This week, Justin Landon, editor of Staffer’s Book Review, hosted a series of guest articles discussing and exploring the idea of “agency” in Science Fiction and Fantasy. The term means different things to different people, and many readers might not even recognize it when they see it, but it’s at the core of almost every successful novel. In particular, Landon was interested in applying the idea of agency against the role and development of female characters in Fantasy and Science Fiction, and how it differs from that of male characters.
Landon explains the genesis of the project:
I’ve noticed more and more authors lamenting the treatment of women in fantasy novels. Despite widespread agreement that there should be a more concerted effort to depict strong women, I wasn’t necessarily coming away with the impression that agency is something a character has to have.
So, Landon prompted several of Fantasy and Science Fiction writers with a few questions to encourage the discussion of character agency, how it affects the driving force of novels, and its role in the overall debate centred around gender and SFF. The questions were:
What is agency?
Why is it important?
Why do we find more male characters with agency in fantasy novels than females?
Is it OK if a character doesn’t have it?
Can a character still be interesting if it lacks it?
Can a book be good if none of the characters have it?
Landon has published the responses from several authors, with promises of more to come. Here’s a collection of their thoughts, along with links to the full articles:
Elizabeth Bear, author of Range of Ghosts:
Agency, as we use the term in literary circles, is–quite frankly–the thing that makes characters interesting to the reader. As much as we talk about tactics of characterization that may or may not appeal to any particular reader (making the character accessible, making them funny, making them identifiable)… the one thing that I have found that does not fail to connect to the audience is giving a character agency.
A lot of people use the term “strong female character” to mean “kickass heroine.” I think this is silly. In my estimation, one of the strongest women in Range of Ghosts never picks up a weapon. She’s a fourteen-year-old-girl who escapes execution for being pregnant with the wrong man’s child by running across a desert at night in her bedroom slippers.
That’s pretty damned tough. She wants to live, and she wants her child to live, and she does what she has to do to make it happen.
As for why female characters have it less often than male ones? Well, there’s an implicit assumption in the question that I’m not sure I agree with. Do they really? Does Lessa have less agency than F’lar? Does Juliet have less agency than Romeo? Does Jessica have less agency than Paul? Does Elizabeth have less agency than Mr. Darcy?
Women may have traditionally had to express their agency in more limited ways–but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. Just that they were pushing a bigger boulder uphill to express what they want, and their options on what to do to get it were more limited.
Michael J. Sullivan, author of The Riyria Revelations:
I would suspect that women (writing a review discussing female characters), are more likely to mention a lack of agency because they are more sensitive to the practice. But I also think people see what they want to see, and they will discount or ignore anything that refutes their pre-conceived notions. For example in the case of the review I previously mentioned, the reviewer pointed out that a young women who turned suicidal by the death of her father was a poor representation of women with agency. But this same reviewer didn’t mention how the girl took it upon herself to travel a great distance to hire men to save her father in the first place. Depending on your perspective, you can come to very different opinions on Thrace’s independence.
So why doesn’t agency come up in relation to men? Well mainly because men have always had agency and have been portrayed as such. I’m old enough to have lived through the feminist movement of the sixties and seventies, and my wife obtained an Electrical Engineering degree in 1984 when only three of her graduating class of several hundred had been women. For my daughter’s generation it’s hard to imagine a time when women’s choices were indeed limited, and if fact it wasn’t all that long ago. Since writing mirrors society, it will take time to balance the scales.
Actually, now that I think of it, many fantasy characters (both male and female) are subjected to a predetermined destiny. No matter what decisions they make, their fate is sealed and yet we often don’t jump to a criticism about lack of agency. I’m not sure what part this has played into sensitivities on the subject, but it might just go to show that there is a great deal of foundation that has been laid, and until there is a larger body of work showing strong-willed independent thinkers (especially women) we may continue to find those that take offense to any characters that lacks agency, even if it is done purposefully for dramatic effect.
Mazarkis Williams, author of The Emperor’s Knife:
But does a character stuck in an intensely plot-driven book lack agency? No; It just seems that way sometimes, because the story focus is elsewhere. And for me this is where agency and writing choices get mixed together, especially where female characters are concerned. There are cases in which a character truly lacks agency – based on her situation – and this is legitimate, though tricky to write. (And it should be temporary – characters are flat-out uninteresting if they can’t make choices and influence the path of events.) Other times, a character appears to lack agency because she exists only for plot-y reasons, or is badly written. ‘Badly written’ can include having a man, or a god, or anything else telling her what to do all the time. Technically she does not lack agency if she chooses to do whatever she’s told, but oh gods is it dull. And makes me raise my eyebrow at you (not really – I can’t do that cool thing with my eyebrow).
Anne Lyle, author of The Alchemist of Souls:
In genre fiction especially, many readers are looking for an escape from their mundane life, which is often one of passive reaction to circumstances beyond our control. Reading about a character who is similarly passive – lacking in agency – fails to satisfy that need. Through characters who have agency, or who struggle to attain it, we gain a glimmer of faith in our own ability to control our lives.
And, finally, two authors, Myke Cole and Kameron Hurley, offer direct answers to each of Landon’s questions:
Why do we find more male characters with agency in fantasy novels than females?
Kameron Hurley: It’s interesting that this question wasn’t an “if” question but a “why” question. Ten years ago (or on another blog, perhaps), it would have been an “if” question. Men’s experiences have been given greater weight and importance than women’s in both history and popular culture. It doesn’t take more than a couple history or English class reading lists to figure that out, if you didn’t already pick it up from general media. There’s a very long history of narrative that positions women and “Others” stories as subservient to the goals and desires of a male hero from the dominant culture. Prioritizing these experiences over those of others not only teaches women and those from disenfranchised groups that they their stories are less important, it also teaches men from the dominant culture that this is as it should be. It reinforces power imbalances and reduces alternative narratives.
Myke Cole: There’s a difference between females having less power/being oppressed and not having agency. Even females in the most dismal conditions (medieval settings, for example) can have incredible agency. In fact, it is a female’s ability to find ways to shape events, advance her goals and protect her interests in the face of a deck stacked horribly against her that shows the greatest agency of all.
A good example of this is Arya Stark in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Arya is both a female and a child in a society that isn’t particularly nice to either. Yet she exhibits incredible agency. She resists attempts to make her into a docile, compliant court lady and homemaker (like her sister Sansa). She faces down intense social pressure and threats to her life to carve her own path in spite of the obstacles laid before her. Contrast her with Sandor Clegane (“The Hound”) who, despite being a physically powerful male and a skilled warrior, basically just tugs his forelock and does whatever the depraved boy prince/king tells him. The small, female child shows incredible agency, while the socially enfranchised, physically powerful male warrior shows very little.
Societies can oppress females, discriminate against them, try to force them into subservient roles. But no one can take a female’s agency unless she lets them. Many would argue that women with great agency are more interesting, but I find Sansa Stark (who is almost bereft of all agency) FASCINATING. She’s fascinating the way watching a car wreck is fascinating, but it’s still a great story.
It’s a huge topic, especially once Landon and the gathered authors begin to dig into the different ways in which agency is handled in combination with gender, and the answers given are many and varied. Hopefully this gives you something to chew on for the weekend. If you’re a writer (aspiring or established), hopefully it encourages you think even harder about your characters, why they act the way that they do, why they respond to situations and plot developments in certain ways, and how their motivations help move along the plot of your novel/story/film/comic. It’s certainly been helpful for me with my own work-in-progress.
What are your thoughts on “character agency?” How do you feel it differs in male and female characters?
I’ll be keeping an eye on further responses at Staffer’s Book Review, which will be coming over the course of next week, and hope to see more discussion of this topic in other venues.