April 08, 2020, 12:21:24 PM

Author Topic: Main character without agency  (Read 1170 times)

Online Eli_Freysson

Main character without agency
« on: April 07, 2018, 08:25:46 PM »
A little while ago I weathered an idea I had for an enlightened dictatorship, by beings that have a strong sense of compassion but no real concern for stuff like free will or individualism.

The idea has been rolling around in my head for a little while now, and it occurred to me to make the main character a human under their control. Ie, with independent thought but no ability to defy orders. This would be a former hero, one of the party that always brings down the well-intentioned would-be dictators in stories... except this time they failed.

This is still a very young and half-baked idea, but currently I'm thinking of doing a standalone novel, exploring the character reflecting on the situation and whether the takeover is ultimately good or bad, while being put to work in keeping order by the bosses.

I'd love to hear some thoughts on this.
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Offline Yora

Re: Main character without agency
« Reply #1 on: April 07, 2018, 08:48:56 PM »
I think that in the end a story generally needs to have some kind of resolution. At the very least the protagonist needs to have learned something. Though there are a small number of works that do have a proper conclusion with the protagonist failing to overcome some internal flaw with the clear outlook that the struggle to overcome the flaw and become a better person being permanently lost. The protagonist is trying to break out, but ultimately fails and is defeated, and doomed to an existence as a victim or a villain.

I believe 1984 and Brazil do something in that regard, but I might be misremembering. Isn't it really the classic dystopian ending?

I think the important thing is to give the character an agency to struggle, even if the struggle fails. And that can just be internally. An inner conflict about a desire to break out and a search for any way out. Only when the realization comes that there is no escape does the character decide to no longer attempt even any internal expression of agency. And if you want to really make it dystopian bleak, I think the resolution of the story should be exactly that choice. Not being forced by outside agent to be outwardly compliant, but an internal choice to cease looking for a way out.
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Offline Skip

Re: Main character without agency
« Reply #2 on: April 07, 2018, 09:47:54 PM »
Consider the Retief stories by Keith Laumer.

I don't know about sitting and reflecting, but if your character is doing something interesting ....  Maybe a PI, who sort of atones for his failure by taking on cases of people who get screwed by the system. He can't bring it all down, but maybe he can save just one person, or take out just one bad guy. 20thc literature has plenty of examples of the little guy laboring within the system.
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Offline J.R. Darewood

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Re: Main character without agency
« Reply #3 on: April 08, 2018, 08:20:11 AM »

So my WIP was basically about a passive MC who's just trying to stay alive while tagging along with other protagonists with agency who get themselves killed. Almost every writer beta-reader was like your protagonist needs to have agency!  Rewrite it!  So I did.

That said I recently saw a list of famous literature with passive MCs, including Hamlet and American Gods... so orthodoxy can eat it.

Offline NedMarcus

Re: Main character without agency
« Reply #4 on: April 08, 2018, 10:05:24 AM »
How will the story end?

Offline Yora

Re: Main character without agency
« Reply #5 on: April 08, 2018, 11:02:12 AM »
I would hardly say that Hamlet is entirely passive and without agency. He does a number of important things, and if I recall correctly on his own initiative. He arranges the play to get confirmation that the king did indeed murder his father, he turns the trap to murder him against Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern, and in the end he indeed does kill the king. He may be struggling with indecision, but he does exercise agency as well.
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Offline J.R. Darewood

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Re: Main character without agency
« Reply #6 on: April 08, 2018, 11:43:18 AM »
Perhaps it wasn't a great list. If I remember it said something about the protagonist starting off as passive.

I think it's fair to say that American Gods spends a fair amount of time giving Shadow a questionable degree of agency. A better example would be the film Pelle the Conqueror.

How much agency does Watson, the narrator, have in the Sherlock Holmes novels?  How much agency does Derfel have in Cornwell's Arthurian trilogy?  Some of Poe's characters seem to be simply squirming toward their inevitable doom. Moby Dick and the Great Gatsby are two others that come to mind.

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The bottom line is this protagonist-has-agency formula sort of pisses me off because it feeds a collective delusion we have in the US I think.  "I succeeded b/c of my aggressive management style!" No you didn't, you succeeded b/c your parents were rich, a-hole.  "I failed b/c I'm not good at fiscal management." No, you failed b/c you're broke and surrounded by predatory lending schemes. It's the worst when you see it in biopics, OMFG, where everything that happens is because of the main character's actions-- circumstance, luck, social position, none of this had anything to do with it.  They are so obviously delusional they make me ill. It's why I can't read 99% of biographies without throwing up in my mouth.

In fiction you get this thing where the protag is the only one with agency, the world warps to them, and everyone else's agency just magically disappears.  Jordan had a convenient work around by calling it "ta'veren" but everyone in every novel is a ta'veren without any frigging explanation.  It's aggravating and feeds an unrealistic locus of control in Western society (probably because in capitalism we need to blame the people who don't rise to the top as if it were physically possible for all of us to do so when it's obviously not)

I mean, underdogs in stories are cool. I like the idea that an overlooked maid in a story can have agency in the right moment. But making them the MC distorts it all-- they have agency in a particular moment because of circumstance, or a wide variety of things that may not be related to the core of the story. Idk I like the idea of having a character that grows into his or her agency vs. it being some sort of given or a story distortion.
« Last Edit: April 08, 2018, 11:44:58 AM by Bradley Darewood »

Online Eli_Freysson

Re: Main character without agency
« Reply #7 on: April 08, 2018, 01:06:58 PM »
How will the story end?

As I said, this is still a very rough idea. It's more a concept that I want to explore than a story, at this point. But the way I currently see it there would be external mission the protagonist is taxed with, while internally the character comes to accept that there is no way out.
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Offline cupiscent

Re: Main character without agency
« Reply #8 on: April 09, 2018, 12:05:56 AM »
I recently saw an author discussing character agency, and defining it less as "character must actively do stuff" and more as "if the character wasn't here, there would be no story". I think there's merit in considering things from this angle.

BUT. There's a project I've been wrestling with for, like, three years now (and which I recently shelved for a rest because I was burning out and then I realised I needed to trash and completely rewrite for a fourth time) where the first time I handed it in as "complete" my agent noted that the plot was about 90% bad stuff happening to my main character (and her reacting), and barely 10% her making decisions that moved things forward.

I feel like this highlights what agency means for me: the character must make decisions. The character has goals, has concerns, has something they want, and they make decisions based on that stuff. Now, those decisions might be to do nothing, or to subsume what they need to the greater good, or to take the path of least resistance, or other stuff that reads as counter to the idea that agency is actively doing stuff, but to my mind, that character still has agency.

So, to bring this back to Eli's original situation: my question would be why is the story about this character? What is the character's journey? And--judging from that latest response, Eli--I think there can definitely be a story there, it just might be a much more character-focused rather than action-focused one.

Offline JMack

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Re: Main character without agency
« Reply #9 on: April 09, 2018, 10:18:10 AM »
Going to the OP, I think the character needs agency up to a limit last which he cannot go. For example, he can investigate, choose paths of inquiry, etc. but cannot do anything that would go against the overlords. And perhaps some of the time, he is just a passenger in his own body. But, for me, just being the passenger, just commenting on what his body does, seems too limiting for a novel.
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