I keep seeing stuff about “agency” coming up in my awareness lately, whether about female characters in historical settings or people with mental health issues being treated like they can’t help themselves.
And it makes me wonder…
What kind of agency do werewolves have? Unicorns? Vampires?
So what is “agency”? One site (I did not note my reference, sorry, but it could be the one listed below):
“a demonstration of the character’s ability to make decisions and affect the story. This character has motivations all her own. She is active more than she is reactive. She pushes on the plot more than the plot pushes on her.”
And it also has to do with how the character behaves in relationship to other characters: for instance a character who does everything their lover asks them to do without question has little to no agency, presumably their only motivation is they want their lover to be happy or to be pleased with them. Another article addressed this part specifically in relation to video games and non-player characters’ relationships with the first-person player character, whether the NPCs have their own motivations and can choose to act against or leave the MC or if they simply help the MC and follow them around for no real reason.
Here’s a quote I really like:
“What gets interesting about a story isn’t when some Big External Plot is set into motion. What’s interesting is when the agency possessed by multiple characters competes. This push-and-pull of character motivations, decisions and reactions is how stories that matter are created. Because they’re stories about people, not about events, and people are why we read stories. Because we are all made of people. Our lives are made of us and all the other people around us. We live in a people-focused world because we’re solipsistic assholes who think that unless we behold it and create it, it probably doesn’t matter. And in stories, that’s pretty much true.
Stories must be made of people.”
So in looking at this for stories, I considered two of my all-time-favorite, or at least go-to favorite, stories:
First, Interview With The Vampire:
So in many ways, Louis has very little agency: Once he chooses to allow Lestat to turn him, his life is taken over by Lestat and Claudia. His only attempt at control was refusing to kill humans, but again, he fails at this, leading to the introduction of Claudia, who basically takes over his life. Eventually he grows a little backbone and walks away from Armand, but mostly he sits around thinking about all the reasons he’s miserable and everything is wrong or strange, which is what he does after he leaves Armand, at least as far as we can tell until he seeks out/finds/stumbles upon Daniel and asks him to record his story (or did Daniel ask him?), and even then we’re not sure what his motivation is.
Claudia, however, goes from having no agency to having masses of it. Only at the end is she overpowered by the Theatre vampires by sheer numbers.
And of course the Brat Prince finds it impossible not to steer the story in his own way – but does he always do things because he has motivation or because it suits the plot? (Referring, of course, to the whole Chronicles, not just the first book.)
Before addressing my second example of a favorite story, let’s look at some other monsters, vampires and werewolves, in popular stories:
In Underworld, the two MCs also have very little agency, the girl picked up when she was orphaned by her master, the man dragged into the war between the races because of his fancy blood. They are then forced to go against their respective clans’ wishes (except the dude barely even has a clan being a noob) mostly for survival…I don’t remember why she decided to help him? Or was she “rescuiting” him (that’s rescuing and recruiting, which I didn’t type intentionally, but like it) from the werewolves and along the journey found out the vamps were actually (gasp) evil?
So many vamp and lycanthrope and supernatural tales make monster-ism an inborn and unavoidable trait, or alternately the monster is turned against their will, or as happened for the Cullens in the Twilight series, they were turned at the point of death, where they had no other choice but survive or die.
I guess it’s the implication that no one would choose such a horrible life, unless, of course, they were nasty power-hungry fiends…or Carpathian kings trying to bust some Turkish ass, but that’s yet another story, oh yeah, the one where the MC tries to beat insurmountable odds by “making a deal with the devil.”
As the article says, there’s nothing wrong with reaction before action, but the deal with the devil has a lot more agency than the “You’re a werewolf, Hairy” teenwolf plot.
What other monsters are there? Demons and things like the zenobytes in a lot of stories seem to desire only destruction and causing pain. But the demons in Supernatural aren’t always that simple (though sometimes they are), and the angels seem pretty monstrous too. Zombies seem to only desire brains, but do they act with agency or instinct? Dracula seemed to only seek to move to a new home and gain a new bride, but ultimately he steers the plot while everyone else mostly reacts to his acts. Frankenstein’s monster is kind of an intentional exploration of this concept, a victim of his creator’s hubris, he turns on the doctor and demands a companion to love (which ironically would not allow said companion her own agency). Jekyll and Hyde is an interesting twist, the agency of Jekyll being to create his experiment that releases Hyde and thereby release Jekyll’s societal limits, and then the agency of Hyde being to take over Jekyll’s body completely. As for the modern monsters, Freddy, Jason, Michael Myers, Leatherface, mostly seem to be motivated by revenge, or some original serial-killer mentality before they were killed and became supernatural. On that same vein, you have the Crow, but he’s actually a dark hero kind of a monster.
I realize of course that I’m wandering off of “agency” and into “desire” or “motivation.” They are closely tied together though. A person who is handcuffed desires to be free, but the difference of agency is whether they sit and wait for someone to rescue them or if they are actively trying to get free, whether by negotiating with their captors, searching for a tool to pick the lock or break the chain, or just trying to find a way to get away from their captors despite their hands being bound. Does Michael Myers choose to creep through the shadows after his next victim, or is it just habit, just compulsion, or worse, just the plot?
Notice how for good monsters, their motivation often centers around a cure for their monstrosity, having a normal life. But while I dislike/am bored with that premise for motivation, it doesn’t stop them from having agency. If that is their desire, are they actively seeking a way to get it, or are they moping around complaining that their “monstrosity” is destroying their life? Going back to Teenwolf, does he end up seeking out a way to not be a werewolf and go back to normal, or does he instead embrace and incorporate the wolf into his everyday life? While Buffy does have her destiny and doom to be the Slayer, she doesn’t give up on life and become a sociopathic loner like other Slayers, she makes a point to hang on to her friends and family as much as she can. Maybe she prizes normality too highly, but she does make an effort to both be the Slayer and be Buffy Summers at the same time: she goes after both what is needed externally and what she wants internally to the best of her ability. But, you might say, Buffy’s not a monster herself, she fights monsters. Well actually, she has supernatural abilities, she kills things for a living – and it is shown that other Slayers in their times lost a lot of their humanity and their heart in order to survive their calling as long as they did. If that is not turning a human into a monster, what is? The show also makes a point, through characters like Angel and Spike, that monsters are not inherently evil and irredeemable; their circumstances can be altered, they can make choices that change the outcome of the story, choices that may help the “good guy” and help destroy the larger “bad guy.” Spike in particular is always out to benefit himself, not serve the overall good.
But magical non-human creatures aren’t always considered monsters…Which brings me to:
The Last Unicorn
(Some of what I refer to here is from the movie and some from the book, so if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it – just keep in mind it is an older book and a thoughtful journey rather than a rip-roaring fantasy adventure. Having said that, it has been a long time since I read it, so avid fans please forgive my brain.)
In Last Unicorn, the Unicorn goes from passive to active because she realizes she hasn’t seen another unicorn in years, and the words of men and butterflies drive her to question the situation. Her journey alternates between her getting into trouble and her getting Shmendrick out of trouble, but she continues to move the whole time, looking for the Red Bull and finding more and more about the mystery along the way. Up until the point that she’s turned into a human. The fear of the Bull and being transformed befuddle her and lock her in a place where she doesn’t know what to do next. She almost steps away from the story to fall in love with Lir, but then Lir brings them back into the plot, choosing to fight the bull and be a hero rather than them all running for it and escaping (assuming they could escape since the bull realized Amalthea was one of his prey). After his choice fails him, she becomes the heroine again, becoming the unicorn and claiming her power to fight for all her friends, unicorns, humans and lover alike, and also her power to heal him, though she must leave him after.
How was the plot driven?: Haggard sought happiness so commanded the bull to capture the unicorns (the Bull has no agency besides serving the man with no fear). The Unicorn found out about her missing brethren and chose to go looking for them. Fortuna *by luck found the unicorn* and chose to capture her, but Shmendrick risked himself to free her, after which she chose to free all the other beasts which was a risk to her own life to free the harpy, but resulted in Fortuna’s death. The bandits captured Shmendrick while the unicorn hides (as she naturally does) *I will say it’s unclear what the bandits’ goals are as they don’t lock him up but seem to want to recruit him? Until he fools them with magic and Cully talks about selling him somehow?* But Molly joins them now the bandits are disbandited (for the time being) …I’m not sure why she approached Shmendrick, I think she was just pissed at being fooled, at how the vision of Maid Marion had tugged at her heart so, but then she sees the unicorn and there’s no getting rid of her. She will follow the unicorn because she wills it so, she desires that bastion of magic in her life, what better cause could there be? And we’re going to rescue the other unicorns? Even better. (For her there is also the question of why she stays with Cully and his men – she clearly hates her life) …The people in the town beneath Haggard’s castle simply want to stay alive…but then they don’t seem to try very hard to actively do anything about it. I don’t know maybe there was something about the curse that they couldn’t actively harm Lir? In all his adventuring, no one could sneak up on him on the road and shoot him with a poison dart, no old lady could offer him a bite for lunch that turns out to be poison? …..Lir is one who doesn’t seem to want anything until Amalthea shows up…Oh wait, in the book they did see him having a picnic with a princess, a fop with no real care for anything around him, but he changes in trying to impress Amalthea – still not much better, this kind of confirms his lack of agency, or his only agency and motivation is to get the girl. So is his choice to fight the bull driving the plot or the plot driving him? And thereby driving Amalthea/Unicorn to make her choice and complete her quest?
Also, in the movie, and maybe in the book I don’t remember, Lir faces the Bull because Shmendrick is blathering about stories and endings, and when Lir tells Shmendrick to do something about the Bull, Shmendrick says, “That’s what heroes are for.” So was it even Lir’s choice at all? If magic is not strong enough to fight the Red Bull, then how can a man with a sword do anything? What was Shmendrick thinking?
I have no doubt, if any character in this IS the author, it’s Shmendrick, so this thought that he steered Lir and therefore Amalthea into their battle with the Bull is somewhat disturbing.
So how does agency come up in the real world, both for those of us who adore or enjoy the thoughtful monsters of fiction and everyone else?
A large piece of this is not only to look at your own agency in your life but also: how you are allowing others their agency, their own motivations, their own choices?
First of all, let’s talk about you:
Is there anywhere in your life that you feel like your choices are steered more by the outside world, by society, by the law, by your environment, by your job or how much money you make, anything like that?
Do you ever find yourself saying, “that’s just the way it is,” or, “that’s life”?
Have you considered that this assumption, this projection that life just goes a certain way and certain things are just granted and bound to happen, could it be that this is a denial and disablement of your own agency?
Do you believe the world is keeping you from doing something you’d like to do? Is that not a limitation of your agency just for you to believe that?
What’s worse is believing something and basing your life and motivations around something like, “experts say so and so.” It’s one thing to do research and see what legit scientific study has discovered, but often media soundbytes about “science” and “experts” are dumbed down, oversimplified, and cherry-picked to support the opinion of someone in the media. Very often they’re old information that actual science has since refuted.
Gee, I wonder what that news agency’s agency is? What is motivating that news story you heard? Who wrote it, and what are their beliefs and motivations?
Remember that news stations, corporations, governments, etc. are all made up of individual people, often people working on many different levels of infrastructure, from entry-level and contract worker to executives who either worked their way up the ladder for years or who have hopped companies multiple times over the years.
So there’s nothing wrong with questioning the “science” and the method and motivations behind these tidbits of information that are fed to the public via the media. And social norms and “the way society works” are even less fact-based than science and are more experience based, often the experience of others telling you how it is, not even your own experience.
As for your own experience, did you decide this must be the way it is without considering all the extenuating circumstances and factors, all your expectations that you started off with and how your outlook has changed over time?
All of this affects your motivations and the limitations you put on your life. Therefore you can limit your own agency by thinking you “can’t” do that thing over there while you “have to” do this thing here.
For dealing with other people:
It’s a little too easy to look around at the people you’re close to, from acquaintances to close friends and family, and measure and qualify all of their actions by how they affect you. Someone neglects to smile at you one day, and you go to, “are they mad at me? What did I do?” or alternately, “how rude! What an ass!” especially if you think they might have some prejudice against you. You call or text and leave a message for your friend, and they just never get back to you; “Are they not my friend anymore? Don’t they know my time is important!”
We forget sometimes that other people are the center of their own universe the same as I (meaning you) am the center of my own universe. Very few people will ever do, say, or act on anything with only you and your life in their mind.
And in fact, if they did, that would not be a good thing – not for them and not for you!
Because in the same way, if you try to help someone, speak up on someone else’s behalf, try to advise someone, protect someone, provide for someone, you could very well be denying them their own agency.
There’s a lot of cultural bias about how a good person always helps others, always puts others before themselves, which has the ironic effect of people trying to do things for others in order to prove that they themselves are good and worthy of praise, reward, trust, etc. Some people do this and aren’t even aware of it. Don’t be one of those people, it’s not healthy for anyone. Instead, be aware of your own needs and agendas first off, but also when you do want to help someone genuinely, offer them suggestions, present to them alternative choices that they can consider. Most people when they give advice have this projection of, “this is good, you should do this,” or “that’s bad, that’s the wrong approach.” If you stop trying to put out things as right, wrong, good, bad, then when you offer someone options for what they could do, they have more agency, more ability to choose what is going to work best for them personally. And that could be completely different from what you thought, but again, it isn’t your life.
When people talk about kindness, start thinking of kindness as being more of a “teach a man to fish” kind of thing. Truth, is it more kind (to them and to yourself) to do everything for someone and hand everything to them? Or is it more kindness and a greater contribution to step back and offer ideas and tools while they learn, even if they struggle with it, because this lets them try things out, practice, and grow into the person they choose to be and the life they choose to have?
Consider, when you’re helping someone, whether you just want to or they’ve asked you to, what would be “in service of” them, and what would be “of service to” them? “In service” would be like you being their servant and/or someone they’re dependent on, that they can’t (or won’t) do things for themselves. “Of service” on the other hand, would be more like giving them options. Imagine it like opening up multiple doors, doors that are all around them and facing in many directions. You’re not pushing or pulling them through one door or another, and you’re certainly not carrying them over the threshold, and everything that implies, but you do allow them to take a look at what might be on the other side of that door for them, and they get a chance to feel what it would be like to choose that for themselves.