One of my favourite authors has a blog where she writes about writing twice a week (Patricia C. Wrede). The other day, she wrote about agency in fiction — how this is truly one of the central supports of a good story. We want to read about characters who have agency, who do things, who make choices that have consequences. Some stories are about people learning to do that; other, often more dystopian tales, about people gradually losing those abilities. But fundamentally, stories are about choice and consequences.

Agency isn’t just being a James Bond-style action hero: it can all happen internally. One novel I very much like, Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, is a mystery in which the detective spends the entire book in bed with a broken leg. That story begins when he stops feeling sorry for himself and making up stories about cracks in the ceiling and instead starts asking questions about some portraits a friend of his brings in to cheer him up. One of the pictures is of a man he thinks is a judge or the like, and which turns out to be a portrait of Richard II, infamous from Shakespeare as the murderer of the two princes in the Tower. Inspector Grant, the detective, can’t quite believe that a man with such a face would do that sort of crime, and spends the rest of the book puzzling over an ancient crime and the nature of how history gets written and shaped.

Obviously as a novelist this is a helpful thing to be reminded, but as I was thinking over the topic I realised that this is why I’m really enjoying my life at the moment. Although I have a number of major uncertainties in my life at the moment (most of them financial), I am very happy with the choices I made — because I made them, and am now reaping the consequences. They might have been bad choices with unpleasant consequences — though I hope not — but nevertheless, they’re my choices.

For me, following along the obvious career route as an academic was a fairly passive activity. Passive inwardly, I mean; there was quite a lot of work involved in theĀ  process, but the big decisions — what you do when, and why, and where you’re aiming — were already well-established and not very easily transformed into something else. It was easier emotionally to follow that route than it has been to say, no, I want to be a novelist — and primarily a novelist — and this is how I’m going to go about it. That’s because it’s difficult to truly become purposeful, active. In fiction it often takes entire novels for the characters to learn how to do that — in life, well, it can take years — decades, even.

I don’t think this means that choosing an established career path means you can’t have agency in your life — far from it! I have friends who have embraced the very same academic route I’ve decided to forgo, and who are quite happy with that choice, no matter the difficulties involved. That’s because they did actively and purposefully choose it.

A while ago someone mentioned in a comment that it sounded as if I was being reactive rather than proactive — I took that lesson to heart (as you may have noticed it, I’ve referred back to it several times since) — and have been trying to wrest myself from reaction to action, from passivity to activity, to agency. And though the responsibility is rather terrifying — there aren’t many excuses you can make when you make the choices and accept their consequences — the whole thing is rather exhilarating too.

avatarAuthor Bio ~ Victoria (81 Posts)

Having spent the second half of 2013 walking across England, Victoria Goddard is setting up a few small businesses in 2014, as a writer, editor, and possibly even as a gardener come spring. She's lived in more places in Canada than most people know exist, currently in Halifax, and along with writing for Other Voices also blogs at The Rose and Phoenix Inn.

2 Responses to “Agency”

  1. Good morning Victoria
    I have had difficulty connecting with the content of your blog in the past but really enjoyed this one. Might even check out the Tey book. Although I am not familiar with her; the story line is intriguing. Will look forward to your contributions in the future. Good work!

    • avatar Victoria Says:
      June 12, 2014 at 7:04 am

      Oh, thank you! I’m glad I hit a chord for you. I hope you enjoy the Josephine Tey — she was writing in the 50s and her books are still in print, so clearly I’m not the only one who likes them. :)

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