Give Your Protagonist Agency

This is something that I need to explain to non-writers. It’s even necessary sometimes to clarify it to “pantsers” who feel that outlining a novel restricts character development. You need to give your protagonist agency. They can’t be shuffled from scene to scene simply because you have a plan that states what’s supposed to happen. Their actions and decisions should stem from who they are, not plot expedience. They need to made bad choices, take wrong actions, and do things for stupid reasons. Human beings are messy and complicated, but that’s what makes them interesting.

Give Your Protagonist Agency

For me, this is what makes writing fun. It’s also what makes it a pain in the ass. The best analogy is a road trip. You know where you’re leaving from, where you need to end up, and roughly when you need to arrive there. There are fixed stops along the way that you have to hit, for food, fuel, and rest. Everything in between is a free-for-all.

Now granted, a lot of that space is going to be boring driving. It can be filled with scenery and conversation. There can also be detours. You see something unexpected that looks interesting, and decide to stop. There’s a lot of potential for fun and excitement. It can make the trip better. There’s also the potential that it will throw everything off schedule.

You need to allow the story to unfold as you write it. The characters need to do what the characters are going to do. That’s the joyful and creative part of being a writer. At some point, though, you need to get them back on the road. They have to get to the next plot milestone, and you now have to make it feel natural and not forced. This is the hard part. Writing would be easier if you didn’t allow your characters to have agency, but it makes for a terrible story.

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1 Reply to “Give Your Protagonist Agency

  1. Absolutely. This is what I am trying to achieve with a campaign for solo narrative gaming. But the issue is with creating a setting that encourages development of the characters and that actually seems to come alive for me. I believe that along with conflict, transformation of the character(s) is a necessary story element.

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