Dynamic Storytelling: How to Give Your Characters Agency

Jun 01, 2024 by S. R. Watts

Whether you are crafting an epic fantasy novel or the next spy thriller, one element is vital to making any story work, and that is the cast of characters you create. Having spent years working on my own intricate fantasy series, “The Divine Saga,” I have learned a thing or two about developing characters that are multidimensional yet, on the surface, appear relatable to the average reader. Perhaps the most significant thing I’ve learned in all that time was the idea that the character, not the author, has the power to take the story down new avenues that help make it more exciting and engaging. Such a phenomenon is made possible when you, the author, give your characters the one thing that makes them truly autonomous, that allows them to act and not be merely acted upon by the many other elements of your story. An attribute most commonly known as Agency.

Now, I know some of you might be asking yourself: “How do you give your characters agency?” Some of you may even be wondering what constitutes agency in the first place. While these are questions that would require an entire book on the art of creative writing, as well as the study of philosophy, to fully flesh out, I have come up with four simple rules that you can apply to your writing that will give your characters the agency they need to transform your story from good to great. Keep in mind, though, that these rules apply to other elements of story craft, such as plot and setting, and that they all affect the characters in ways that help them all become well-rounded in the end.

1. Give your characters the freedom to choose

This rule is perhaps what comes to most people’s minds when they hear the word agency. The freedom to choose is indeed a very critical aspect of one’s agency, and for your character to drive the story forward, they need to have the power to choose how they will act in any given situation. Your hero comes to a fork in the road; does he go left, or does he go right? Your hero comes across a man lying wounded in the middle of the road; does he stop to help him, or does he keep on going? A hoard of orcs is terrorizing a local village: does the hero risk his life to try and slay the beast? 

Whatever choice your characters make, they will inevitably take your story down a path that will alter the course of every other character’s destiny, as well as spell out the ultimate fate of their world. Still, it’s within each character’s power to make that choice for themselves, and when you allow your characters to make that choice, then you are truly giving them their agency. Of course, you might be asking yourself right about now: “Aren’t these just fictional characters, though? Don’t you, as the author, make the final choice for them?” Well, yes, in a sense I do. However, there is more to the power of agency that, when properly understood, helps bring clarity to the process of good character development, which then gives the writer greater insight into how the characters would truly act if they were really sentient beings. Let us continue with the other rules, and you will see what I mean.

2. Have your characters experience opposition

Most everyone knows that a good story requires the main characters to experience conflict in one form or another. Without it, we wouldn’t be nearly as invested in whatever it is that has sent our hero on his journey in the first place. Need to save the princess? From what? A fire-breathing dragon, of course. Trying to get home to Greece? Great! There’s an entire ocean filled with monsters and vengeful gods that will constitute your entire 10-year Odessy. Need to destroy the ring of power so the Dark Lord Sauron can’t conquer Middle-earth? Stupendous! First, you need to travel thousands of miles from the comforts of your home and break into the most fortified hellscape in all the land and evade thousands of blood-thirsty orcs whilst warding off the ring’s dark influence so you can throw it into the one pit of lava that is capable of destroying it.

It’s this kind of opposition that tests the limits of your character’s abilities, forcing them to make choices that will either help them rise above their circumstances and come off the victor or crumble under the crushing blow of those who are standing in their way. Without opposition, we would never know if the heroes we are supposed to be rooting for are worthy of our adoration or whether the goals they are fighting to achieve are even worth the blood, sweat, and tears they shed in their pursuit of them. More importantly, though, It helps to justify each character’s right to choose as they go about their own individual journeys in ways that drive the story forward. Understanding that the freedom of choice will always result in opposition will help you to understand the third rule for giving your characters their agency.

3. Make your characters face the consequences of their choices

This rule is best summed up in Newton’s third law of motion: “For every action, there is an opposite or equal reaction.” The Hero defies the tyrannical king of England, so the king retaliates by sending an entire army out to hunt him down and kill him. The Pirates steal the cursed treasure of Cortez, so now they must live forever as undead skeletons who can feel no pleasure or joy. The boy who lived chooses to go save his godfather after seeing a vision of him being tortured by the dark lord; except it was a trap, and his actions inevitably lead to a fight that gets his godfather killed. 

That’s not to say that all consequences have to be bad, though. Ultimately, when the hero achieves the final victory, there will be many great consequences that come his way. He gets the girls, wins a fortune for his deeds, earns a position of influence and respect in his kingdom, and many other potentially positive outcomes. The point is that consequences are the natural result of one’s exercising of one's freedom to choose, and depending on the type of opposition one faces, those consequences could be good or bad. For your characters to truly have their agency, they not only need to be made to face the consequences of their choices but accept whatever outcomes they ultimately bring their way—both good and bad. It’s only by enforcing this rule that you foster an environment within the story that gives them the ability to transform and grow, which leads us to the final rule of giving your characters their agency.

4. Have them learn from their experiences

Only after having given your characters the freedom to choose, all while facing opposition within the realms of their influence, and then having them live with the consequences of said choice do they gain something that no other process can give them: experience. And when our characters learn from said experiences, they gain insights about the world that they wouldn’t have had otherwise. A hobbit’s journey to a far-off mountain filled with treasure gave him experiences outside of his quiet home in the shire, helping him to realize that he is capable of more than his small stature would have initially implied. A boy wizard attends a magical school for nearly seven years, and each year’s adventures within that school teach him something about the importance of love and the need to be kind to others while living up to your true potential. A young man’s quest to become a Jedi knight leads him on a journey through a galaxy at war, culminating in a final battle with his Sith lord father that, when won, helps him to see that the barriers separating the dark side of the force from the light are easier to cross than most realize.

It’s not enough for the characters to achieve something from their journeys. They have to grow as individuals if they are to have their own agency. By learning from the consequences of their choices, they then have the knowledge they need to make better choices in the future, thus empowering them to face the opposition in their way with greater fortitude than they did before as they achieve more favorable outcomes. When done right, these rules create a cycle of events that help the characters develop in ways that transform the story from a simple narrative about a hero trying to achieve something to an intricate tapestry filled with context that can keep your readers interested in the book long after they have finished reading it for the first time.

Conclusion

Like so many other art forms, Storytelling is a time-honored tradition that has entertained audiences since the dawn of time. However, because of the many dimensions that exist within the art form, stories arguably have more potential to explore more facets of human existence than anything else. As I continue to learn all I can about the art of storytelling, I will undoubtedly gain greater insight into the ways we, as humans, live and grow as we progress throughout our lives. By knowing about the rules of exercising one’s agency, we can, as writers, help our characters become more than just another element of the story, but a nearly sentient being within the fabric of the epics we strive to tell. It’s only by making our characters as real as possible that we come to understand ourselves better, and that is what makes stories truly transcendent.