Wonderland befuddlement

Every man has agency, except the everyman

Brushing the sexist terminology aside for a moment, I want to talk about the everyman.

If you’re writing a science fiction or fantasy novel, your protagonist might be an ordinary person who finds themselves in an extraordinary world.

We make these characters to articulate the oddity of the situation, to show how peculiar it is through the eyes of the bewildered.

The problem is, characterisation and agency tend to fall to the wayside. Take for instance Alice or Dorothy, of Wonderland and Oz fame. Tell me some of their character traits… What kind of personality do they have?

It’s tough, right?

And just saying “Naïve” or “Curious” doesn’t cut it.

Similarly, what are their wants and needs? What agency do they have?

Err… they want to go home?

That’s about it.

I noticed this in one of my book reviews, of China Mieville’s Kraken. The story feels forced, simply because the narrator’s chosen vessel has no idea what’s going on or how to take control.

Meanwhile, in the Chaos Draft…

The protagonist in the novel I’m writing is such a creature: a new arrival to a foreign world, where the laws of existence are alien; where even constants like death are unique; where unquantifiable phenomena become malleable resources.

I wanted a character to behold this world with a mixture of wonder, confusion and horror; which, to be fair to him, he does admirably.

However, in starting the first major edit, the most glaring problem with this protagonist (aside form the fact I glibly named him Protta until I came up with something better) is that he has no agency – stuff happens to him.

He does not do thingsthings that make stuff happen.

That might work for some, but for me, it makes it

(a) boring to write;

(b) unconvincing to read; and

(c) insulting to Protta himself.

So how do you go about giving someone interesting, meaningful agency when everything they used to know and love is in another dimension. What if all their hopes and dreams reside in an unreachable realm? What then?

Well, like Alice and Dorothy, their first instinct is to try to get home, where things are familiar and safe. But if a return trip is out of the question, that train of thought must be extinguished promptly.

By all means have them piss and moan about getting home. Let them try and fail. But, sooner or later, you have to give them something to care about other than the unattainable homecoming.

But what? – That’s what I’m struggling with at the moment. As is often the case with new-world fiction, my secondary characters stand out because they have goals. They endeavour to achieve those goals by doing things. They’re more relatable and engaging for that reason alone.

But I don’t want to cut my protagonist adrift. He needs to drive things, not just observe in slack-jawed awe.

I’m going to be wrestling with this for a while I think. I could sure do with some advice.

3 thoughts on “Every man has agency, except the everyman”

  1. I’ve been having similar issues – my protagonist reacts to the plot rather than drives it. To counterbalance this, I’ve given him a bunch of flaws. Trouble is, now he’s more of an antagonist and I’m a little worried he’s too unsympathetic for the reader to give a shit about. What I’ve done – and this is by no means “advice”, as am dipping my toes in all this literature crap for the first time – is create a subplot that he drives. That layered the story, gave the character depth and it also boosted my word count. And it sounds like you’re creating a world, so if you have a subplot, you can use that to explore more of it. I am probably completely wrong about all of this, of course.


    1. At the moment, his hope to return home leads him to some sinister realities, namely a religion that is in cahoots with the society’s leadership – and a lie that sends thousands of people willingly to their deaths. But it’s a tightrope: he needs to drive that storyline and he needs a choice – a difficult one – to give it more drama than mere moral outrage.

      Flaws are a good idea though. I’ll have to think about that. Thanks for your thoughts by the way mate.

      Liked by 1 person

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