296 – Agency and Proactivity
A universal rule of storytelling is that the main character’s choices need to matter; that’s agency. However, a main character doesn’t always have to be working on their own goals; that’s proactivity. How do these aspects interact? Can you have a character with agency but without proactivity? What about the reverse? This week we’re talking about all that and more, plus a breakdown of what characters are most likely to be missing both.
Generously transcribed by Alex. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast, with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.
Chris: This is the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Chris and with me is…
Chris: And in this podcast, we’re all just going to be silent because we’re waiting for somebody else to say something. Pretty soon you’ll be wondering why we even have a podcast, and you certainly won’t leave feeling satisfied with our content.
Oren: On the other hand, this is going to be the easiest podcast we’ve ever recorded, so sounds good to me.
Chris: We don’t have to make any tough decisions or decide on any topics. We can just wait for somebody else to do it.
Wes: Did you even hit record? Do we need to do that? Or is somebody gonna do it for us?
Oren: Who knows? Maybe it happened, but it doesn’t matter because it was always going to happen. And I did it while I was on autopilot. Who knows?
Chris: So this time we’re talking about agency and proactivity. We talk a lot more about agency than proactivity, but proactivity is a good thing to include because people tend to mix them up. And so this allows us to clarify what is the difference between the two of them.
A character has agency if they make choices that influence the outcome of events. A character is proactive if they take initiative during the story to achieve their goals. Whereas a character that decides whether to fight or run after a monster attacks them, they do have agency, but they’re not proactive because they’re just responding to a monster attack. Unless that monster is just so powerful, it’s ripping through everybody, and we’re pretty sure that it really doesn’t matter what this character does, they’re just going to get instantly eaten regardless of what action they take then they don’t have agency because they didn’t affect the outcome of events.
But if that same character then turns around and decides to hunt the monster down in their lair, now they’re proactive instead of reactive. But they can be both proactive and reactive and still have agency.
Oren: And most characters will take turns being one or the other over the course of the story. There are different layers to how active or reactive you might be.
Like Frodo, for example, is mostly reactive. He’s reactive at the start of the story because Sauron is the one threatening to change the status quo by conquering all of the armies of light and what have you. So Frodo has to react to that by taking the ring to Mount Doom, which is definitely agency because he chose to do that, but it’s also reactive.
But then if you zoom in on the smaller scale, there are places where Frodo is proactive. Like at the end of Book One, where he decides to go on without the Fellowship. Nothing was forcing him to make that decision. He decided it was the best course of action, and that’s him being proactive.
Chris: Wes, I saw you had put in your notes…I don’t know if it was more dictionary definitions of the words. Do you want to read those? Because I kind of liked that.
Wes: I just liked agency: a person has a capacity to exert power. And power, I think, is kind of a key word there. Proactivity – the keyword that I kind of honed in on that you’re both talking about and here the character can anticipate future problems, needs, or changes; The action is acting in anticipation of. And that just, I think, speaks really well to somebody being able to exert their power by identifying things in stories and saying, like Frodo, realizing that this ring corrupts, and I need to get away from people to avoid a future problem because I saw what happened with Boromir. That’s a great demonstration of proactive agency.
Chris: It is really hard to have a proactive character without agency.
Wes: You can have characters without agency, but so much of it has to happen in the moment.
Chris: I guess if the character takes initiative, but nothing they do ever makes any difference to anything. [Laughter] That would be a character that would be proactive without agency. That’s not a thing that normally happens. That would be a pretty interesting situation.
Oren: I’ve read some client works that are…it’s not completely different than that.
Chris: We were talking about puppeteers. Puppeteers create severe agency problems. They’re not super proactive, but some proactivity without any agency. They’re proactively trying to solve a problem. They don’t get anywhere because they’re not allowed to.
Oren: There’s no turning point that shows why they fail. It’s just like, “Oh, well, we’re going to try to investigate this.” It’s like, “Well, sorry. You’re not allowed to get that information yet.” So it doesn’t work.
Chris: There’s not even a conflict. It’s like, “Hey, we finally got a body we can dissect.” “Sorry, the body disappeared.” [Laughter] They didn’t even have a chance to prevent it from disappearing. It didn’t disappear because they failed at something. It’s just gone off screen.
We’re kind of at different levels here where agency is a more lenient criteria than proactivity is, and it’s also much more necessary then proactivity. Without agency, the turning point doesn’t work, and the turning point is one of the three things that we say every story must absolutely have. It has to have a problem. It has to have a turning point, and it has to have a resolution. And the turning point is the most exciting moment in the story and what makes the story feel satisfying if it works out.
The story’s really unsatisfying without agency. It basically feels like the protagonist succeeded because of luck or failed because of luck.
Oren: I’ve seen a number of stories that have sad endings, and they’re frustrating to read, not because of the sad ending, but because it feels like the only way the author could get that to happen was by denying their protagonist of any agency. Instead of showing how you fail, which is hard, I’m going to have you not do anything or have nothing you do matter for like the entire story. And then “At the end, it’s very sad that you lost.” I’m just glad the story’s over at that point. It’s just very unpleasant.
Chris: It’s worth noting that people do not like protagonists that don’t have agency. They find them really frustrating. Even if you try to create a situation where it’s not that character’s fault, people are just like, “Why didn’t they do something? Why didn’t they do this? Why didn’t they take control?” They don’t like the character. They don’t want to be reading about somebody who’s totally helpless and is not doing anything. And they start asking why isn’t the story about the characters that are actually exerting power.
Oren: Right. And often that is the case. Often there really is a situation where this story should be about this character because they’re the one with the agency. They’re the one whose choices matter, and the protagonist isn’t.
Chris: I’m reminded of…just think about how forgettable a main character that just doesn’t have any agency is…was Neverwhere. Because every other character in that book, except the main character, is so unforgettable. I can’t remember his name. It was probably like Richard or something like that. It’s a portal fantasy. He goes through the cracks of London or whatever, but everyone else is more interesting in that story. And I don’t remember anything he did other than follow them. But I remember Door was cool, and the Marquis was cool, and the bad guys were very memorable.
Oren: Shadow has a problem like that in American Gods. Shadow’s just along for the ride for most of the story. It almost feels like a failed Watsonian point of view character.
Wes: At least Watson gives us something though.
Oren: Even though, it’s weird because…even though Odin or Wednesday is actually the main character of American Gods, we couldn’t have a point of view of Wednesday because then we would get the reveal spoiled too early. So we ended up getting stuck with Shadow.
It just feels like playing an RPG where you have to follow the GM’s favorite MPC around and watch them do stuff. [Laughter]
Wes: Yup. Oh man. That’s exactly right.
Oren: It’s just not fun, and I just don’t want to do it.
Chris: You talked about one reason, again, missing agency is a really common problem. It’s also a very severe problem. We have the one reason where somebody is trying to do some Watsonian POV thing, which almost never works. Or they’re also called supporting protagonists sometimes where we have one POV character, but the main character was supposed to be somebody different. Again, when the main character is somebody different, we don’t understand them. We don’t empathize with them. We care about the character that we’re in their head and we understand what they’re doing and why. And if that character doesn’t have agency, it’s going to be frustrating. We don’t want the main character to be Wednesday. We want the main care to be Shadow. Usually. I’m not gonna say there’s never an exception to that rule, but it does not usually work out.
Another example we’ve also discussed in the past is a side character who is stealing the show. So we’ve talked about puppeteers, which are again, the worst case for this, but mentors and male love interests are also very common culprits of stealing agency and just coming in and solving all the problems that the main character should be solving.
And I think a lot of times this happens because the storyteller just doesn’t really know how to plot quite yet. They might have trouble figuring out… “Wait, how does my character resolve conflict? How do I create a difficult problem that my character can still solve?” And they just don’t know what to do, and they come up with blanks. And so to try to fix it and move the story along, they just have a mentor show up and just like, “Hey, the mentor happens to know the answer,” and just tells the protagonist what to do. That doesn’t work. But the storyteller, if they’re just starting out with plotting, they may not realize that. They’re just trying to figure out how to move their story forward.
Oren: Or I would say the kind of inverse of that, which I think is more common in published works. I think usually by the time they get to publishing, most writers have figured out that the mentor shouldn’t be solving the problem. But the inverse is that it feels like the mentor should have solved the problem, [Laughter] but didn’t because the author knows he’s not supposed to. And that is just contrived, right? At that point you either have a main character with no agency or a problem with a contrived solution.
Chris: This is the issue with child characters. A lack of agency is definitely more common when the main character is a woman or child. We have this whole cultural attitude about dudes being loners that can’t depend on other people, which is not great, but it does help with storytelling and giving a character agency.
Oren: Specifically with romantic interests, there’s also some very toxic baggage around how men are sexy for what they do, and women are sexy because men will do things for them, if you’re heteronormative like that, which most of these stories are. And so at that point, it’s very easy for the main character to be sidelined because the author is like, “I really want to show how sexy this dude is. He’s got muscles, but also he’ll defeat the main bad guy for her. Isn’t that romantic?” I was like, I wanted her to defeat the main bad guy. Why is the story about her if she’s not going to defeat the main bad guy? Romance, I guess.
And then child characters, of course, have the more practical problems of children shouldn’t be dealing with life and death situations. They just shouldn’t. If they have parents who care about them, their parents will try to prevent that from happening.
Chris: There was this really weird scene in Madoka Magica, which we’re just watching through again. It’s an excellent show, but it has this one episode that feels oddly like half of it is filler, which is very strange. And there’s a scene with Madoka and her mom. You know what her mom thinks is a huge hurricane or something outside, which we know is a very deadly, magical threat that is affecting the entire city. They have this discussion about Madoka going out into it where she’s just like, “I have to do this mom, and I want to protect you and dad.”
Oren: She’s like 12, I think.
Chris: And they’re trying to make this look like a good relationship moment between them where she can like…no, no level of explanation is sufficient. Her mother should simply not be convinced by this. They even have her start by sneaking off to the bathroom. They could have just cut it out and she’s like, “Hey, I have to go to the bathroom,” and then she sneaks out of the building.
Oren: It’s like they really wanted the mom to be important in the story, but she doesn’t know about the magical girls, so there isn’t really any particular connection that she has with it. The same reason why they knew to cut out Madoka’s non-magical girlfriends before the end. They’re not in the story anymore. But for some reason, the mom is still around. We get like a scene between the mom and Madoka’s teacher. All of us were really wondering what was going on with that teacher.
Chris: Again, this is a masquerade setting, so she doesn’t have any explanation for why it’s actually essential for the survival of the city that Madoka go out into this hurricane or something. You have to find some reason why the parents are gone or something.
Oren: I do have a post about this. I have an article about ways to get rid of parents without killing them, which I think you might find useful.
Chris: Another thing I want to loop back on that sometimes storytellers struggle with that causes them to get rid of a character’s agency besides just like, “I don’t know how the character’s going to solve this problem.” There’s also, “I don’t know how to get the protagonist where they’re supposed to be positioned for the plot to work. I need them to be over there.” But instead of giving the protagonist a reason to go there, they have another character come in and control them. “Here, I’m going to drag you over here.” You’ve got to find a reason why the protagonist wants to do this, why they would choose to do this. It can be reactive, but it has to come from there.
And a lot of these problems can be solved just by making the character more proactive. The character doesn’t have to be proactive, but a lot of times, especially when we see these women characters just being overshadowed by everybody else and being told what to do and all their problems are solved for them, encouraging the storyteller just to make them proactive. Here’s what their goals are and proactively choose how they’re going to figure out that problem, really helps a lot. Because, again, it’s hard to make your character proactive and not give them agency.
Oren: One thing to think about when you’re looking at proactivity versus reactivity is that reactive characters tend to be trying to maintain the status quo, and proactive characters tend to be trying to change it. And again, these are averages. As we pointed out, most characters are reactive at some points and proactive at other points, but as a whole, that’s how you can define a proactive versus reactive character. Of course, the joke in Dr. Horrible is that the status is not quo. [Laughter] And that is often correct. And that doesn’t mean that all of your characters always have to be trying to change the world because things can get worse too. Stopping them from getting worse is also important, but it can be very powerful to have characters who are trying to make things better, especially if you’re trying to send some kind of political message, that could be very helpful.
Wes: It’s also just more interesting. Because if you’re reacting to events to maintain, most readers will be like, “Okay, you’re only dealing with these problems as they come at you. Are you going to get ahead of it and stop these problems from recurring?”
Oren: Although in that case, what often ends up happening there is that you have a character who is reactive primarily but will take proactive steps to address the problem. So, that’s like, “I’m living in my country, and there’s a military dictator trying to take over.” Eventually I realized that I can’t just play defense. I have to go on the attack, and that’s being proactive, but you’re still trying to maintain the status quo of your country, which is not being ruled by a military dictator. That is a good status quo to maintain, but in some cases it can get a little difficult, especially if you’re trying to do some kind of complicated political show.
Legend of Korra had this problem, the Legend of Korra’s first and third season in particular. The second season – no one knows what’s happening in the second season. But in both the first and third season, you have the show showing us there are these problems and in a way to make the villains more sympathetic so that we would be more invested in it. And then the characters fighting to maintain the status quo and not really doing anything about it. And that makes them come off as pretty heartless. It’s like, “Yeah. Okay. You stopped Amon and Zaheer, and they were bad, but you didn’t improve all of the problems that they were trying to fix.” And so then your story kind of feels like you’re trying to encourage people to not solve problems in real life, which is kind of an ugly thing that I don’t think you want.
Chris: So I think another really useful way to think about proactivity and reactivity is about the feeling that you’re trying to create for the story or for those particular moments in the story. And it’s really a lot about empowerment. Proactivity feels very empowering. Whereas reactivity feels disempowering. Sometimes when I talk about agency, I will get people asking me questions: “My main character is in this super disempowered situation. Do they need agency?” It’s like, okay, well, reactivity is the tool that storytellers use for those situations. You can still make your character feel disempowered, even though technically they do have power they are exerting if they are reactive.
Some stories use that to have some moods over others. The big notable one is horror movies. Horror movies usually, for a good section of the movie, most of the movie, have very reactive characters because the emphasis is on how powerful the threat is in comparison to the characters. And so that reactiveness enhances that sense of threat that horror really is known for. But you’ll also notice that by the end of a horror movie, usually the protagonist grabs some weapon and takes the fight to the monster because I think that the longer you have that reactivity from the character, the more satisfying it is to see them become proactive. When we watch our protagonist be disempowered throughout the entire story, we really want to see them be empowered. I have trouble thinking of a story that is reactive all the way through, or even just ends on an incredibly reactive note. Usually the protagonist becomes proactive at some point.
Oren: Especially in longer stories. In very short ones, you might be able to get away with the protagonist reacting the whole time, but if it’s longer than a short story, and even in a short story, you might be pushing it. But I’ve read some horror short stories that worked fairly well and didn’t really ever have the protagonist become active. But again, because they were very short, there’s only so much time I’m willing to spend watching the character react to things before finally having them do something, even if it ends in failure.
Chris: I covered The Matrix. I have an article on proactivity and reactivity, and it covered The Matrix, which is a really great example that helps distinguish between them and agency, and the difference in the field that they give. In The Matrix, Neo always has agency. He never doesn’t have agency. But in the beginning, before the lead up to the climax, he is quite reactive. There’s a theme of Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole, lost in this world she can’t understand, that’s used to disempower him and make him feel like he’s out of his depth. But he still uses agency. But the agency is often limited to very specific choices that he takes at different junctures that do affect the outcome of events.
For instance, should he follow the white rabbit is an interesting distinction. Usually if a character is just doing what somebody else tells them to do, they don’t have agency. They’re just following directions that somebody else made for them. But in this particular case, these directions are not coming from a trustworthy mentor, which is usually the case. They’re coming from random texts on his computer that he might’ve dreamed.
Oren: [Sarcastically] Do you not just do whatever that text says? I’m confused.
Chris: It’s a lot more questionable to follow the directions of random texts that you might have imagined on your computer. That actually implies more agency on his part because he’s taking an unusual choice that shows more personality. Later he has to make a choice about…he’s at work, and the agents are in the building, and he’s given a choice between either you’re going to get caught by the agents, or you can scale the outside of this building and it’s really dangerous and you might fall to your death. He makes the choice to just get taken by the agents.
Oren: We should have brought that up in our subversive stuff from last episode. That’s such a subversive moment. I love it. It’s so not what you expect him to do, but it makes perfect sense. That part’s great. Hot take – Matrix, good movie.
Chris: And it’s also used to contrast with his behavior later. He does something entirely different later. And then of course we have the famous “should he take the red pill or blue pill” scene. So we have several junctures where he’s just reacting, but everybody gives him a choice. If he followed the white rabbit, and he scaled the building, and he took the red pill, it would actually be more questionable because it would feel more like he’s just going along.
Oren: Right, he just does whatever people tell him to do.
Chris: So the choice to be taken by the agents instead of scaling the buildings is actually really important in establishing that he has will beyond what Morpheus wants for him. And then of course we have the moment in The Matrix that is very notable in which he suddenly becomes proactive. It’s like, “Stop. We’re not killing Morpheus. No you think we have to, but I can save him. Bring me guns.” And then they proactively stormed the lobby.
Oren: This is also the part where Trinity’s Trinity Syndrome is complete. It’s like, “Ah, I thought I was the one with all the experience and qualifications to…No? Okay, good job, Neo. You do what you gotta do.”
Chris: That’s a good example of the difference between agency and proactivity. And again, it’s really satisfying when he becomes proactive because he was so reactive in the beginning, but he always had agency.
Oren: One thing to talk about with characters who are more proactive from the beginning…This is a thing that I see a lot of people talk about, especially since I tend to hang out in more leftist and progressive spaces online where everyone talks about wanting to do that, but it is a little bit more difficult for a bunch of reasons. One is that if your character is setting out to make changes, it implies they’re already fairly empowered, at least if you want the audience to think they have any chance of actually accomplishing those changes, which again, it’s not impossible. You can do that. But it does make your work harder because then you have to work harder to create a situation where your protagonist faces seemingly impossible odds and triumphs anyway. They’re already quite powerful. And then of course you also get into some issues of change in real life tends to happen gradually. It doesn’t usually happen all at once because of something one person did. And so it can be difficult to set up convincing scenarios where that’s the case. So again that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. It just means that you need to think about the reasons why this isn’t more common.
Chris: Usually some change in the world can really help…something changed, and that opened up this opportunity that wasn’t available before, and the character is the first person to take advantage of it.
Oren: I’m also a big fan of different characters are fighting to change things in different ways. I think that can be a lot of fun. I think that can be a great way if you want to create a story that doesn’t have a traditionally evil antagonist. That’s a good way to do it. You can still have an antagonist, but they wouldn’t necessarily be trying to destroy all kittens or whatever.
Chris: Yeah, antagonists that want to destroy kittens are a problem. Not kittens exactly. But it’s like, why does the antagonist want to destroy the world? How does that benefit the antagonist exactly? We don’t know.
Oren: They’re just evil, okay? They’re evil, and they’re in a Marvel movie. So instead of selling their super shrink tech to the military for billions of dollars, they will sell it to much worse funded terrorist organizations. They’re committed to being evil, a specific kind of evil. If you sell it to the American military, that’s a different kind of evil you’re perpetuating, but that’s a different podcast altogether.
Wes: So where does survival come in on this agency-proactive bit. And I’m thinking of Katniss Everdeen [who] has a lot of agency early on by stepping in for her sister when she didn’t have to. But then the Hunger Games themselves, she’s kind of having to react to the demands of the Hunger Games. And I know that there’s another big moment that we didn’t see at the end with Peeta, but survival as a way to demonstrate agency just doesn’t seem enough to me. There has to be something else going on.
Chris: I think you might be reacting to reactivity. Again, if the character is nothing but reactive, after a while you’ll crave them being proactive because that’s more empowering. And certainly Katniss is thrown in a situation that is far beyond her control in many ways. But when she’s in the ring, she’ll do things like, “I really want that bow and arrow that’s in the cornucopia at the center of the competition area that’s being protected by this other group.” She’ll proactively go after supplies.
What you said earlier about anticipating is really important because a big sign of proactivity is planning. The character that makes the plans is always a proactive character. What I’m saying is make your character Sokka. [Laughter]
Wes: But don’t make every character Sokka.
Chris: Don’t make every character Sokka please, or you’ll end up with Dragon Prince.
Oren: I would say that in general survival is a fairly reactive situation. But as with every story, there will be moments of proactivity if you want it to be satisfying. Katniss is reacting to what the State is doing. And at least in the first book, she isn’t really trying to change the status quo. She is just trying to survive, but to do that, she has to be proactive. She can’t just make choices every time someone else presents her with one.
Wes: It’s the horror movie thing all over again.
Chris: But I do think this leads back a bit into some of the stuff Oren was talking about earlier with sometimes the setting has problems that are very serious that the story doesn’t address. And in The Hunger Games, obviously the existence of the Hunger Games is a big problem, and the series addresses it. It’s not addressed in the first book. The first book could leave anyone craving to see that change in the world because there’s a wrong. There’s a problem that’s been introduced that hasn’t been resolved.
There are some books, unfortunately, that just have terrible things happening in the world (oppression, et cetera) as window dressing. Why did you put that in there if you didn’t want to do anything with it? The Hunger Games does do it, but the first book is just surviving.
Oren: Another reason why I think The Hunger Games works fairly well in that is that it doesn’t feel like Katniss was ever in a position to fix anything about the structural situation of the Hunger Games. Whereas Korra is definitely in a position to improve the situation of non-benders, and she just doesn’t for some reason. And then of course there’s heavy foreshadowing that we will be dealing with this more in the next Hunger Games book. As opposed to just like “Nah, whatever we’re done with that.”
Chris: You can get a sense for how the characters are treating it and whether there’s specific attention being paid to that thing being a bad thing that should be addressed or not if it’s let go and it’s just forgotten about. That certainly doesn’t make it seem like the storyteller is going to address it. Whereas if it’s obviously essential to the story and an ongoing theme in the way that characters talk about problems. If you have oppression window dressing and the characters are making a false equivalence like in City of Brass where we have this really, really over the top terrible oppression happening, and it’s weird the way that it’s treated. You can tell that that is not a serious thing that the storyteller wants to tackle simply by the fact that the characters are not really taking it seriously enough.
We talked about how if you have a character that is disempowered, you can still have agency. There are, however, limits. And sometimes I do find that storytellers, they think of things that are just inherently frustrating to the audience. I won’t say most of the time to never do anything in any circumstance, but when something is as important as agency, you have to be so committed to that, that’s what your story is about. Your story is about helplessness, and you’re willing to frustrate your audience in order to achieve that end because that is the only way to achieve it. So you have to be in a very extreme situation in which that makes sense. And so there are some things that you just can’t do with your main character and have your audience fully engaged with your story. They have to make important choices. They can’t just make no decisions and decide nothing and do nothing. The plot does have to move forward and make progress.
Do you have a character that is maybe in recovery from an injury? They have to do nothing for a little while. You can summarize that part. It’s not like you can’t have that happen. It’s just that if you spend several chapters on that, that’s going to be really frustrating. Readers are gonna wonder why they’re spending those chapters when nothing is happening. So you’re going to have to fast forward a little bit. Those are the limitations of stories and the rules of engagement. If you want your audience to be engaged, they have to make some choices that are important.
Oren: All right. Well, I think that is a good thing to end the podcast on. For those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at Mythcreants.com.
Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson. She’s a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next, we have Ayman Jaber. He is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Danita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.
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