Establishing “agency”—proving to your reader that your protagonist is equal to the journey ahead—is a craft element worthy of fresh consideration each time you begin a new project. This is especially true if you spend a good deal of your initial word count probing the protagonist’s memories and thoughts so you’ll understand the inner conflict that will drive their story.
That’s called “starting to write,” not “opening a novel”—but writers often conflate the two.
Reality is, you-as-author are the one who needs early access to that interiority. Your reader might not. Any reader who has met with an unreliable narrator will know that a character’s actions will speak louder than anything s/he is willing to tell us anyway. In order to earn your reader’s faith and investment, your protagonist must be willing to act.
This craft is based on physical law. As early as 1687, storytelling guru Sir Isaac Newton hinted at the necessity of getting your protagonist off his duff with his principle of inertia, which (sort of) states:
A protagonist at rest will stay at rest, and a protagonist in motion will stay in motion until his story problem is resolved, unless acted on by an external force.
Before submitting your manuscript to publishers, consider having your story open with your character already taking an action that suggests the nature of the journey ahead. Once that happens, Newton’s Third Law of Storytelling (oh why not rename them?) promises that “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”
Action—not thought—inspires the kind of external conflict that will pressure your character to engage with an inner arc of change.
Action—not thought—will show the character’s agency.
Merriam-Webster’s first definition of the word “actor” offers a simple perspective on the matter.
One that acts: doer.
Even a dazed woman wandering through a forest is different from one sitting on a stump thinking about how lost she is: the wanderer is looking for a way out.
This raises the question of whether all characters are capable of “doing” something. Let’s look at three increasingly challenged protagonists.
Even kids—and characters seized by PTSD—can act (or act out). If you don’t remember the 1908 novel Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery, watch a couple of episodes of Anne with an “E” on Netflix. At the outset, Anne, “about eleven” in the novel, is waiting alone at a train stop for her new foster father to pick her up—and when he approaches, she starts talking so fast and at such length that he can’t possibly pose the objection that he had specifically asked for, and expected to meet, a boy. [Read more…]