Is your story about a woman moving from a place of weakness to strength? Is your hero aimless but by the end of the book has self-actualization? These character arcs are great, but don’t let your creations be witnesses, bystanders, or victims of other people’s actions. If that’s the case, your protagonist might lack agency. Agency is when someone decides to act—be it bad decisions or good ones. Characters with agency drive plot because they do things. Circumstances don’t merely happen around them or to them or to people they care about—action occurs because characters with agency make it happen.
Characters with agency have goals. They want something they can’t have, and instead of accepting their situation, they set out to change it. Even if the character is a victim, that trauma should change them and make them want something different. Characters with agency don’t take what’s dished out without vowing to transform their situation.
Goal setting needs to happen in the big picture—whatever the character ultimately wants will drive the main part of the plot. However, goals need to occur on a scene by scene basis as well. If your protagonist has no goals, they’ll have no set backs, and without setbacks, there can be no conflict. Without conflict, you don’t have a novel. You have a series of events. And let’s be honest, that’s not very interesting to read about.
Desire Can Stand in for Goals—For A While
Readers love characters who overcome the odds to achieve something great (see also, goals). However, many times characters are victims of their circumstances, and you should show that as a writer. If the reader doesn’t realize how hard it is for the protagonist, they won’t be able to share in her victories at the end of the book. While your character might not be in a position to do much about her goals, she can still have them. She can desire something new. That desire will be a source of tension, which is what you need for the plot to move forward.
A great example comes from the movie Erin Brockovich. Since this move is replayed on at least one channel on pretty much any given night, I’m sure you’ve seen it. However, in case you haven’t: Erin is a broke, single mother of three without a degree, a poor work record, and few options. She even has domestic abuse in her past. Despite all of Erin’s issues, she doesn’t behave like a passive victim. In fact, “passive” would the opposite of her personality. She charges ahead and convinces her lawyer to hire her, and she goes on to help him successfully sue a massive corporation for harm they caused.
Erin doesn’t always have the tools or the right answers, but she also has a desire to move forward. That yearning to make change ultimately causes her to act. Her actions sometimes are successful and other times create even more conflict. Her history isn’t erased, but even when she can’t work on her goals, she has wants, which drives action.
Show Your Protagonist in Action
Make sure you take your reader on the journey with your protagonist. We want to see all that doing. We want to see your character in action. Don’t simply report on the events that took place, show us. The more your reader sees your characters doing, the more agency they’ll have, and the faster those pages will turn.