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Guest Post | Robin Hobb Brings the Agency Discussion to a Close

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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Guest Post | Robin Hobb Brings the Agency Discussion to a Close

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 final installment of the series...

Robin Hobb.


Wow, are you asking the wrong person! I tried to find a discussion about it on the Internet, I flunked. So, speaking very off the top of my head and a bit flippantly, I uh, still don’t know what the discussion was about.

In fact, I looked at the heading of your message and your first question and my answer was, “Agency is the guy in New York who does all the boring parts of being a writer in exchange for 15% of the take. In my case, The Lotts Agency. And it is a very fine Agency indeed! I am a writer and I got Agency.” In that sense.

It’s not a word I would use in the way you’ve described as I suspect it has migrated to literature from philosophy or sociology. People using that word undoubtedly know what they mean by it when they apply it to characters in a story, but I don’t.

Not speaking specifically of ‘Agency’ but of any specific quality in a fictional character (intelligence, charisma, endurance, physical trait), I would say that it’s fair for a reviewer to call the reader’s attention to the presence or absence of it. If there are no women in a tale, or no left-handed vegetarians, that’s a fair thing to mention if the reviewer’s readership is specifically interested in tales that feature women or if it’s for the Left-handed Vegetarians Journal. After all, readers read book reviews to find books they will enjoy.

As a reader myself, I like a wide variety of characters, with all sorts of talents, aspects, attitudes and backgrounds. So, for me, for a character to lack a specific trait, or for all the characters to lack a specific trait is not a big deal. It’s simply how that story is told. Example: I am completely unbothered by the ‘lack’ of female characters in Lord of the Rings (book). The makeup of the Fellowship fits the society he created in the story. And a character does not have to be female for me to identify with him. So, for me, it’s not an issue. Nor is it a ‘lack’.

If we carry this ‘characters must have agency’ thing to its logical conclusion, then we are going to end up with a checklist of characters and traits that every book must have in order to be ‘good’: Lovely young woman with agency, check! Drunken sea captain, check! Angsty white prince, check! Philosophical tea-sipping dragon, check! Lesbian war-monger, check! Psychotic editor, check! Dashing, handsome, intelligent, charismatic, agency-possessing part-time dragon-slayer and book reviewer, check!

Lord save me from having to pander to my readers’ special interests in order to rate a ‘good book’ label!

I write the characters who live in my world. Then I invite the readers in.

If I read a book and find that the characters don’t work for me, I put it down and read a different book. So I guess that I, as a reader, have agency, too!


Robin Hobb is an International Bestselling author of bunch of books. She has recently finished writing a four-volume series called The Rain Wild Chronicles. The volumes are named The Dragon Keeper, Dragon Haven and City of Dragons, with Blood of Dragons forthcoming in 2013. Her other recent release, The Inheritance, is a collection of short fiction published by Subterranean Press.

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At April 24, 2012 at 6:16 AM , Anonymous redhead said...

"Lord save me from having to pander to my readers’ special interests in order to rate a ‘good book’ label! "

Yes, that!! thank you thank you for showing us where this goes when you take it to the nth degree. I just want to read a good book (and Ms. Hobb, yours are among some of the best I have read), I'm not concerned about how the people in it are like me, or not like me. Also, has anyone else noticed that "agency" is the newest buzzword? when is it going to show up in press releases for debut novels?

At April 24, 2012 at 6:24 AM , Blogger Mark Lawrence said...

Thank you for the sanity!

At April 24, 2012 at 9:09 AM , Blogger Paul Weimer said...

Thank you, Robin!

At April 24, 2012 at 3:07 PM , Anonymous Francis Knight said...

Thank 'insert person/deity to thank of your choice'.

Not every person has agency. Nor should they, If they all did, they'd all be butting heads and nothing would actually get done...

People in books should be, er, people. With all their diverseness. Some people have agency. Some of them are women. Some are men. So? Historically, men have been The Dudes in fantasy, but there's much diversity now, so many good books with great female characters too, that it seems a bit overboard to insist every single woman in a story has agency (though malecentric is still an issue). Do people insist every character has agency? Nope. Characters are as they are, as people.

Now, if you have a habit of making *all* your women housewives who love to pander to the men in their lives, or *all* virginal damsels in distress who exist as plot tokens/prizes for Our Hero, we might have a problem ( a sadly familiar problem). But if your women are as diverse as your men? Not seeing a problem.

As long as you write *people* rather than genders, I think you should be sound.

PS: I may have a non female name, but I am of the female persuasion. :D

At April 29, 2012 at 10:36 PM , Blogger Andrea K Höst said...

The question of agency is not so much running off a checklist of things which must be included in stories, but of examining why so many stories have a large and varied number of interesting characters and "the girl". Of women treated not as characters, but a kind of non-person - a rescue object or a reward or a bloodied form poking out of a refrigerator which gives one of the "real characters" something to angst over.

"Agency" is a garbled shorthand way of saying "please can we see more female characters who are people, not devices".


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