Character Agency as an Element of Plot (AKA, Remember The Author Is God–Write Wisely)

Okay, it’s not Thursday, but this is an expansion on the Bonus Awesome Thing I linked to yesterday.  This is a Storify of the discussion about character agency and how it is an element of PLOT, not character.   Give it a gander.

This is another one of those awesome light bulb posts and it’s making me Think All The Things.  It’s something that seems so incredibly obvious once it’s pointed out–and then you feel stupid for not seeing it before.  It doesn’t matter how physically kick ass or ball-busting we make our sheroes (or any other character, for that matter–women aren’t the only ones who are marginalized) if we do not insert them into plots that give them an opportunity to act.  That’s not to say that these characters need to have it easy.  By all means, put them through hell.  But don’t tie their hands.  Leave a bobby pin and duct tape so they can McGuyver their way out of the crap situation.  That doesn’t always mean that these characters have to have that physical or mental strength.  It would actually make for a far more compelling read to have someone who feels like they have no control, like they can’t act grow to become someone who can, who takes control.

I think this is really important.  Women (and certainly other marginalized groups, but right now I’m thinking about women in particular) have been socialized for CENTURIES not to act.  We’re supposed to be the weaker sex.   We’re force-fed rescue fantasies practically from infancy.  We have this notion of a prince coming to save us from the drudgery of real life dangled in front of us as some kind of carrot on a stick.  And, sure, there’s some appeal to that.  Real life is WORK, y’all.  There’s no shame in wishing somebody’d come along to ease up the load.  And it seems to me that maybe this is where the huge popularity of these stories with these powerful, controlling men coming into the shero’s life and taking care of things comes from.  We’re socialized to want this, so it’s really craptastic for huge chunks of the populace to then turn around and get angry that a lot of women buy into it and bash them as stupid or somehow lesser.

I have largely steered clear of this kind of story.  I’ll try them from time to time, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with the sheroes of these kinds of stories, but invariably I end up putting the book down because she’s not participating in her own story.  I’ve always viewed that as being an inherent characteristic of the shero and associated that with weakness (which makes for an automatic wall thumper for me), but in light of Ms. Hoffmann’s points, the object of my ire ought to be with the author (well, okay either way my ire ought to be with the author–she being god of her own world) for having created a story in which the shero is NOT ALLOWED to act.  Because, quite outside the realm of fiction, this perpetuates the notion that woman in real life should just sit passively by while someone else makes decisions that impact them and their lives.  And that’s both a disservice and a waste of the potential power of fiction to enact change.

To my mind, story should be used to EMPOWER women.  I’d like to see these everyday sheroes exercising more caution when these powerful alpha males show up and start trying to run their lives.   Let’s have more stories of normal, everyday women who choose to act despite the fear, despite the difficulty of doing so.  Show everyday women finding their strength and learning that they can and should make decisions to control their lives (better yet, let’s pair them with powerful men who encourage the flexing of their autonomy).  Show them rising above their circumstances by their own actions, their own choices because those things have POWER and MEANING.  Too often, I think these stories end up sending the message that shero is in a life that somehow sucks but along comes a man who (in some manner or other) takes over and everything gets better–which therefore = women need a man to make it better and cannot rescue themselves (to which I instinctively call BULLSHIT) and trains women to relinquish control too easily.  The balance of power should not be automatically handed over to the nearest man just because he happens to exist.  Not that all men are inherently bad, but you’d best be damned sure you’ve got a good one if you’re going to trust him that far.

Writers, I encourage you to remember that it’s both your job and your privilege to create stories–use that power wisely!  So anyway, that’s where my brain is today.  I’m itching for discussion!  What do y’all think about all this?


12 thoughts on “Character Agency as an Element of Plot (AKA, Remember The Author Is God–Write Wisely)

  1. Wow, this is thought provoking. I’ve always felt like it was fine for a woman to let a man “save the day” as long as she could if she wanted to. There are a lot of things my husband does that I could do if I had to. I’m not sure if I’m making any sense. Women should be strong, but they should also allow themselves to lean on someone if they need to.

    I’ve never really thought about the plot being the problem instead of the characters. But this make perfect sense.

    1. I definitely gravitate more toward stories where women save themselves. But that’s me being a complete alpha female control freak. I would LOVE to see more Ever After type Cinderella stories.

      1. Oh god. The part of the film where she holds the sword on the guy, and threatens to split him from “nave to chops”? Priceless.

        Was going to say more, but…spoilers. 😉 AWESOME movie, btw, strongly recommend.

  2. I read your first essay on this with interest, and this one is even more thought provoking.

    Honestly, from what I remember, every book with a female protag that I really liked showed her having agency. Consistently and without any exceptions that I can remember. Books where the woman sits there doing nothing or being nonstop reactive, I found boring.

    When I write female characters, I make them proactive – they move the story, through what they do! I have a female protagonist UF novella series planned (first one is done) where basically she goes out pretty much from the first encounter with something nasty and kicks ass.

    But then, I am male. I’ve been raised to believe that protagonists should be active, not reactive. 😉

    1. I totally agree with that, Kevin, and definitely those are the sorts of protags that I like to write–which is why I am consistently mystified by the popularity of so many books/series wherein the female progatonists are NOT active. I’ve been on a kind of personal quest the last couple of weeks to try to parse out WHY they are popular.

      1. Why helpless protagonists are popular?

        I work in nursing (i.e. around a bunch of smart, college educated women). I can’t tell you how many smart, college educated women comment about Fifty Shades with things like “I wish someone would sweep me away like that”.

        I haven’t read the books, but I gather the idea is that he refuses to leave her alone, stalks her, inflicts psychological abuse upon her until she agrees to let him inflict physical abuse as well (if there is no informed consent, it’s abuse, not kink).

        I am UTTERLY BAFFLED why anyone would WANT someone to do that to them. I’ve been on the receiving end of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse. It is NOT fun. It is NOT something you wish on people that you don’t like, let alone on yourself.

        I suspect it has to do with people who have low self esteem wishing someone else would “take the reins” and control their life for them, because they don’t feel able to do so effectively for themselves. Which is tragic, and probably indicates a need for a good therapist…

        1. I hypothesize that SOME of it is that modern women have to take care of and juggle a LOT OF CRAP–more than our predecessors did in any other generation–jobs, bills, kids, housekeeping, etc.–because with women in the job force there are all the money issues AND all the “traditionally women’s work” kinds of things that have to be taken care of. And yeah, relationships ought to be about partnership and splitting things up in terms of division of labor, but that flat doesn’t happen for a lot of women. So I get the appeal of wanting to be free of that because it’s STRESSFUL. But for me, the fantasy is of suddenly winning the lottery so that I could pay off the bills, hire a housekeeper, quit one or both of the jobs and CONTROL MY OWN STUFF–NOT have some guy sweep in to do it for me. I don’t have a submissive bone in my body, and I so thoroughly and instinctively rebel at the idea of anybody controlling my life other than me that the trade off of having someone else take the stressors away is not worth the anxiety of giving up the control. But I’m not the average woman.

          1. You sound kind of like my fiancee. Attitude-wise, anyway. 😉

            You can’t make yourself free by abrogating responsibility. Life is stressful. Having someone else control every little thing you do is stressful AND unpleasant. You might not be the average woman, Kait – but you might be the average healthy one.

            The people who want someone else to run their life are as damaged (in their own way) as the people who make themselves feel bigger by controlling others.

            1. While I can certainly see the temptation, I think it’s unfair to frame it like that, as if 60% of women are somehow damaged. There’s very much a difference between consciously wanting someone to run things because of some kind of psychological pathology and an unconscious desire to be rescued that results from a lifetime of socialization. They aren’t damaged or somehow broken for being exactly what society made them. And the idea that they somehow ARE if they in any way buy in to this sort of thing is exactly what results in the opposite end of the spectrum–women like me who have so internalized the idea the masculine ideals of strength, independence, and control that we are absolutely unable to ask for or accept help without choking on it for fear that it somehow makes us weak.

              1. Ouch, wasn’t thinking about it that way. You really think it’s 60%?

                But yeah, I think you can be damaged by socialization. Or at least made less secure, less independent, less able to act on your own – and isn’t that damage? Maybe it’s not. In a society where one group is expected to act insecure and be co-dependent, maybe that is the healthy way to be? I don’t know. My gut says it is wrong, even if society says it is right.

                I don’t think you need to be on the opposite end of the spectrum, though… It’s OK to ask for help. It’s OK to need help sometimes. It doesn’t make you weak to need help (have you read “The Art of Asking” yet? good book). The difference between asking and begging is that asking can only come FROM a place of security and strength – and begging is from a place of helplessness and insecurity.

                1. Well 60% was one estimate I read in one article talking about women who admitted to having this sort of rescue fantasy. Don’t know the science behind it, so I don’t know whether the survey or study was psychometrically sound, but still the mass popularity of this trope in fiction is behind the best sellerdom of a HUGE chunk of the romance genre.

                  I definitely do think people can be damaged by socialization and think that it’s worth making efforts to change those messages to empower rather than inhibit, but getting angry (as many people seem to in this debate) at these women for having this fantasy isn’t really fair. It’s putting all the onus of responsibility for that perspective on the women themselves rather than on the environment that shaped them. It’s far more a complex system than that and would have to be addressed on a much broader level to change. Plus, people have a right to like what they like. I happen to despise pickles. Lots of people love them. It doesn’t hurt anybody either way (which is a gross over-simplification as the argument could be made that this rescue fantasy, taken to the extreme, could set up a certain subset of the population to be more prone toward becoming victims of abuse–which then also touches on the issue of responsibility there, which, again, seems to come back to the women themselves rather than putting any responsibility on the abusers for THEIR behavior–which is WAY outside the scope of where I was going with this).

                  As for the asking for help–that’s also not a simple thing. I’m a strong and capable woman, and I absolutely think I’m worthy of help (which some who can’t ask for help don’t believe), but I also have years and years of reinforcement that when I ask for help (a hard thing), the vast majority of people are going to say no, flake out, or otherwise not give me or do what I need when I need it, which pretty much just ends up making it easier to not ask at all and take an “if you want something done, you have to do it yourself” sort of tactic. One of the recurrent themes in MY work is the fantasy of that hero who intuits what the shero needs WITHOUT her having to ask and just doing it.

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