Agency is a big issue for people writing young adult and new adult novels these days. Sometimes it’s described by writers as the main characters ability to make choices inside the plot. More interestingly, a character’s agency is most often described (or defended) as the innate ability a character has to make choices, an assessment that ironically removes agency when you see them grappling with their lives and making less-than ideal choices. You see, the character that has agency would make a very strong choice made by their innate substance if we go by this definition.
Arguably, I write characters with a lot of agency but little knowledge. They are swept along until they realize they control their own lives. This works for young adult writing because finding one’s self is the point of coming-of-age and YA stories. By necessity, the characters are still being molded to their environment. This is one of the things I love about the genre. The characters are learning and then controlling their interactions with their worlds.
We’ve seen fans react badly when “off camera” characters make decisions that force a heroes hands. You know the books; you loved the agency the main character showed early on, only to have a revolution leave them powerless. A good book leaves that character making decisions in the revolution, even if they are only decisions that affect their immediate comrades. The books we rail against are the ones that knock out the hero and they wake up to a world they can’t control and didn’t help make and we leave them powerless and confused at the end of the story.
Characters should be self-aware, but learning the ropes of the world. We all are aware of how we react to situations and every time we step into a new environment we’re learning about that specific set of rules. The way we deal with the stress that a new situation places on us is how we show our agency in real life. It’s what shows our character. Why not do the same with our heroes while creating their stories?
My stories are nearly all self-confidence journeys, sometimes while literally on the journey. My characters always start out young and learn to stand up and speak. They will not leave you disappointed.