Agency, Why It Matters

Agency header
No matter if they’re slaying goblins, concocting the medicines of the future, or staying at home with the kids while also exploring their passions, I prefer my FMCs to have agency over their own stories. (Background image

A lot has been made of strong women lately in literature. It’s a trend I like, but sometimes, I think it pigeonholes female characters into one mold — we will get into that during a future post this week where we dive into diverse fictional women.  Rather than using the term strong women in my wish list, all I really want are women who have agency.

Among the Merriam-Webster Dictionary definitions for “agency,” No. 3 fits what I’m looking for: a person or thing through which power is exerted or an end is achieved. The female main character needs to have some exertion of power over her story, whether through strength, wits, dogged determination, etc. Often times this agency is lost to the male characters within the story, and everything the FMC does is based on what the male characters want or are doing.

Diving into the female characters is a must; we should do it with all characters no matter their gender, after all! What makes her tick? What are her goals? They may overlap with the male character’s goals, but they should still be her own. What are her reasons for pursuing this goal? It’s highly unlikely that the female protagonist’s reasons directly mirror those of the male protagonist. She needs to have her own personal stakes in the endeavor. And her stakes definitely need to be more substantial than, dang, this guy sure looks fine! Especially if the female character is the lead of the entire story, she needs to be the one moving the plot with her actions, her decisions, or her desires.

It also helps if the  FMC has additional desires and goals that are removed from those of the male character. While she shares a similar end goal as the male character, she has other aims in her life that are removed from him. Currently, I’m reading Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo. She does a fantastic job of giving her female characters agency. Both Inej and Nina have goals that fall in line with their male cohorts, and they each even have romantic interests, but ultimately, they have their own agency — aka wants, desires, and needs that are not reliant on those male characters.

Male characters can have an influence on female characters. People are influenced by each other, after all. But that influence is not 100 percent; there will be divergences in opinions and actions.

In my sci-fi novel, Heritage Lost, my lead, Katya, is highly influenced by the lessons learned from her adopted father, and she ultimately wants to make him proud. He had a major role in shaping her as she was growing up, and she has a habit of basing decisions on what he would do in her place. However, she is also her own person and her decisions are her own. Not all of her decisions — such as pursuing a career in the military — are understood or agreed on by her adopted father, but nonetheless, he supports her.

In genres like historical fiction or medieval fantasy with male-dominated worlds/cultures, it can be a challenge with writer’s thinking that women just didn’t have the opportunities and had to cow-toe to the men in their lives. THAT IS A TRAP! There are always exceptions and historical examples of women who took control of their lives — something I highlighted in a post all the way back in 2013.

Women don’t have to make grandiose actions like lead a revolt ala Emilia Plater to have agency. They just have to have their own thoughts, beliefs, and desires that are removed from those of other characters and have these affect their actions big and small. These actions should have ripple effects on the plot. In short, make your women characters human beings.

This is the second article in the weeklong “Women in Fiction” Series, which is in honor of Women’s History Month. Article No. 1 can be found at


Published by smwright

Sarah Wright is the author of The Heritage Lost Series and several other works of speculative fiction. Professionally, she works as a staff writer and editor at a newspaper/magazine company. She enjoys interweaving her love of history into her writing, even in the most fantastic settings.

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