Decision-making and Agency

Decision-making and agencyHere is the difference between passive and active characters; decision-making and agency.

Passive characters meander through a story while stuff happens to them and all they do is react. Proactive characters take decisions and make stuff happen for themselves.

Readers far prefer proactive main characters to passive, reactive ones. We want to root for dynamic characters who take charge of their own destinies. We dislike passengers along for the ride. They’re boring. A character who makes bad decisions engages us much more than one who makes no decisions. Where’s the conflict? Where’s the drama?

This is the difference between Lizzie Bennett and Jane Eyre. Sorry, I’m raggin’ on Jane Eyre-head again.

Agency in Classic Heroines

Lizzie Bennett continually pokes tigers, bears, and puffer-fish while kicking at hornets’ nests. Figuratively speaking. Our social rebel actively chooses to speak her mind, turn down marriage proposals, and defy convention. Not because they are the ‘right’ thing to do by her family, but they are the principled thing to do, consistent with her character.

Poor orphan Jane Eyre bounces around the North of England while bad stuff happens to her. She only becomes the runaway bride after royal pain-in-the-ass, ego-maniac Rochester is outed as a bigamist by a third party.
She is saved from marrying St John by the arrival of the surprise inheritance from the West Indies. What does she do? Goes straight back to Rochester to look after the poor blind dear. It’s hardly a feminist triumph. In fact, it’s a lot of misery to wallow in before her abrupt rags-to-riches rise and bad-boy-turned-good daft romance.

Lizzie makes her own decisions, for good or ill. Mostly ill, according to everyone around her, but that’s her prerogative. Jane Eyre wallows in misery for want of anything better to do; like get the hell out of these toxic workplaces and relationships. Lizzie is proactive and has agency, Jane Eyre is reactive, with little or none. The West Indies inheritance (dirty money) is a Deus Ex Machina. Rochester’s state of penury and disability-based dependence is a result of Mrs Rochester’s revenge. There’s no reform of his character through Jane’s actions.

Agency as a Wrong Turn

No one says the main character’s agency is all positive. Lizzie Bennett digs herself a deeper hole with almost every decision. Most decisions arise from her prejudice. That’s her character flaw to overcome.

By contrast, Jane Eyre is prickly, judgmental and driven by ‘logic’ (she says). But she has a ‘passionate’ nature, offset by a fear of commitment and a lack of self-confidence. That doesn’t stop her being rude to all and sundry, illogical and stand-offish. A pain in the ass, in fact. I have no idea what her defining character flaw is, she has a trunk-full. None of it generates any agency. It demonstrates you can write a popular classic with bad characters and plotting.

Applying Decisions and Agency

Changing my point-of-view protagonist for Book One, her level of agency concerned me so much I ran a test. I listed all the key decisions, chapter by chapter, to prove how proactive she is. Warning, spoilers ahead.

  1. Jo instructs Varla to finish Radek (prologue)
  2. Jo decides to go find Varla in the Outlands
  3. Jo stands her ground against the Reavers
    [Danaan leads Varla to join the fight]
  4. Jo establishes her position as Varla’s equal
  5. [Varla decides to load up the cart and get Gulatta away]
    Jo decides to continue East on her original course
  6. Jo confesses her identity (risking Varla’s rejection)
  7. [Varla decides to build the pyre]
  8. Jo lights the pyre
  9. {Danaan deals with the initial wolf problem}
    Jo leaves the trail to investigate the wolf slaughter
  10. {Danaan chooses sanctuary}
  11. [Varla goes after Tauber]
    Jo goes with Varla, not asking permission
  12. Jo leads the way to the mine
  13. Jo goes in pursuit of Tauber, still not asking permission
    Jo pushes Varla out of danger
  14. Jo gives Varla a pep-talk – be positive
  15. Child Jo kills the assassin (flash-back)
  16. Jo sends Varla out of the capture zone before the Clans arrive
    Jo prepares to the fight the Clans
    [Varla’s crazy challenge secures their escape]
  17. Jo and Varla smell a trap at the settlement
    [Varla takes on the Vipers]
  18. Jo berates Varla’s recklessness in denying her agency
  19. Jo sends Varla and Danaan away; kills both robbers in the wild
  20. Jo decides Varla mustn’t go after Radek and drugs him
  21. Jo goes to the Vipers’ camp instead (ok, that goes wrong)
  22. Jo confesses she messed up, but she saved Varla’s life
    [Varla plans their escape]
  23. {Danaan summons lightning}
  24. Jo decides to sleep with Varla
  25. Jo interprets their shared vision; she has a plan to make it happen, directing Varla’s hand
  26. [Varla decides they should split]
    Jo decides they stay together to the end
  27. Jo wants to dance, confesses she will always make her own choices
  28. Jo sends Varla after Radek; Jo stays to fight Tauber
  29. Jo takes charge of their safety; ‘find us a place’

All in the Execution

Hopefully this comes across to my Beta readers. The execution of this has two possible failure points:

  • Varla appears to be in charge as he is the veteran with the survival skills. In reality he’s pushed into decisions, or Jo overrides his poor choices.
  • Jo comes across as a petulant ‘Princess Pushy.’ Despite her mis-beliefs and incomplete answers, she can’t/won’t stand on the sidelines, she’s a fighter, searching for her place in a cruel world.

While the intention isn’t in doubt, my execution may be flawed. I don’t suppose Charlotte Bronte intended to write Jane Eyre-head; but that’s what we got. No one said this is easy.

4 thoughts on “Decision-making and Agency”

    1. I know she’s a favourite amongst fans of romantic fiction and yes, it’s a classic novel. I just don’t think the character stands up to scrutiny of her flaws. There’s too many. And she’s not that likeable. It’s an unpopular opinion, I get it. 🙂

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