The Top 5 Editorial Mistakes I’ve Seen… and How to Fix Them, Part 3.

We’re halfway through the Top 5 Editorial Mistakes I see on the job. I hope that this list, which is part of my “Plotting, Planning, and Publishing” course, is proving helpful to you.

If you’re getting a lot out of these posts, consider downloading the full course on my Writing Resources page. There’s a coupon code at the bottom of this post just for you, so I hope you’ll check it out.

So far in the Top 5 series, I’ve discussed the problems inherent in Telling instead of Showing and the Pitfalls of Character ‘Splaining. Now we move to the third point:

Text: "Editorial Mistake #3: Lack of Character Agency." Image via Canva: A foot about to step on a banana peel. 

Text: "Editorial Mistake #3: Lack of Character Agency." Image via Canva: A foot about to step on a banana peel. 

Agency, or independent agency, means that a character has the ability to independently act – to make things happen within their life, to create change within their narrative.

As you might imagine, character agency goes hand-in-hand with character motivation, like Jekyll and Hyde, rock and roll, peanut butter and Oreos. (Seriously, try it. You can thank me later.)

Characters lacking in agency often don’t have many motivating factors to help them think, speak, or act. Instead, they passively accept the things happening around them.

This can make it difficult for the reader to empathize with your characters, often because it seems the characters are doing nothing to help themselves. As a result, you may risk losing your reader’s interest in your novel.

Of course, some of the best stories begin with something happening to a character.

We wouldn’t have the Batman comics series (or its many spinoffs) if Bruce Wayne’s parents hadn’t been killed in front of him.

However, if time after time a character is told what will happen to them and they glumly go along with it, then that becomes a rather dull and circular source of character motivation: “I have to do this because I was told I have to do this.”

This line of reasoning is why I only watch Gotham for the villains. (Photo:  Flickr, BagoGames .)

This line of reasoning is why I only watch Gotham for the villains.
(Photo: Flickr, BagoGames.)

Over time, a character should find independent agency in the face of their surrounding circumstances. Even if the effects of their actions are small, the reader will appreciate it.

A Constrained Character is Not a Character Lacking in Agency

You may be puzzling over the points I’ve made thus far: Aren’t there books about characters who are physically, socially, financially, or otherwise constrained? Don’t these books win awards and sell millions of copies? How can you tell me that’s not successful?

Good point. I would counter with this: a constrained character is not necessarily the same as a character lacking in agency.

The books you may be considering are often literary novels that use a constrained or limited point of view to explore a character’s deeper internal conflicts and to then translate those conflicts into a universal meaning that resonates with the reader.

In these projects, despite the character’s limitations, there are still things they can control, like their emotional or intellectual reaction to the things happening to them.

Here are a few examples of constrained characters who still have agency:

  • Joe Bonham from Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun (1939)
    • Constrained by war, extreme physical (and psychological) wounds
    • Agency in the form of sharp mental processing
  • Jack and Ma from Emma Donoghue’s Room (2010)
    • Constrained by physical (and psychological) imprisonment
    • Agency in the form of mother-son bond and ultimate escape
  • Captain Yossarian from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961)
    • Constrained by the insanity of wartime bureaucracy, as exemplified by Catch-22
    • Agency in the form of desertion

Constrained characters can be fun to play with, due to the limited point of view within which the writer must work. They can also be liberating for the reader, in that there is often some major act of resistance by the end of the novel.

It’s here that my inner geek jumps out, and I think of Galadriel’s words to Frodo, when she gives him the Light of Eärendil: “May it be a light to you in dark places, when all other lights go out.”

This resistance can be the character’s (and the reader’s) light in a dark place – the fact that they struggle and fight, even if imperceptibly, against their circumstances.

Everyone loves a good underdog story, and whether it goes well or poorly, this resistance against all odds is precisely why.

Case in point.

Action Items:

To find and fix a lack of character agency in your own project, review each chapter and make a list of the plot points and actions that happen within it. Who made the plot point happen? Who is affected by the plot point?

Now, assess your list. If more things happen to your main character than your main character makes happen, develop some means – however passive or internal – for them to fight back.