How to Handle Character Agency in Your Writing

fork in the road

Continuing my loose series on advice for aspiring authors, it's time to address a subject that will leave hardcore outliners scratching their heads, but will have organic/discovery writers nodding in commiseration.

That subject is character agency. Or, as frustrated writers lament: "What should I do if my characters want to take actions that will sabotage my plot?"

Again, pure outliner-architects will be totally baffled by this question. "Your characters are just extensions of your own will," they'll say. "How can they 'want' anything that you don't want?"

This misunderstanding stems from the technical differences between authors who construct meticulous outlines before they even start writing, and authors who just dive in and let the story unfold as the spirit moves them.

Hardline architects won't be confronted with a branching plot thread due to character agency, because the characters already had their say (and were probably vetoed) during the outline phase.

But for discovery writers, having their characters hijack the story can be a substantial roadblock. Hopefully I can offer some advice to help writers avoid this problem--or if it's too late for prevention, help them solve it.

Character-author conflict
Full disclosure: I'm predominantly an outliner, though I do discovery write about 40 percent of a given project. It's a high enough ratio that intransigent characters make themselves a problem from time to time.

The source of the problem
At least in my case, characters tend to get uppity when I've gotten myself into a nice groove writing an interesting character. I'm pretty deep inside the character's head to the point that I'm essentially role-playing his thought process and writing it down in real time.

Then, perhaps long after the fact, I'll think "Wait. This guy is mucking about here when the action is supposed to be happening way over there!"

What happened? Chances are I haven't developed the character's motivations well enough. If he's in a story about X, but he'd rather do Y, I probably haven't given him a compelling reason to do X.

Alternate (disturbing) theory: some characters are more real than they seem.
I'm gonna take a pretty weird detour here, but a model derives its worth from its explanatory power, so follow me on this one.

By definition, fictional characters don't exist. But can fictionality admit of degrees?

Tolkien coined the term sub-creation to describe the creative efforts of humans in imitation of God's sovereign creating power. He even illustrated the concept in the Silmarillion.

The story goes that Aule tried to create his own race, but they could only move or think when he focused his thought on them. The same can be said of authors and the characters in their books.

If Aule's story ended there, it would make a fine parable on hubris. But since it's from Tolkien, this tale has a metaphysical twist. Eru confronts Aule about making a race of mindless homunculi. Aule points out that he was just imitating his Father--the highest form of flattery. Eru grants Aule's creations autonomous existence, and BAM! Dwarves.

Tolkien, being a learned Catholic, knew that his story had a venerable precedent. In Genesis 2:19, Adam gives names to every creature, and God backs him up. This, by the way, is a form of prophecy. Prophets don't always make pronouncements dictated to them by God. Often, the prophet gives an oracle and God ratifies it.

Is it possible that a fictitious character could be made real through divine action?

I hope not. If my characters came to life, they'd track me down and murder me. That's if they decided to let me off easy.

We can get even weirder with this. The brother of a friend once solemnly assured me that, due to multiverse theory, every fictional character is real, and authors are just reporting the adventures of people living in parallel universes. James Bond, Dracula, Wolverine--they're all out there somewhere.

I nodded and smiled politely while thinking that he was totally off his nut. I still do, but since becoming a writer I've had cause to wonder about that long ago conversation more than once.

It's a logically inescapable fact that fictional characters are just mental constructs assembled from an author's personal experience, literary influences, and hang-ups. Hell, most of them are thinly veiled versions of the writer's coworkers and friends.

That's what I firmly believe--until a character springs fully formed out of my head with a complete background, personality, and appearance all in place. They even tell me their names. It's far less like creating something and more like meeting someone. This has happened multiple times, with zero mental effort on my part.

Is it just my unconscious mind? Probably, but that raises the equally odd question of how there can be a part of my consciousness that I'm unconscious of.

What are characters--really, and where do they come from? I'm prepared to admit that I don't know.

It's really not important, since we can make the little bastards do what we want, anyway. Here's how.

Getting your characters back in line
Are you halfway into a manuscript, only to find yourself facing a character revolt?

Don't despair. It's happened to me, and I've found a number of effective solutions.

Retrace your steps.
Is your plot spiraling out of control, or branching off on weird tangents that have stalled your main plot? Simply read back to the last point where the story was still on track. Identify where the narrative started to diverge from the intended plot. It's probably because a major player did something that was in character but conflicted with your plan for the story.

Examine character motivations.
Take a close look at the rebellious character's choices. Are they really in line with his personality and background as established in the story thus far?

If not, all you need to do is change his decision to reflect his true motivations, which should be compatible with the overall story. If they're not, however...

Harmonize the character's motivations with the story.
If you want to tell the tale of an underdog resistance group fighting against an oppressive aristocracy, a main character who comes from a noble family, is devoted to tradition, and stands to reap the greatest benefit if the current regime stays in power probably shouldn't be expected to shake up the status quo--not without grave intervening reasons.

In cases where a character's motivations are throwing a wrench in the plot, go back and rework the character so he'll be more willing to cooperate.

Change the story.
Say you've tried to make an unruly character's motivations fit the story, but it just isn't working out, Perhaps you're telling the wrong story.

If changing the character would make him less interesting, and the path he's leading you down is more entertaining than the original story, go ahead and follow his lead.

Brute force
If the character is acting contrary to his established motivations--or even if he's not, but having him act out of character would be more entertaining (no one's behavior is 100 percent consistent), go ahead and make him take the path that's more fun. You're the writer. It's OK to veto your characters' choices as a last resort.

These are the solutions that have helped me slap my characters back into line. But again, I'm an outliner. If any self-professed discovery writers have other effective approaches, I'd love to hear them in the comments.

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