Balancing Character Agency

In the reflection of a black man's sunglasses, a man reaches for the red pill in one hand instead of the blue pill in the other.

"Actually the blue pill would have also taken you to wonderland."

It’s pointless to debate whether plot or characters are more important. They are both essential, and they work together to create the story. Unfortunately, they don’t always work well together. More than a few storytellers have planned their plot to the end, only realizing once they started the story that their characters wouldn’t come quietly. Balancing character agency will help you prevent this kind of disaster, while still allowing you to mold the direction your story takes. Here’s some things to keep in mind.

Characters Must Make Their Own Choices

Most experienced roleplayers can recall a time when they felt powerless to steer the story. The corridor in the house they were exploring offered no side passages, and became a brick wall behind them. The Duke asked them to defend the walls, and offered instant death by spikes as an alternative if they didn’t want to. This is known as railroading, and any GM who does it regularly will have a rebellion on their hands.

Railroading can also happen in written works. Just stuff your characters in a body bag and toss them around without a chance to strike back. Or worse, have the hero make decisions that are out of character in order to serve the plot. Strong written characters have a will of their own, not unlike roleplayers.

Regardless of whether stories are interactive, they are infinitely more satisfying when characters make meaningful choices. A common complaint about the Hunger Games is that Katniss had no agency. The series gave her few chances to steer the story. Some of this was necessary – if given the option, she would have kept her sister safe without battling 23 other kids. But as the conflict grew wider in scope, she should have picked the role she would play. Instead, other characters made that choice without her input.

For character choices to be meaningful, they need to have a significant effect on the story. Something very important should change based on the decisions the characters make, and the audience – players or readers – should have an idea of how the outcome would have changed with a different choice.

Too Many Options Makes Plotting Difficult

If you simply drop your roleplayers in a setting and give them unlimited choices about what they want to do, you’re signing up for a very slow start. Faced with endless possibilities, players may find themselves paralyzed with indecision. Or they could disagree, going separate ways and forcing the GM to alternate between them. When they do make a choice together, the GM won’t have prepared for it. There was simply too many options to anticipate them all.

A book where the hero has an open field of options is also in danger of starting slow. Most characters wouldn’t choose to get in a brawl when they could go home and drink a martini instead. When conflicts do form, they will probably feel episodic and unrelated to one another.

That doesn’t mean too many choices will always make a bad story, it’s just hard mode. In roleplaying, a good party leader can help the group make decisions and move the game forward. When writing, spending some extra effort to tie your plot together could be all you need.

But why make storytelling more difficult than it needs to be?

Present a Problem, Let Characters Solve It

The easiest way is to give your plot structure and your characters agency is to introduce a big threat. This threat should remove the option of going about life as normal, but leave characters with several clear choices.

Let’s say your character is at a party, enjoying herself. The host of the party pulls her aside and points out a hooded figure across the room. It’s a known bounty hunter who is showing everyone her picture. The heroine could try to simply go on as she did before, but it’s clear that won’t last long. To deal with the problem, she must either flee and hope the bounty hunter doesn’t follow, or fight. These are different options that will result in different outcomes, and the choice is up to her.

It’s important that the host doesn’t tell her what to do. Whether it’s players or fictional characters, the story will be more satisfying if they come up with their own solution to the problem. Sometimes, that solution won’t be what you expect. Perhaps the heroine is the kind of character who talks her way out of everything, and she wants to use diplomacy on the bounty hunter, or perhaps offer a bribe. If this is the case, you absolutely must allow her to do it.

Or try to do it – she doesn’t have to succeed. If your players are trying to do something that is completely unworkable, don’t argue with them, just ask them to roll and give it a ridiculously high difficulty rating. If the consequences of their failure to deal with the problem would completely derail the story, bring in another character to save the day after they’ve messed up. Then leave them with a smaller consequence – the loss of an important item, or a debt they have to repay. Don’t remove the consequences completely, or you are rendering their choice meaningless.

If you give all of your characters meaningful choices that are made under pressure, you’ll have not only a gripping plot, but fantastic opportunities for character growth. To change as a people, heroes need to make hard choices with high stakes, and learn from the results of their decisions. And then when they reach their happy ending, they can take all the credit.

Treat your friends to an evening of dark ritual murder. In a fictional game scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and save the day in our stand-alone game, The Voyage.

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  1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

    I don’t often add to my writing templates – I have a bunch of advice I have accumulated for years, and which I check before I consider a scene done.

    But I just added this:

    From give all of your characters meaningful choices that are made under pressure.

    Even for an extreme plotter (as opposed to a pantser, which is much more like a GM), this is advice which resonates: make sure those characters have choices, and pile on the pressure when you present them.


  2. Julia Barrett

    I absolutely love this post. I’ve never heard it stated so well — the issue I have with many writers is the blank slate. The protagonist is reactive, rarely proactive. If there’s loads of action this can work, at least for a while. But when there is a lag in the action, the character is nothing more than a blank slate, a neutral wall upon which the antagonist can spill whatever color he or she likes. This is the problem with superheroes. Superheroes are innately boring because they are merely reactive. Supervillains are always fun because they are proactive!
    Great post!

    • Cay Reet

      Which is why I had a lot of fun writing a supervillain who turned hero (slightly under pressure … it was that or go to prison for life). She still remained proactive afterwards, because it was her nature.

  3. William Corpening

    Love this post. I just wanted to add that many great stories — and, by association, RPGs — benefit from losing options as the stakes are raised. So, perhaps five options are presented to the players initially. The next set of options might be three, then the next reduced to two, and so on. Their actions sort of close other options off as they get closer to their goal.

  4. Dave L

    Actually, the beginning of Hunger Games has an excellent example of character agency:

    Katniss wasn’t selected as tribute. She volunteered herself to save her sister.

    Also, Katniss and Peta having to force Haymitch to help them instead of drinking was definitely more active than if Haymitch had just helped out of his own accord.

    • American Charioteer

      You’re right, Katniss had agency in the first book, but I think this post was lamenting her loss of agency as the series went on. That seems to happen a lot, a character (often a female character) will be set up as a strong character, then just become a pawn or trophy as the story goes on. It happened to Arwen in LOTR (the movies). It happened to Padme in Star Wars. It happened to Lyra in His Dark Materials It happened to Daenyres in GoT, who was an interesting character until everything started falling into her lap (including more competent advisers with a lot of character agency). I worry that it may to happen to Rey in the upcoming Star Wars movie, too.

      • Cay Reet

        Yes, loss of agency happens far too often with female characters and most often with female characters who are presented as strong early on. It’s weird how finding the right guy can make a woman forget her skills, her experience, and her own plans for her life.

        I think the problem is that a lot of them are created because people think they need a ‘strong woman’ for their story and then they don’t know what to do with them, so they strip them down to ‘regular love interest/potential damsel’ and use them as many other female characters have been used for ages.

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