In my work with young people discussions have arisen over the years of the importance of empowerment to help create positive solutions for their future. Recently a useful tenet has been raised about the necessity of “agency” to be afforded to the young people we engage with. Giving agency means the instilling of hope and a sense of purpose, meaning and belonging in their worlds. Giving agency to the characters in our stories helps our narratives have a deeper meaning as well.
Sociologists (1) suggest that people experience agency in the context of actions oriented to the past, future and the present. The ‘past’ or “iterational” aspect of agency refers to how a person can selectively reactivate actions based on understanding from actions and thoughts from the past. This may include how people have actions in response to typical situations that help them sustain their interactions, identities and institutions over time. An example of this in our storytelling may be how a character we have created may be able to face and resolve circumstances at the end of their character arc simply because they have experienced other similar situations earlier in their story.
The ‘future’ or “projective” aspect includes how a person purposefully creates potential future. A character in our storytelling may dream, visualise, imagine, or self-talk about possible future trajectories of action connected to their fears, desires, and hope for the future.
The ‘present’ aspect of agency is the “practical-evaluative element”. It includes the capacity of people to make judgements and chose actions in response to a situation, demand or context. Characters we have developed need to be described with a reasonable ability to reason, have a will, and be shown to be able to function in the variable telling of their stories.
An example of agency from my work as a Chaplain helps explain this:
“James” was a student who was dropping out of school in year 10, experimenting with substance abuse, and had a horrific background. In a letter at the end of his schooling he related how the first session of meeting with me as his chaplain was enough for him to put aside the plans he had made to seriously harm himself. How this happened was through him regaining a sense of agency (or Hope) in what seemed a hopeless situation. We talked about how little successes from his past could help his future. We talked about the things he could practically action. He also came to recognise that he had people supporting him and to simply be there for him. James was not only helped though chaplaincy to get the support he needed he was empowered to help himself. James also joined a team helping other students and raised his own support to go on a Humanitarian project overseas helping others.
Empowering Agency in others changes the lives of those being supported, who in turn go on to help change the lives of others as well. A bit of a secret about empowering agency in my chaplaincy interactions is that it is not about having to “fix” the students I work with, but it means I am there to simply be a role-model that asks good questions that empower the students to design solutions for themselves. We do well to create the same type of environment and opportunities for our characters. For a student like James living without agency, your friends insist on you making bad decisions, the situation you are in seems hopeless, then you either cope or don't with the situation you've been put in. With agency, you get to work out what you want to do, then make a decision, then deal with the results of that decision. Agency linked with positive influences and empowerment helps design constructive futures.
The very same thing that agency means in real life, should be afforded to characters in our stories. Giving a character the opportunity to make decisions about what happens to them, rather than imposing a set of circumstances upon them and forcing them to react. When you give a character 'agency' you are also instilling in them the power to fulfill their destiny. Agency is self-determination. Characters can be an 'agent' of their own will. Giving agency means making sure a character has the ability to make choices that drive the story. The options a character has will depend on their history, skills, background, experience, status, training, etc. which are all great options to help embellish a narrative and to craft a deeper storyline. You want a character that can take action and not just be acted upon. Agency gives characters the ability to make choices. A character’s personality is revealed by their choices, not just by surface elements. What a character chooses when faced with a decision tells you who that character is. This is real, like life. It helps readers want to engage at a deeper level with a narrative. Agency also helps make it all flow. A story is more engaging, an adventure is more fun and a narrative more believable if the protagonist has options and reasons and the actions have consequences, and you help show all of this process.
A well-crafted story that gives agency to characters motivates the reader to lean in, read on and want more. It is engaging. More than this it could empower, equip, and get people mobilised. Agency turns your characters into ambassadors, it empowers protagonists to follow their dreams, sort out problems, and make a difference. A character who is relentless about getting it right, when everything else is not gives a sense of agency. Agency gives individuals in our narratives a will and a reason to want to leave a legacy.
All this ignites a mobilisation faithfulness in your readers, because it’s about inspiration, hope, meaning and purpose.
Are you ready and willing to give agency? Let me inspire you: Go and be an empowerer 😊
(1) Emirbayer, M. and Mische, A. (1998). "What Is Agency?". American Journal of Sociology. 103 (4): 962–1023.