This Page

has been moved to new address

Guest Post | Michael J. Sullivan on Character Agency

Sorry for inconvenience...

Redirection provided by Blogger to WordPress Migration Service
body { background:#aba; margin:0; padding:20px 10px; text-align:center; font:x-small/1.5em "Trebuchet MS",Verdana,Arial,Sans-serif; color:#333; font-size/* */:/**/small; font-size: /**/small; } /* Page Structure ----------------------------------------------- */ /* The images which help create rounded corners depend on the following widths and measurements. If you want to change these measurements, the images will also need to change. */ @media all { #content { width:740px; margin:0 auto; text-align:left; } #main { width:485px; float:left; background:#fff url("") no-repeat left bottom; margin:15px 0 0; padding:0 0 10px; color:#000; font-size:97%; line-height:1.5em; } #main2 { float:left; width:100%; background:url("") no-repeat left top; padding:10px 0 0; } #main3 { background:url("") repeat-y; padding:0; } #sidebar { width:240px; float:right; margin:15px 0 0; font-size:97%; line-height:1.5em; } } @media handheld { #content { width:90%; } #main { width:100%; float:none; background:#fff; } #main2 { float:none; background:none; } #main3 { background:none; padding:0; } #sidebar { width:100%; float:none; } } /* Links ----------------------------------------------- */ a:link { color:#258; } a:visited { color:#666; } a:hover { color:#c63; } a img { border-width:0; } /* Blog Header ----------------------------------------------- */ @media all { #header { background:#456 url("") no-repeat left top; margin:0 0 0; padding:8px 0 0; color:#fff; } #header div { background:url("") no-repeat left bottom; padding:0 15px 8px; } } @media handheld { #header { background:#456; } #header div { background:none; } } #blog-title { margin:0; padding:10px 30px 5px; font-size:200%; line-height:1.2em; } #blog-title a { text-decoration:none; color:#fff; } #description { margin:0; padding:5px 30px 10px; font-size:94%; line-height:1.5em; } /* Posts ----------------------------------------------- */ .date-header { margin:0 28px 0 43px; font-size:85%; line-height:2em; text-transform:uppercase; letter-spacing:.2em; color:#357; } .post { margin:.3em 0 25px; padding:0 13px; border:1px dotted #bbb; border-width:1px 0; } .post-title { margin:0; font-size:135%; line-height:1.5em; background:url("") no-repeat 10px .5em; display:block; border:1px dotted #bbb; border-width:0 1px 1px; padding:2px 14px 2px 29px; color:#333; } a.title-link, .post-title strong { text-decoration:none; display:block; } a.title-link:hover { background-color:#ded; color:#000; } .post-body { border:1px dotted #bbb; border-width:0 1px 1px; border-bottom-color:#fff; padding:10px 14px 1px 29px; } html>body .post-body { border-bottom-width:0; } .post p { margin:0 0 .75em; } { background:#ded; margin:0; padding:2px 14px 2px 29px; border:1px dotted #bbb; border-width:1px; border-bottom:1px solid #eee; font-size:100%; line-height:1.5em; color:#666; text-align:right; } html>body { border-bottom-color:transparent; } em { display:block; float:left; text-align:left; font-style:normal; } a.comment-link { /* IE5.0/Win doesn't apply padding to inline elements, so we hide these two declarations from it */ background/* */:/**/url("") no-repeat 0 45%; padding-left:14px; } html>body a.comment-link { /* Respecified, for IE5/Mac's benefit */ background:url("") no-repeat 0 45%; padding-left:14px; } .post img { margin:0 0 5px 0; padding:4px; border:1px solid #ccc; } blockquote { margin:.75em 0; border:1px dotted #ccc; border-width:1px 0; padding:5px 15px; color:#666; } .post blockquote p { margin:.5em 0; } /* Comments ----------------------------------------------- */ #comments { margin:-25px 13px 0; border:1px dotted #ccc; border-width:0 1px 1px; padding:20px 0 15px 0; } #comments h4 { margin:0 0 10px; padding:0 14px 2px 29px; border-bottom:1px dotted #ccc; font-size:120%; line-height:1.4em; color:#333; } #comments-block { margin:0 15px 0 9px; } .comment-data { background:url("") no-repeat 2px .3em; margin:.5em 0; padding:0 0 0 20px; color:#666; } .comment-poster { font-weight:bold; } .comment-body { margin:0 0 1.25em; padding:0 0 0 20px; } .comment-body p { margin:0 0 .5em; } .comment-timestamp { margin:0 0 .5em; padding:0 0 .75em 20px; color:#666; } .comment-timestamp a:link { color:#666; } .deleted-comment { font-style:italic; color:gray; } .paging-control-container { float: right; margin: 0px 6px 0px 0px; font-size: 80%; } .unneeded-paging-control { visibility: hidden; } /* Profile ----------------------------------------------- */ @media all { #profile-container { background:#cdc url("") no-repeat left bottom; margin:0 0 15px; padding:0 0 10px; color:#345; } #profile-container h2 { background:url("") no-repeat left top; padding:10px 15px .2em; margin:0; border-width:0; font-size:115%; line-height:1.5em; color:#234; } } @media handheld { #profile-container { background:#cdc; } #profile-container h2 { background:none; } } .profile-datablock { margin:0 15px .5em; border-top:1px dotted #aba; padding-top:8px; } .profile-img {display:inline;} .profile-img img { float:left; margin:0 10px 5px 0; border:4px solid #fff; } .profile-data strong { display:block; } #profile-container p { margin:0 15px .5em; } #profile-container .profile-textblock { clear:left; } #profile-container a { color:#258; } .profile-link a { background:url("") no-repeat 0 .1em; padding-left:15px; font-weight:bold; } ul.profile-datablock { list-style-type:none; } /* Sidebar Boxes ----------------------------------------------- */ @media all { .box { background:#fff url("") no-repeat left top; margin:0 0 15px; padding:10px 0 0; color:#666; } .box2 { background:url("") no-repeat left bottom; padding:0 13px 8px; } } @media handheld { .box { background:#fff; } .box2 { background:none; } } .sidebar-title { margin:0; padding:0 0 .2em; border-bottom:1px dotted #9b9; font-size:115%; line-height:1.5em; color:#333; } .box ul { margin:.5em 0 1.25em; padding:0 0px; list-style:none; } .box ul li { background:url("") no-repeat 2px .25em; margin:0; padding:0 0 3px 16px; margin-bottom:3px; border-bottom:1px dotted #eee; line-height:1.4em; } .box p { margin:0 0 .6em; } /* Footer ----------------------------------------------- */ #footer { clear:both; margin:0; padding:15px 0 0; } @media all { #footer div { background:#456 url("") no-repeat left top; padding:8px 0 0; color:#fff; } #footer div div { background:url("") no-repeat left bottom; padding:0 15px 8px; } } @media handheld { #footer div { background:#456; } #footer div div { background:none; } } #footer hr {display:none;} #footer p {margin:0;} #footer a {color:#fff;} /* Feeds ----------------------------------------------- */ #blogfeeds { } #postfeeds { padding:0 15px 0; }

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Guest Post | Michael J. Sullivan on Character Agency

I've noticed more and more authors lamenting the treatment of women in fantasy novels. Despite widespread agreement that there should be a more concerted effort to depict strong women, I wasn't necessarily coming away with the impression that agency is something a character has to have. I asked a swathe of fantasy authors about their thoughts on the subject. Some of the questions I asked the authors to consider were:
  • What is agency?
  • Why is it important? 
  • Why do we find more male characters with agency in fantasy novels than females? 
  • Is it OK if a character doesn't have it?
  • Can a character still be interesting if it lacks it? 
  • Can a book be good if none of the characters have it?
The answers I received were varied. When this series is all said and I done I hope to have an informed opinion on the subject. For now, I'm going to listen.

In the second installment of the series...

Author of The Riyria Revelations, Michael J. Sullivan.


Justin Landon from Staffer’s Musings sent me an email regarding the subject of agency, and in particular how it applies to women characters and fantasy. I’ve actually only run across that term once, during a particularly negative review (that I would prefer to just fade away), but not being one to shrink from controversy I told him I would give a few opinions on the subject.

As I understand it, “agency refers to the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices.” – thanks Wikipedia.

As a fantasy author who writes in an invented world that closely resembles Medieval Europe, I have followed the social conventions of that age. In that context, women do indeed have fewer opportunities than men. Does this mean that I think women shouldn’t have agency? Not at all, and in fact I have a six book series where women break the bonds of convention and become as strong and independent as any of their male counterparts. It’s true that early in the series some women are portrayed as locked in established roles, but I did so to provide a contrast to what they develop into.

Because many fantasy authors also set their stories in worlds where men are dominant, it is very reasonable for people, and especially women, to become frustrated and disappointed with how the female sex have been portrayed over the years. But in the author’s defense, I think it has more to do with a desire for authenticity, then a desire to pigeonhole women. So, I think when determining agency, or lack thereof, it is important to consider context. For instance, I would never use the “n” word privately or publically, but in a novel set in the south, or in racially divided Detroit in the sixties, should I not use this term because it will offend modern readers? For me the answer would be no. It is more important for my novel to be true to its context.

I would suspect that women (writing a review discussing female characters), are more likely to mention a lack of agency because they are more sensitive to the practice. But I also think people see what they want to see, and they will discount or ignore anything that refutes their pre-conceived notions. For example in the case of the review I previously mentioned, the reviewer pointed out that a young women who turned suicidal by the death of her father was a poor representation of women with agency. But this same reviewer didn’t mention how the girl took it upon herself to travel a great distance to hire men to save her father in the first place. Depending on your perspective, you can come to very different opinions on Thrace’s independence.

So why doesn’t agency come up in relation to men? Well mainly because men have always had agency and have been portrayed as such. I’m old enough to have lived through the feminist movement of the sixties and seventies, and my wife obtained an Electrical Engineering degree in 1984 when only three of her graduating class of several hundred had been women. For my daughter’s generation it’s hard to imagine a time when women’s choices were indeed limited, and if fact it wasn’t all that long ago. Since writing mirrors society, it will take time to balance the scales.

Justin also asked if a character can be interesting if they lack agency. My answer is yes, and in some cases it is a legitimate technique to have characters subjected to trials and tribulations that have nothing to do with decisions they make. While I’m sure most didn’t think of him this way (maybe because the character was male), Forest Gump is the perfect example of someone who floats through life allowing others to decide his fate. He joins the football team, not because he wants to play the game, but because others saw his ability. He joins the army, not because he wants to, but because a recruiter approaches him at the exact moment he was trying to decide what to do next. Even his lucrative fishing career wasn’t Forest’s idea, but a fulfillment of a promise to a dead friend. I did enjoy the character of Forest Gump and was invested with his ups and downs. For me I was riveted to see where the winds of fate would take him, so lack of agency doesn't always have to be negative.

Actually, now that I think of it, many fantasy characters (both male and female) are subjected to a predetermined destiny. No matter what decisions they make, their fate is sealed and yet we often don’t jump to a criticism about lack of agency. I’m not sure what part this has played into sensitivities on the subject, but it might just go to show that there is a great deal of foundation that has been laid, and until there is a larger body of work showing strong-willed independent thinkers (especially women) we may continue to find those that take offense to any characters that lacks agency, even if it is done purposefully for dramatic effect.


Michael J. Sullivan is the author of the very successful Riyria Revelations. Initially self published, Sullivan sold thousands of copies on his own before the series was purchased by Orbit Books. To learn more about him and his series, visit his website or follow him on Twitter.

Elizabeth Bear Knows What Agency Is
Michael J. Sullivan on Character Agency
Bad GMs Don't Allow Agency - Mazarkis Williams
The Weekend Edition of Character Agency (Long)
Is Robert Jackson Bennett a Secret Agent?
Robin Hobb Brings the Agency Discussion to a Close

Labels: ,


At April 19, 2012 at 6:34 AM , Blogger Maria said...

Interesting. I tend to agree with Sullivan's POV on the subject--that a lot of "agency" is a reflection of societies. There are plenty of men who go through life just taking whatever comes their way, but that doesn't make for an interesting hero. There are lots of women who float through life as well, but it's easier to accept (culturally) as a "norm" and so is especially easy to portray in fiction.

I've read plenty of fantasy where the woman is nothing more than a shadow--but I've also read plenty of male characters in women's fiction who were not fleshed out and nothing more than that same type of shadow.

Of course the reality is that there were always strong women in history--they may not have been able to go to school or rule or even work, but they often had "agency" and ways to make things work for them. My grandmother was forbidden an extended education, but she had "agency" no matter what society rules were forced on her. Not all books capture this sort of "behind-the-scenes" agency. It would make for a more interesting character, but may only be absolutely necessary or noticed by female readers looking for it. There may also not be room for it in large doses. The storyline has to flow and can't be stopped for every minor character to come into his/her own.

At April 19, 2012 at 7:44 AM , Anonymous Foz Meadows said...

This argument fails for me in a lot of key respects. I've blogged about it in detail before, so rather than reiterate, here is a point that never ceases to irritate me:

How can so many (white, male) writers narratively justify restricting the agency of their female characters on the grounds of sexism = authenticity while simultaneously writing male characters with conveniently modern values?

The habit of authors writing Sexism Without Sexists in genre novels is seemingly pathological. Women are stuffed in the fridge under cover of "authenticity" by secondary characters and villains because too many authors flinch from the "authenticity" of sexist male protagonists. Which means the yardstick for "authenticity" in such novels almost always ends up being "how much do the women suffer", instead of - as might also be the case - "how sexist are the heroes".

And this bugs me; because if authors can stretch their imaginations far enough to envisage the presence of modern-minded men in the fake Middle Ages, then why can't they stretch them that little bit further to put in modern-minded women, or modern-minded social values? It strikes me as being extremely convenient that the one universally permitted exception to this species of "authenticity" is one that makes the male heroes look noble while still mandating that the women be downtrodden and in need of rescuing.

At April 19, 2012 at 8:58 AM , Blogger Paul Weimer said...

Thanks, Michael.

I think the problem is that, given your premise, is that agency-free female characters play into a lot of old and bad stereotypes that have besmirched the genre for decades.

Even if you as a writer aren't intending to be overtly sexist by writing in this way, it appears to an outside observer, unaware of your process and motivations, that your work is sexist. And that *you* are in the bargain.
Unfair and wrong? Hell, yes. But its there all the same.

At April 19, 2012 at 10:12 AM , Blogger Kim Aippersbach said...

What an interesting idea for a series of blog posts, Justin!

Michael Sullivan's essay highlights an important point in this discussion: the difference between agency and choice. Michael talks about women who at different times in history (and thus in "authentic" fiction) have had very limited choices. But a lack of choice is not a lack of agency. Viktor Frankl made that very clear.

Elizabeth Bear pointed out that having agency does not necessarily mean acting in "kick-butt" ways, ways that change the world. A person, and thus a character, can exercise agency by running away, by not speaking, by sitting still, by not getting out of bed in the morning. Characters are defined by their responses to the choices or lack of choices in front of them. I think this is the "behind the scenes agency" Maria was talking about

I don't think authors fail women by putting female characters in situations where they have no choice; they fail women when their characters don't respond to these situations in ways consistent with their character (usually because they haven't actually developed the character enough for her to have a consistent response).

At April 19, 2012 at 10:54 AM , Blogger Michael J. Sullivan said...

Without specfics, is hard to know the basis for your acquisation. It could be that the books you have read have held such a trait, or that you are sensative to such, so see it often. I can't say that I've seen that same sort disparity in treatment, but then again I haven't been looking for it either. I know that in my books I imbue traits based on class not sex...and for the most part the poor are constrained, and the wealthy have more options and opportunities.

As to "being rescued" in my books the women rescue the men as often as the men rescue the women (actually if I count I think the women come to the rescue more often - but it's close either way). They do so by using magic or their brain rather than strapping on leather and wielding a sword. As Elizabeth pointed out in her post, there are many ways that women can assert themselves without emulating the "warrior savior."

At April 19, 2012 at 11:07 AM , Blogger Michael J. Sullivan said...

I think I may not have made myself clear. I don't condone writing women without agency, in fact I do just the opposite, but for dramatic reasons a character might initially written as such as a plot point or to provide a contrast as a character grows and develops and comes into their own.

When using such a technique it doesn't matter to me if this is done for a boy placed in a monestary by his father (because he was a third-spare and didn't want his lands fought over), or a noble women forced into marriage to combine two kingdoms. Although for many women, who have seen their sex demened for centuries, they may be more sensative when this occurs to a women, and may not even take note when it is a man.

My point was...there is a lot of ground to make up, as literature reflects the society in which it was written. Books written during a more enlightened society, say 1980's and on will be better in this regard but also fewer in number given years of backlog. Progress is being made. There are more strong women being written now than ever before. But yes there is lots of ground to cover.

Also, I wasn't writing this post about "my writing" but rather on fantasy genre as a whole to explain why this perception of the genre may be arising. I've never heard of anyone reading my series and leveling the claim of sexist. I have four very storng and capable characters 2 men and 2 women and I'm proud of how each of them represent themselves in all respects.

At April 19, 2012 at 11:13 AM , Blogger Michael J. Sullivan said...

Great points. I appreciate your perspective, especially toward ill-defined characters.

At April 19, 2012 at 12:20 PM , Blogger Michael J. Sullivan said...

The good news is society has come a long way, and continues to improve. With each passing year the difference are lessened. My daughters certainly live in a world of more opportunity than my wife had...and yet she was still able to earn six-figures for several decades and in fact, until recently was the breadwinner while I was the one raising the kids and keeping the home running smoothly.

At April 19, 2012 at 1:47 PM , Blogger Kameron Hurley said...

Yeah, the fact that we so easily accept talking dragons and time travel in our fiction but defend the presentation of passive female characters in thrall to a guy's story because it's supposedly "historic" is always good for a laugh.

At April 20, 2012 at 6:10 AM , Blogger Y.Pestis said...

In a way, by being so dismissive of women's feelings/opinions, by saying that they're being overly sensitive, you're denying their agency, their ability to say, "No, this isn't right." I thought Foz Meadows brought up a good point, and I was interested in your reply. While the tone of her comment was certainly exasperated, calling it an accusation (or acquisition, but I assume you meant accusation) seems counterproductive, like you're not interested in talking about her concerns, and indeed you weren't.

I think creating likable characters with authentic attitudes in historical settings is difficult. You're correct in the assertion modern attitudes can be jarring and anachronistic in medieval settings, but Foz is also correct in pointing out that men certainly have modern attitudes, otherwise we wouldn't like them.

How do you balance modern sensibilities with authenticity? How do you deal with medieval attitudes about class, religion, race, gender? How do you deal with the double standards that existed during those times? I wish you had talked about this in relation to women's agency in fantasy, as I'm sure you have something interesting to say about it.

At April 20, 2012 at 11:19 AM , Blogger Michael J. Sullivan said...

Women aren't "overly sensative" they are just "sensative." Just a black man in more intune to injustices in a racial environment. Women have been portrayed poorly in the past, and some probably even so today...I think that is changing...but I also think that sometimes we all fall into the trap of pre-conceived notions. So that sometimes we see things that reinforce what we want to see and discount those things that are proof of the opposite opinon. This doesn't happen more in men or women - we all do it.

As to cases where men have "modern attitudes" but the women still are portayed "traditionally" - I can't comment - as I've not seen that myself...but it may be because I'm not looking for it. If you could provide me with some examples it may help to clarify the situration.

I'm not aware of writing in any "double standards" (but perhaps I have unconsciously - I don't know) I can only go by what the feedback I've received, and there has never been any type of charge to that effect.

Keep in mind that this post isn't about "why I write as I do" it is about "why the genre seems to be as it is." I was talking about the genre as a whole - not my particular pieces.... "Because many fantasy authors....But in the author’s defense, I think it has more to do with a desire for authenticity."

I'll let those that read my series determine whether my women have agency or not...I have no doubt that they do, and based on the feedback I've received, I every good cause to feel that way.

At April 20, 2012 at 4:03 PM , Blogger Douglas Hulick said...

More often than not, I think the "authenticity" you talk about is a "perceived authenticity." What I mean by that is an off-the-cuff set of assumptions on how things were, based on any number of popular but ultimately limited beliefs about what life was like in [insert historical era here]. You rarely see such things as slavery, pogroms, ethnic persecution/segregation and the like in fantasy, yet all were common in various parts of the medieval world. That's not to say that those things are on par with lack of character agency, of course; my point is simply that there are vast swaths of medieval culture & history that are either ignored or glossed over for convenience (or, just as easily, lack of proper research). To argue authenticity for one perceived aspect of society while ignoring numerous other aspects is taking an easy out, IMO.*

Yes, an author has to make choices; and yes, not every aspect of a historical society or culture fits with every book. Believe me, I understand that all too well. However, the authenticity argument carries a lot more weight when the author's efforts at history run deeper than a few swords and castles and horses and some shit in the street. To claim an attempt at "historical authenticity" when there's very little effort toward it elsewhere in the book's world strains credibility.**

* = It's also eminently arguable that we can never truly understand the values and mores of another time and culture. However, as we are writing for a modern audience, I think this argument only goes so far before it becomes a study in futility.

** = Please understand that none of the above is directed either at Michael or his work. I've not yet had the pleasure of reading his books, and so am not about to comment on them or him. Rather, I am addressing the broader concept as it can apply to portions of the genre, and not any specific body of work.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home