Analysis

Five Stories Where the Heroes Lack Agency

Two paths diverged in a yellow wood, but one of them was covered in rocks, so it wasn't really a choice.

When characters have agency, it means their choices matter in the story. The more agency a character possesses, the greater impact they have on the plot. This doesn’t only include their successes. A character can still have agency through failure, so long as that failure affects what’s happening in the plot. All major characters need agency, but it’s particularly important for the hero. If the hero doesn’t have agency, why is the story even about them?

Chris already has an article explaining the details of agency and the consequences of neglecting it. Today, we look at those consequences as they play out in the wild. Unfortunately, a lack of agency is a fairly common problem, even among popular stories. On the bright side, that means we have plenty of fun examples to look at.

Spoiler Notice: The Calculating Stars, The Black God’s Drums, Cold Magic, Vampire: Coteries of New York, and Wanderers.

1. The Calculating Stars

Cover art of multiple women in silhouette from The Calculating Stars.

In most respects, The Calculating Stars is a wonderful book, well deserving of its Hugo. The characters are engaging, the conflict matters, and protagonist Elma York always has agency. Well, almost always.

You see, The Calculating Stars is roughly divided into two sections. The first is a high-action survival story as York and her husband flee the devastation of an asteroid impact. Here, York has plenty of agency through her piloting and physicist skills. The second is a slow-burn political intrigue about trying to get women into the recovering space program. Again, York’s skills and knowledge provide her with plenty of agency.

But between the two sections, there’s a surprisingly long dead zone where York has nothing to do. Her husband and friends have important work, but she just sits around the house feeling dejected and doing nothing. She sometimes volunteers at the emergency clinic, which could have granted her some agency even if it was through failure but that never happens. Instead, she performs rote tasks that are clearly a waste of her talent.

There’s a moment where it looks like she’ll have something to do when her friends ask for help distributing evacuation leaflets, but it turns out they just want to borrow York’s plane rather than make use of her piloting skills. I suspect this was done in order to avoid making York a white savior, as the friends borrowing her plane are Black, but there must have been a better way to do it. Maybe she could have been the pilot for a Black navigator who is in charge of the overall mission?

Regardless of the what-ifs, this section is a real drag on an otherwise fantastic story. Since nothing important is happening for York, it feels like the whole thing could have been summarized in a handful of paragraphs. The best explanation is that this section is meant to illustrate the asteroid’s terrible repercussions, but those repercussions only matter if we make them relevant to the main character.

2. The Black God’s Drums

A close up of the main character from The Black God's Drums

This novella starts out quite well in the agency department. Our protagonist is a thief named Creeper, and she overhears a dastardly plan by some Confederate officers in an alternate-history version of New Orleans. Creeper immediately springs into action, contacting an airship captain named Ann-Marie. Ann-Marie knew Creeper’s mother, so this makes perfect sense. There are some issues with the narration, including Creeper withholding important information from the reader, even in her internal monologue, but otherwise so far so good.

But then, things go wrong. Creeper reveals that she’s been reporting to a pair of nuns who seem to know everything. Apparently, everyone in the city talks to them, and they even hear about events before the news has time to travel. We then learn that they were the ones who told Creeper to contact Ann-Marie in the first place, so now the protagonist retroactively has less agency than we thought she did.

Don’t worry, it gets worse. When I said the nuns know everything, I meant it. Shortly after Creeper and Ann-Marie arrive, nuns have completely solved the mystery of who the bad guys are, what the bad guys are doing, and where they’re hiding. The nuns then lay out a plan for how to defeat the villain and shower our heroes with free loot. They even assign a super competent NPC to help the actual protagonists along.

Neither Creeper nor Ann-Marie have any agency for this entire section. They just get to wait until the Deus Ex Nuns are finished showing off how awesome they are. Not only is this frustrating, but it’s also bizarre because of how unnecessary it is. Our heroes could easily have uncovered this information on their own through a few sleuthing scenes. Or, if the author really didn’t want to do that, then Creeper could have known where the bad guys were hiding on her own. And with Ann-Marie’s airship on their side, the heroes certainly didn’t need a bunch of extra loot in order to triumph.

On the bright side, Creeper and Ann-Marie do recover most of their agency once they leave the nuns behind. Granted, the nuns’ overpowered NPC is still hanging around, solving more problems than she should, but it’s a major improvement. Even so, the middle of the story is badly sabotaged in the name of heaping candy on a pair of characters who don’t appear again, which isn’t something the plot can easily recover from.

3. Cold Magic

A close up of the main character from Cold Magic's cover art.

Unlike the previous two entries, Cold Magic doesn’t give us any false hope at the beginning: the protagonist loses her agency right away. That protagonist is Cat, and she ends up in a forced marriage to a jerk-ass mage so that her younger cousin, Bee, doesn’t have to marry him instead. This could have been a moment similar to Katniss volunteering as tribute, an act of supreme agency, but instead it’s all arranged behind the scenes without Cat’s knowledge.

From there, Cat travels with her jerk-ass husband as he performs acts of sabotage on behalf of his mage masters, while she mostly sits in the carriage. Naturally, she’ll later fall in love with him, despite there being no romantic chemistry between them. That’s not directly related to Cat’s agency; it’s just irritating.

Cat does finally get some agency when they arrive at the husband’s mage house, where his boss is super angry that he got tricked into marrying Cat instead of Bee. Jerk-ass husband is ordered to kill Cat, which he feels a little bad about, so obviously he’s prime romantic material.* Cat promptly runs away because death’s not on her agenda for the day, thank you very much. Yay, agency!

Unfortunately, it doesn’t last. Other than a brief sword fight against jerk-ass husband, Cat spends most of the book’s remaining pages bouncing from one new NPC to another. It’s not terrible, but it’s far less than the book needed after an opening like that. Finally, she ends up back where she started, reuniting with Bee as a bunch of different factions close in on them. Time for the climax!

You might expect this to be the moment where Cat finally seizes her agency. But no, if anything, this is the worst part. The big confrontation is resolved almost entirely by jerk-ass husband deciding he’s not going to kill Cat after all and then having a mage duel with his boss. Oddly, Bee actually plays a major roll, but Cat doesn’t. She just watches.

This is disappointing in the extreme, but it’s not super surprising. Toxic attitudes about what makes men appealing often result in heroines getting their agency stolen by an overbearing love interest. What’s unusual here is that the author seems to have taken precautions, and they just weren’t enough. Cat is established early to be a badass fencer, which should have made it relatively easy to give her agency. But other than that brief clash with jerk-ass husband, there just aren’t any conflicts in this story where sword fighting is relevant.

4. Vampire: Coteries of New York

A vampire biting a bloody apple.

It’s time to look outside the box of prose stories and consider Vampire: Coteries of New York. Coteries is a visual novel, which is the video game version of a “choose your own adventure” story. Okay, fine, there’s still a lot of prose, but it’s on your screen this time and you get to decide what your character says!

Most of the game is great, both on the agency front and in the general level of storytelling quality. You play a newly turned vampire trying to navigate undead politics in New York while also coming to grips with your newly predatory nature. You decide which NPCs to befriend and which to spurn, and once you’re done with that you can solve a plot or two while you’re at it. Your choices shape the story around you, which is excellent.

But then you hit the arbitrary cut-off point where the game yanks you out of whatever quest you were doing and into a pre-scripted ending. This ending is exactly the same no matter what you previously did. That’s particularly annoying since having all those previous choices heavily implied there would be different endings. You might remember this as the same problem Mass Effect III had, and this time we don’t even get different-colored explosions to console us.

Even if this was a straight prose story, the ending would still be frustrating for its lack of agency. The entire thing is your character watching various NPCs do things, then listening to the surprise villain’s confusing monologue for a few minutes. At one point, you even get the option to intervene with your vampiric power, but nothing happens.

This is all incredibly frustrating, and adding insult to injury, it’s a sad ending. Your super cool mentor gets murdered, your enemies win, and you’re forced to bond yourself to the villain. This kind of dark ending can work, but it’s extra important for the protagonist to have agency. Audiences can accept a dark ending if they see how the hero’s choices lead to it. Without those choices, the story is just unsatisfying.

5. Wanderers

Cover art of an old water tower from Wanderers

Here we go, the one I’ve been training for. My body is ready. We’ve seen a lot of agency denial so far, but Wanderers is in a league of its own because it has such a large cast, all of whom lack agency. It’s also an extremely long book, and the lack of agency is 99% consistent. How does that work? The plot is really complicated, so I’ll try to be brief.

Most of the story focuses on a group of POV characters following a flock of strange sleepwalkers. The sleepwalkers just get up one day and start walking for no reason anyone can figure out. Some of the characters are trying to investigate the disease, while others have loved ones in the flock and are just trying to keep them safe as they walk. Along the way, our heroes are assisted by an AI named Black Swan.

Neither group of characters gets any agency because nothing they do matters. The investigators keep repeating variations of “I don’t know,” never making any progress because the story makes it impossible for them to gather any data. The one time they actually do figure something out, it’s not based on anything that happens in the plot, but rather, one character suddenly remembers information he heard before the book started. Hardly satisfying.

The people protecting their afflicted loved ones don’t have anything to do either because the sleepwalkers are all but invincible. They can get over any obstacle, and their skin is impervious to everything except bullets. That might sound like an opportunity to protect the sleepwalkers from gunfire, but this only happens twice over the book’s 280,000 words. Both times, it’s quickly dealt with by a single character.

Through all of this, the story won’t stop feeding Black Swan candy. It’s so smart that it can figure out anything at any time, even when it seems to have no data to work from. You might be able to guess where this is going: it turns out the sleepwalkers were created by Black Swan as part of a plan to save humanity from an extinction-level fungus plague.

The plan doesn’t make any sense,* but we won’t get into that because it would take a whole other article. Let’s stick to agency. After this “twist,” we learn that not only does Black Swan know everything, but it can actually scry into the future via quantum entanglement. I’m sure that’ll make the characters’ agency problem better!

Wait, no, it does not. Instead, the characters spend the rest of the book following these walkers with nothing to do. In place of meaningful conflict, the book tries to substitute a lot of angst. This is something like sitting down to dinner and being given an endless supply of soda instead. Finally, the sleepwalkers reach their destination and the book gears up for its climax. A white supremacist militia plans to kill the walkers once and for all, and our heroes have to protect them.

The first problem to notice here is that almost none of the characters have any real combat skills, so it’s a tall order for them to defeat a well-armed, well-trained force. But oh well, maybe they’ll just be scrappy underdogs who pull out an unlikely victory! Nope. Big surprise, it’s Black Swan that saves the day, wiping out the bad guys with its overpowered nanites. Only one of the characters does anything important, and even that is at the behest of Black Swan.

I’ve seen the puppeteer archetype before, but never to this extreme. Wanderers sacrifices all of its actual characters on the altar of Black Swan, and it is a disaster. We’re left with no one to cheer for, no conflict we can invest in. It’s like a roleplaying campaign where the GM uses their favorite NPC to solve every problem. To be 100% fair, Black Swan is established to be somewhat evil at the end, but it’s far too late by then. A story about the characters struggling against Black Swan could have been fun. This last-minute reveal accomplishes nothing.


If stories run on conflict, then character agency is how storytellers make that conflict matter. If a character is important enough for the narrative to follow, their choices should affect what’s happening, for better or worse. Most storytellers recognize this, but it’s easy to be lured off course by an overly beloved minor character, sexist expectations, a slow middle, or all three. Fortunately, you now know what to look for, so you can be sure to give all your heroes the agency they deserve.

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Comments

  1. Jeppsson

    You’ve written so much about agency lately that I couldn’t help thinking about it when watching 1980:s Arnold Shwarzenegger movie “Commando” a while ago. The paper thin plot is about Arnold’s John saving his little daughter Jenny from kidnappers, whom he rightly suspects plan to kill her after a while whether he gives in to their demands or not. The bad guys are about to kill her when John is still on his way there, but she manages to use her smarts and determination to escape on her own. Eventually the bad guys recapture her, but now John has arrived and can save her.
    I feel like she becomes more of a person and less of a pure MacGuffin through this escape.

    • Cay Reet

      Definitely. Everyone can be caught and held prisoner, provided the people who do it have the necessary equipment and personnel. The big difference between the traditional damsel who just sits around and waits (like a vase or snowglobe) is that a prisoner can still act and have agency. They can try to escape (even if they fail or are recaptures), they can try to find information which might be useful later, or they can find ways to make life harder for the people keeping them locked up. All of that is still agency, even if it doesn’t mean freeing themselves for good.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Yeah having the captured character try to escape is a decent way of giving them agency. Better than just having them sit, that’s for sure.

  2. Allie

    In “The Calculating Stars” I thought the agency-less segment was included for a narrative purpose, to show that she was living in a world that had no use for her and didn’t care about her skills. I think seeing her abilities utterly wasted like that makes it more clear why she has to fight to build a place for herself and other women in the space program. She definitely didn’t have agency in that section, though, I agree with you there.

    • Chris Fine

      I agree here and the same concept can be applied to the other examples provided– a character’s lack of agency can be a chief narrative device, sometimes an absolutely necessary one. Generally, the criticism of a character lacking agency is lodged at their arc in total. It doesn’t seem valid to make a case for this by pointing out parts given it can only be made without the full context.

  3. Cay Reet

    With Coteries of New York, this is even stranger, because the selling point of a visual novel (with choices, unlike the kinetic novel which has none) is that choices matter and you will get a different end depending on your choices (which is a reason to play the novel more than once).

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Yeah it was super disappointing. It was both badly written and seemed to undercut the entire point of the medium.

      • Cay Reet

        It was. I’m a huge fan of visual novels and I’ve read both professional works and those of amateurs (The Adventures of Prince Ivan by Morgan Hawke is still one of my all-time favourites) and one of the big selling points for me is that you can reread the story, because with a few different decisions, you will get a new ending. Also, Cotieries has a pretty abrupt ending, as if the creators just ran out of time.

      • Martin Christopher

        Isn’t that the main problem of Vampire in general?

        • Cay Reet

          Vampire is a base for RPG gaming, so most of the time the actual stories are ‘written’ by the cooperation of DM and players.

          There have been two other Vampire PC games so far and both had very good writing (which is why, despite the closing of the studio which did it, “VtM – Bloodlines” is still high up on the list of many PC-RPG players).

  4. Nik

    Did the Wanderers show any inclination towards being Scotsmen before this happened? No? Oh…I’ll just…uh, show myself out then.

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