listen to it, while I did tedious, mindnumbing tasks…so sad I can no longer find it.

  16. Thanks Becca. Very helpful. I’ve recently finished a first draft of a historical novel and am embarking on the re-editing. One of the weaknesses I’ve identified is that the protagonist is a bit weak in some parts of the story. Your article has helped me realise that it’s her lack of agency. I’ll be putting your tips into practice straight away.

    • beccapuglisi says

      I’m so glad the post was timely, Mal. And good for you, for troubleshooting the problem and figuring out what you need to do to make your protagonist stronger!

  17. Very interesting article. In my last book the narrator, a journalist, goes rogue in pursuit of truth. The protagonist starts off well but then his goal becomes unclear. I’m writing a second edition and learning a lot from you that I didn’t know about writing.
    Apart from that, while reading the article, I saw my life with all the conflicts, choices and decisions I’ve made. I’m an INTJ type, with goals of independence, truth & self-development. True to type, I’m more likely to accept the anti-establishment viewpoint. I’m happy to know I have agency! Thanks.

    • beccapuglisi says

      Ahh, I’m an IN(T/S)J as well. It’s interesting to look at the idea of agency in real life because there are people who are lacking in that area. And I think we all go through stages of life where we have less agency than at other times. What a great perspective to bring to our characters!

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