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.
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.
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?
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.
Need an editor? We’re at your service.