Agency in storytelling and character motivation.

What is meant by agency?

Anticipating agency in life is humans' genetic disposition, but this cannot be met in our complex world. We can resolve this worry by reading stories written with deep structure or such stories that give us comfort and agency. Or, in a complicated world where humans' genetic disposition to feel agency is not met, they can find comfort in the stories they read.

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Let me start by explaining what 'agency' is.  A rustle in the bush or a noise from any part of the house makes us turn around immediately to look.  We look for what caused the event.  This reflex is a safety mechanism, an evolutionary make-up, or a mechanism.  As experts put it, before Homosapiens lived in houses, the individuals (hunter-gatherers) with this reflex probably lived longer.  And because of that advantage, it stood a better chance of getting passed on to their genes.   

In other words, in the vast savannas, those who looked around at the break of noise (a tiger) and took to run away lived longer than those who didn't follow suit.  Humans have learned to look for a reason for anything happening around us- for causality.  This is also a social learning.

Image of African Savanna
Image credit to Gregory Fullard Unsplash.

So, by having agency, "We look for the person or thing responsible for any action or phenomena we experience: we seek to ascribe agency to what we perceive." In other words, We humans have a built-in predisposition to expect agency. 

As I said, having an inbuilt safety mechanism is an advantage in human life.  However, this safety mechanism has complex ramifications in our lives, which I will discuss later.  Here, we look at how stories provide readers with agency.

I mentioned earlier that humans want to feel agency in every incident or happening in their lives.  In reality, however, this expectation is not met.  Our lives and the world are too vast and complex to understand the agency or what causes every phenomenon.   This puts us in perpetual insecurities and makes us scared to live in a complicated world where we do not feel agency in everything happening around us.  

A World of Complexity Image credit to Casey Homer Unsplash

Don't worry about that because we have the stories.  They are the best bet to help us escape this fear of randomness.  They provide us with a feeling of agency and security, comfort and interest.  In other words, a story progressing without agency does not interest us, as it does not provide comfort and escape.  Stories also provide us with the best survival chances.  

So, the stories immerse us in a world of comfort and security, in the natural world of complexities and fear.  The question is, How do they do that?  They give us the 'why factor' or the cause and effect in their deep structures.  

Characters with agency.

We all know what story structure means.  A critical step in story structure is character motivation.   The characters in a story should have agency.  In other words, "a character's agency is the capacity, condition, or state of acting or executing power." The protagonist's action is determined by their agency.  

A character with agency acts and sets a chain of events, and the story progresses to reach the goal.  If they do not have the agency, they cannot get the goal themselves; they only allow things to happen to them.  They only perform in the 'bystander' role as someone should come to assist them, and the story turns dull.  

I want to bring in some problems in creating female characters who are not entitled to agency in the society in which they live.  Anna Mazzola writes about the complexity of assigning agency to female characters whose "lives might well have been heavily circumscribed with male family members making decisions as to who they should marry, and where and how they should live."

Such was a situation I faced while considering my protagonist.  The protagonist in my novella, Under the Bakula Tree, is a female living under male and family control.  Imagine if I did her act against circumscribing society and a family, executing powers to move ahead and achieve her goal of freedom and love.  That would not be agreeable to society and the readers.  The story would be flawed.  But I gave her the desire, the sisterhood I created, did the act, and achieved the goal.   I read Mazzola's post long after I published my story.  

Gossip and character motivation.

One clue the facilitators in our creative writing course indicated was to eavesdrop on others using the available chances.  Say when you're in a restaurant.   As storytellers, we are trying to figure out the motivations in others' lives.  

We are social beings.  We live in societies, and we all gossip, which has a purpose.  Gossip helps us understand the motivation of others in our social group so that we can adapt our actions to bring the best result for us.  Stories are similar but work by examples.  The characters in the story do not live in our society, but figuring out their motivation gives us comfort and a feeling of safety and helps us learn social skills.

The purest form of storytelling. 

The purest form of storytelling is the most post-popular stories.  Crime stories are considered the purest form of storytelling and the most popular.  There is causality, characters have agency and motivation, and there is no redundancy.  The story events progress to fulfill character motivation.  Every scene will explain why a thing happens and give the readers clues regarding the story's outcome.  


We are talking here about agency; we have a genetic predisposition to expect agency.  Unfortunately, in a vast life of complexities, we cannot fulfil this expectation, which causes perpetual insecurity and fear.   Stories, in their deep structures, provide us with a solution.  

The critical factor in the story structure is character motivation.  Characters with agency and desires can drive the events in a story to achieve goals and give us agency and comfort in the random, complex world.  Motivated characters provide us with comfort and social skills.  They help us survive in a fearful, complex society.  

Have you encountered a problem of creating a protagonist with no agency in their social life?  How have you overcome that?