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photo adapted / Horia Varlan

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.

 

Anne Shirley

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.

Due to countless cruelties suffered in an orphanage and previous foster placements, Anne could easily come off as a victim. But when seized by flashbacks, she patches her optimism by imagining heroic characters in “fantastical” scenarios. She loves to learn and relentlessly defends herself when mocked at school for her lack of formal education. In her new, kinder placement, she does not let obstacles like having no money, isolation due to rural spread, or an inability to ride a horse or drive a buggy keep her from reaching the ferries and trains that will allow her to achieve goals in other towns.

As a “doer,” Anne exhibits more agency than many adults I know. Through her, Montgomery teaches us that when it seems like a protagonist can’t act, the writer must imagine a way for her to do so.

 

Susy Hendrix

When we first meet Audrey Hepburn’s recently blinded character, Susy, in the 1967 film Wait Until Dark (synopsis), drug dealers looking for a heroin-filled doll are hiding in her apartment as she calls her husband, who’s at work, to say that she was “the best in blind school today.” After she decides to “tap her way over” and meet him at a coffee shop in his building, she blithely tells him “she’ll be the one reading Peter Rabbit in braille.” With her first words she’s already showing us she is handling an extreme obstacle like a champ. But how will that translate when the story comes to a head, and Susy must defend herself when trapped alone to face the violent thug who returns for the doll? Let’s see.

During the long climactic fight, she:

  • continually finds ways to plunge the apartment into darkness by breaking lightbulbs, disabling the emergency light, and unplugging the refrigerator
  • asks if he’s looking at her—and when he says yes, throws a chemical at his face
  • douses him with gasoline and threatens him with lit matches while making him tap the floor with a cane so she knows where he is
  • tries to scream for help
  • arms herself with a kitchen knife and saves herself from rape by stabbing him.

Spunk can’t replace eyesight—or can it? In the end, Susy proves that our early faith in her was warranted.

 

Joe Bonham

The anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo, which won the 1939 National Book Award for Most Original Novel, pushes the envelope of establishing agency all the way to an unforgiving wall. Trumbo’s protagonist is as severely compromised as people get—a WWI draftee whose arms, legs, and face have been blown off, yet whose heart didn’t know enough to stop beating. How can a person with no sight or hearing or mouth or limbs—and with no way of knowing if he is awake and remembering, or asleep and dreaming—“do” anything? This story is an interesting case study because by necessity, most of the novel plays out in his mind. Joe’s agency results from his relentless striving against impossible odds. It takes him more than a year to organize time, distinguishing night from day by the distinct vibrations made when different people walk into the room.

In this state, even a suicide attempt is “doing something,” but his tracheotomy makes that impossible. After that, Joe deeply desires to take the necessary steps to connect with another human being. He tries to communicate with a nurse by banging his head against the bed. He is repeatedly drugged for this “agitation,” requiring that he start over with respect to his hard-earned day/night orientation—until a Christmas relief nurse figures out he’s tapping in Morse code and fetches a former army doctor to interpret it. What happens next is one of the most powerful statements on what it means to be alive that I’ve ever read in a novel.

If a character with no appendages or senses can convince us of his ability to act, so can your character.

These three stories feature characters who were easily remembered for this post because they have stayed in my heart for decades. Wouldn’t you love to have your protagonist linger in your reader’s heart for that long?

If you do, prove that s/he is worthy. Challenge yourself to have your character take story-relevant action as soon as possible. On page one, if possible. Gads of writing instructors, Sir Isaac Newton, Noah Webster, George and Charles Merriam—and my mom, who taught me about inner conflict and implied stakes with the words, “Actions speak louder than words, young lady”—all think it’s a good idea.

But the most compelling reason to do so is to build a relationship with your reader that will allow her to invest in your protagonist. Your character has no skin in the game while huddled within the safety of his own mind. It’s only once he takes the risk of acting from a place of deep desire, and then is met with a confounding obstacle, that will have your reader thinking, “Oh no, what will the character do now?”

Once you have the reader asking that, you have her hooked. And for that, publishers say, the sooner the better.

Fun exercise: Is there a character that has stayed in your heart for a good long while? Pick up your copy of the novel (because you kept it, right?), re-read his or her introduction, and report back: how was his or her agency suggested? If you don’t have the book on hand, tell us what actions your own protagonist takes early on (or what new actions you are now inspired to write!) that will beg the reader’s investment.

 

 

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About Kathryn Craft

Kathryn Craft (she/her) is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy. A freelance developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com since 2006, Kathryn also teaches in Drexel University’s MFA program and runs a year-long, small-group mentorship program, Your Novel Year. Learn more on Kathryn's website.

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