Character & POV
3 min read

How to write strong characters (ie: characters with agency)

A illustration of a writer's pen on a page of fiction writing

One crucial aspect of characterisation is developing characters with agency – those who make their own decisions, drive the plot forward and evolve over the course of the story. In this article, we'll journey through the world of characters with agency, exploring how to develop them, what pitfalls to avoid, and sharing a few tips to enhance your character-writing skills.

Understanding characters with agency

So what exactly is a character with agency? They're a character who doesn't just react to their surroundings, but takes action to influence their own fate. They don't wait for things to happen; they make things happen!

Characters with agency are vital for a compelling story because they make choices that shape the narrative. They're active participants in the story, and their actions, decisions, and mistakes drive the plot.

Characters with agency aren't passive. They've got spunk. They're the movers and shakers of their world, making choices and dealing with the consequences. They have clearly defined goals, strengths and weaknesses, and they struggle and learn, just like we do in real life. Basically, they've got personality in bucket loads.

Developing characters with agency

Creating characters with agency involves a mix of crafting relatable characters, designing a compelling character arc, and balancing the character's agency with the story.

Crafting relatable characters

Backstory: The past informs the present. Creating a rich backstory for your character provides depth and makes them more relatable. They didn't just pop into existence – they have a history that has shaped them, and it can explain why they act the way they do.

Personality traits: Just like real people, your characters need a mix of personality traits. Some good, some bad, and some downright ugly. This makes them feel more real and less like cardboard cut-outs.

Strengths and weaknesses: Nobody's perfect – and that should include your characters. Giving them strengths and weaknesses adds complexity and makes their journey more engaging. Plus, it's their weaknesses that often lead to the most interesting challenges and obstacles!

Character arc

Identifying the character's goals: Characters with agency have goals – things they want to achieve. This could be anything from finding their lost love, to stopping the bad guy, to getting that promotion at work.

Creating obstacles and challenges: A story without conflict is like a sandwich without filling – pretty bland! Throwing obstacles and challenges at your character not only moves the plot forward, but also reveals their true nature as they fight to overcome these hurdles.

Character growth and change: One of the most satisfying elements of a story is watching a character grow and change. They learn from their mistakes, or they may change their perspective on an issue. This evolution shows that your character is more than just a static figure – they're an active participant in their world.

Balancing agency with the story

Ensuring character decisions drive the plot: In a story with a character who has agency, it's the character's decisions that propel the plot forward, not the other way around. This creates a story that feels driven by the character, rather than one where the character feels like a puppet of the plot.

Avoiding character actions that feel forced: While your character's actions need to drive the plot, it's equally important that these actions feel true to the character's nature. If a character's actions feel forced or out of character, it can pull the reader out of the story.

Incorporating other characters' actions and reactions: While your protagonist should have agency, remember your supporting cast. They're not just scenery – they have their own goals, desires, and agency, and their actions and reactions can influence the plot and your main character's journey.

Common mistakes to avoid

Creating one-dimensional characters

Characters that lack depth can make your story feel flat and uninspired. Be sure to give all your characters – even minor ones – their own personality traits, desires, and flaws.

Over-reliance on stereotypes

Stereotypes are a shortcut to character development that can leave your characters feeling predictable and unoriginal. Challenge yourself to create characters that break the mould.

Giving characters too much agency

It's possible to overdo it with agency. If your character is always in control and never faces any real challenges, the story can become uninteresting. Balance is key!

Allowing agency to overshadow the story

Remember, character agency should serve the story, not vice versa. If your character's decisions overshadow the plot, it might be time to reevaluate.

Tips for writing strong characters

Researching real-life personalities

Looking at real people can inspire your characters. It can help you create complex, realistic characters that resonate with readers.

Focusing on character relationships

Characters don't exist in a vacuum. How they interact with other characters can reveal much about their personality and give them more depth.

Revising and editing

Never underestimate the power of revision. It's your chance to refine your characters, their motivations, and how they express their agency.

Seeking feedback

Sometimes, you're too close to your work to see any issues. Feedback from others can give you a fresh perspective and help you improve your character.

Heading into the future – your character's story

In the end, writing strong characters with agency is a rewarding challenge. It demands a keen understanding of human nature and a willingness to dig deep into your characters' hearts and minds. So go ahead, breathe life into your characters, and let them take the reins of your story.