My parents are avid readers, so I love talking to them about what they’re currently reading. A few weeks back, it was Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. While both my parents were iffy on it, my mom was especially irritated.
“The main character never makes any decisions for herself. Everything she does is just a reaction to what’s happening to her. She just lets things happen to her, complains about it, and does nothing to change it.”
My dad agreed with her, and when I talked to them about it later, neither had finished the book.
While I don’t know the accuracy of what they said since i haven’t read Outlander, it brings up an important point about agency in our characters. Chuck Wendig defines agency as this:
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. Even better, the plot exists as a direct result of the character’s actions.
It’s about being proactive versus reactive. When characters choose the latter, readers become frustrated. Is the point of your character that they are a passive person? Then work with that. But if it’s not, then you need to prove it by having your character move the story forward because they want to.
Your character’s agency is going to be determined by their motivation, desires, goals. If you figure these out, you can then go on to discover how the plot will proceed. This is also how you can create more character-driven stories rather than plot-driven ones, granting your writing a whole new level of interest for readers.