I often come back to a note I received early in my writing career. I had just turned in a manuscript, one that I felt particularly good about, and I was awaiting the heaped praises of the awed masses in light of my literary genius.
As you may have guessed, it did not go so well.
I got an email not longer after, with the subject line: Hey. That's always good.
The body of the email opened with some pleasantries, praise for my ambition, and a little love for an obscure character I had thrown in last minute. Then the reader went into some harsh truths.
My characters were puppets.
Now, if you're writing some crazy urban fantasy in which your hero is turned into a puppet and forced to fight demons, more power to you. In fact, I'll read that book 45 times TODAY. But that's not what was meant.
My characters found themselves in a slew of dangerous situations. They found themselves falling in love, descending into hatred, and beset by woes on all sides. What they did not find, along with my reader, was a moment when a decision they made mattered.
My characters didn't affect the story. The story merely happened to them.
If you hang around with authors long enough (and you should, we're not bad people) you will eventually hear the term "agency." In the most basic sense, Agency is the ability of the character to affect their world by the decisions they make. Agency is a character making a choice, and that choice driving the story for a few chapters. Agency is action, not dialogue. Agency is being more than a prop.
Many writers flub this on their first try. Most flub it on their fiftieth try. It is a deceptively tricky element to perfect in storytelling.
Without agency, characters have no stake in the story. Sure, not stopping Deathbringer Doomfist III might lead to the end of the world, but if our main character just stumbles through each set-piece, what do we even care? Handsomeface and Prettylady make a cute couple, but their relationship is just a series of coincidences, so what does it matter?
Agency is critical in bringing your characters to the forefront of the story. And (as you may have figured out from the banner) Black Panther did a fantastic job affording agency to its characters.
This isn't a review of BP, but spoilers are ahead. So be warned.
Now, Black Panther is not a perfect movie. No movie is. It's simply impossible to make something that checks all the marks and avoids any of the pitfalls. That is especially true with studio-designed movies, such as the MCU or DCU series. Additionally, you cannot please everyone. Some reviewers have rightly pointed out the negative portrayal of Black Americans versus Royal Africans in the film. However, you have to admit that agency is not one of the flaws.
As we mentioned above, agency is making decisions, taking actions, and affecting the plot. T'Chala's decision to fight Killmonger--when he could have simply exiled him--affected the story. For me, it was a great character moment for the superhero/king.
T'Chala opens the movie in awe of his father. The late King was a monolith, a perfect ruler, a literal god ruling over the next world. But then the cracks start to show. T'Chala learns of his father's real life, of the burdens of power, of the lies we tell to those we love. His decision to risk his life and fight his cousin is a part of his journey. T'Chala from the beginning of the movie would have dismissed Erik. The previous King had no skeletons in the closet, so clearly Killmonger is a liar, and that's the end of that. But now there are cracks in the facade, and T'Chala needs to find out the truth for himself.
That is agency. That is making a decision. And that decision has dire consequences.
I would be remiss to even mention Black Panther without bringing up the incredible performances of Lupita N'yongo, Letitia Wright, and Danai Gurira (to name a few). If you ever need a crash course in writing strong female characters, look no further.
Okay, quick aside here: Strong Female Character does not mean physical strength. I think we talked about this a week or so ago, but it begs repetition. Strong Female Character should really be seen as STRONG CHARACTER: A fully formed person with opinions, desires, and drives not tethered to the story. General Okoye isn't "strong" because she can fight. She's strong because of her convictions and actions throughout the film. Shuri isn't strong because she dons armor. She's strong by knowing her talents and using them to win battles. Nakia isn't strong because she fights. She's strong because she pursued her passions and follows her instincts.
Anyway, one moment in particular strikes me as an incredible feat of agency.
At the end of the film, we have a grand battle stretching across the Wakandan capital. Shuri and Nakia fight Killmonger while T'Chala and Okoye face off against the kingdom. At one point in the battle, a rival leader (W'Kabi, portrayed brilliantly by Daniel Kaluuya) summons enormous rhinos to the field. They wreck shit.
W'Kabi is Okoye's lover, and we've already seen how she struggles with loyalty. When Killmonger "killed" T'Chala, she knew her duty was to stand by him, even as she hated him. But now her loyalties are torn. Killmonger (and his Wakandan allies) threaten the stability of the world. They threaten her friends.
W'Kabi charges at M'Baku (Winston Duke), aiming to end the battle in the bloodiest way possible, and Okoye STEPS IN FRONT of the rhino.
Why is this agency?
How many stories do you know where a character is hit by a car (or other mode of transportation)? I'm sure the number is higher than you think. Now, how many of those incidents are accidental? Or, more specifically, coincidental?
A character falling off the road and getting hit by a bus isn't a tragedy. It's bad writing. A character falling off the road because they bent down to pick up a quarter, because between the medical bills and the divorce they are seriously hurting for money, and after facing the potential of bankruptcy they had delved deep into the self-help section of their local library and found a book that instructed them to "pick up every penny," and maybe they think this quarter is necessary to their very survival, but oh no it's too far out in the road and there's a bus and oh the hubris of man! That's a tragedy. A character made a decision, and that decision led to good or ill.
Okoye sees the rhino charging. She knows what it can do. She sees her lover on the rhino, and a man she once called an enemy in the destructive path. This is the moment of ultimate loyalty, a question of character that she can't stumble into.
And she STEPS IN FRONT OF THE RHINO.
Do you see how that's character? How that is agency? How that is heroic?
When we talk about agency, we mean something like this. Because of her actions, the charge stops. Okoye confronts her lover, and he has seen concrete evidence of her convictions. There is no confusion as to where she stands, and you can see he respects that. It may be the end for them, but they part truly knowing each other.
Okay, I don't want to gush over movies for too long. You guys get it. Or, if you don't, ask. I'm happy to talk about this for hours. Also, go see Black Panther.