There's one common term that I was pretty careful not to use in my writing advice book, Never Say You Can't Survive: "agency." As in, "characters in a story should have agency."
Because, as I explain the one time I mention this term:
The concept of “agency” is very culturally loaded, and rooted in a lot of Eurocentric cis male notions of “rugged individualism.”
Of course, in the very next sentence, I do go on to say that as a general rule, if it's a story about searching for the magic bidet of the Elf King, the protagonist might need to spend some time looking for that bidet. (Though, hang on: I would read the heck out of a story about the one person who refuses to join in the collective magic-bidet-hunt. Somebody please write this!)
But anyway, I've tried to avoid talking about "agency" as a desirable trait in fictional heroes for a while now, because it does feel very culturally loaded and individualistic. Lately I've been thinking about a different term that I like better: "authority."
When people talk about "agency," it often implies that a character is able to bring about a material change in their own circumstances — which is so often not the case in real life. And in addition to the "individualism" thing I mentioned above, it also includes a lot of rigid notions of how a protagonist should operate: pursuing their goals and pushing back against whatever antagonist or obstacles stand in their way. It's built for a story about conflict in its crudest form.
So instead of "agency," which is all about action and personal success or failure, I'm increasingly thinking about "authority." I do not mean "authority" in the sense of holding a position of power in which you get to tell other people what to do with their lives. I'm using "authority" more in the sense of expertise, meaning that everybody is an authority on their own life. Their perspective matters, even if they might be deluded or confused about some aspects of their situation. It doesn't matter if their perspective is accurate — what matters is that it carries weight within the story. Their own lived experience is valid.
I also think "authority" is closely related to the word "author," and a POV character is an author of their own story to some extent, even if we're usually aware that there is a flesh and blood person somewhere whose name is on the cover of the book.
Before anyone jumps in here: I love unreliable narrators. I love characters who are ambivalent or confused about what's going on. Not even remotely saying anything against those things.
But I've been thinking lately about what actually bugs me in fiction, and I think this might be what's bugging other people, too.
I don't mind at all if a character is passive, helpless, or just uninterested in taking action. But I've definitely read plenty of works of fiction that seemed not to respect their own protagonist's viewpoint — either because the author really wants to make sure you know that the protagonist is full of shit, or because it feels as though the author has never quite done the imaginative work to figure out how this character sees things, and what they think has happened. Instead, we're standing outside the ostensible POV character or protagonist, and even as they're describing events. Sometimes a POV character has a perspective that is inconsistent in a way that doesn't feel intentional or easy to track. Or the opinions of supporting characters are given priority, and I don't even know if the main character agrees with these people or not.
If we are getting someone's point of view in a narrative, I want to understand their version of events, and feel as though their opinions carry some weight, even if those opinions are muddled. There are plenty of ways to do this while still letting the reader know that this protagonist might be missing a lot of stuff. (George R.R. Martin is a master of this.)
So I have a gut feeling, which could be completely mistaken, that a lot of what people complain about when they talk about "agency" is actually this related question of "authority." Especially considering that this question is often gendered, and it's often characters who aren't cis men who get accused of lacking agency — and I think one of the failure modes of fiction is to discount the perspectives of women, transfolk and gender non-conforming people, even when they're supposedly centered.
I think this could also be a general "writing the other" issue, where authors from a dominant group are writing marginalized identities, including BIPOC characters, but aren't able to fully inhabit those perspectives due to cultural blinkers. (And if that's you, please get help.)
Here's where I admit that I don't have any handy examples. I read a lot of fiction, and it all blurs together in my mind after a while, and I'm more likely to remember if a particular book had a glaring plot issue. Plus, I don't actually want to be mean and single anybody out.
Some of my favorite stories feature characters who are not masters of their own fate. See: Arthur Dent from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, pictured above. But I know exactly how Arthur Dent feels about everything that's happening to him, at all times. And exactly none of my favorite stories feature characters who seem disconnected in such a fundamental way that I can't even tell whether what they think is happening and how they might feel about it.
Anyway, this is just something I've been thinking about lately. And I'm going to keep thinking about it, and maybe some of y'all will email me and give me some other ways to think about it that I hadn't considered!
I'm going to just shout out one song this time. Howard Tate was a brilliant R&B artist who recorded a lot in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and then vanished for three decades before resurfacing for the 2003 album Rediscovered. Every recording this man made is worth hunting down, because it's all brilliant. But in particular, he did something few people have done: cover a Prince song and make it his own. Tate's cover of Prince's "Kiss" is utterly fantastic and captures everything great about the original Prince version while turning it into something new and fresh. (It's on the aforementioned Rediscovered album.) I don't really like the most famous covers of "Kiss," by the Age of Chance, or the Art of Noise featuring Tom Jones, because they're just pastiches. And the Glee cover can burn in hell. But Howard Tate's bluesy, powerful version is an utter revelation, and makes you feel like Tate is the first person ever to sing this song.
As usual lately, I got some stuff to promote.
My novel Promises Stronger Than Darkness comes out on April 11, in just under two weeks. This is the third book of the trilogy that began with Victories Greater Than Death back in 2021. You might recall that Tina Mains left Earth to reclaim the legacy of the alien superhero she was cloned from — and without going into spoiler territory, that sure turned out great for Tina. Now all my teenage characters are facing the end of the entire galaxy and a fascist takeover, and it's getting kinda real. I'm super proud of how this trilogy came together and I feel like it reads as one huge, but also very personal, story of growing up and trying to make sense of a world that was broken a long time ago.
Then there are the comics. You might already know I co-created a new hero for Marvel Comics a while back, called Escapade. She debuted in Marvel Voices: Pride 2022, which you can still find on Marvel Unlimited but is otherwise out of print. After that, Escapade appeared in New Mutants 31-33, which I wrote — and as of last week, those issues are now collected in a trade paperback called New Mutants Vol. 4, along with two other great issues written by Vita Ayala, Alyssa Wong and Danny Lore, and drawn by a host of amazing artists.
I'm now writing Escapade in a miniseries called New Mutants: Lethal Legion. The first issue came out recently and you can still find it everywhere — if your local comics shop doesn't have copies, they can order it for you. AIPTComics called Lethal Legion #1 the best comic of the week.
I'd really like to keep writing about Escapade, Morgan, Cerebella and the rest of these folks, but that probably won't happen unless people buy these comics!