Author’s note: This post will primarily focus on the concepts of agency and active and passive (or reactive) characters in relation to stories about trauma. I would be remiss not to state clearly this is because I’m focusing on the story I know best: my own. However, I’m white, cis, and American. There are intersectional identities here with their own perspectives that are just as important. For a BIPOC perspective please check out this great post from Vida Cruz. For a more detailed analysis of many of these concepts as they relate to all kinds of storytelling and identities, I highly recommend Matthew Salesses’ Craft in the Real World. (Barnes & Noble).
Content/Trigger Warnings: Detailed definitions/descriptions of C-PTSD including medical symptoms and statistics related thereto.
Disclaimer: As always, I note the views expressed in this blog are mine and mine alone and not representative of a whole identity. Also, when referencing current market and industry trends please note that in this blog post I’m primarily talking about Young Adult Fantasy (traditional publishing).
When I was querying my two YA Fantasies (and pre-PW my Adult Fantasy), the most frequent critique I heard from critique partners, alpha readers, beta readers, editors, agents, and random strangers everywhere was my main character(s) lacked agency. Whether someone had read my entire novel, the first 20 pages, the first 5 pages, a synopsis, query letter, or a 280 character Twitter pitch, the same refrain found itself on repeat in my skull. No agency. Inactive. Passive. Lacks Agency. Reactive. Needs more oomf.
It got to the point every time I saw the word “agency” or “active” whether it was in relation to writing or not, I recoiled. Then, in March 2021, during a regular therapy session, the word agency reared its ugly head, setting the brain worms to squirming.
As it turned out, my characters were not the only ones who lacked agency.
What is Character Agency?
Character agency (aka agency as that word is used in writing) is the character’s ability or power to change things in the direction they want. If you google this you’ll find a million definitions but they all center on this concept. For a character to have agency they must both (1) be able to change things, and (2) want to change things.
What you’ll also find if you google this is about a thousand ways defining agency in this way leads writers with a different story to feel as though their stories don’t matter.
- “Without agency, characters are little more than leaves, pulled along by the river. They don’t make an effort to change their situation, therefore we don’t care about them.” (emphasis mine)
- “A character without agency is just a prop. They’re a piece of decoration that doesn’t serve any purpose other than to have the story happen to them.”
- “Nothing makes a reader put a book down faster than a character who just lets stuff happen to them. These characters feel like shells or puppets, cardboard cutouts that the plot is moving around arbitrarily. Your character should drive the plot, not the other way around.”
I could keep going but honestly, it’s making me sad. Point is, western storytelling circa 2023 is obsessed with agency. If your main character(s) don’t have it, you’ve written a bad book no one will care about.
What is Psychological Agency?
Psychological agency or the definition of agency used in behavioral psychology is not dissimilar from character agency. In psychology, agency is roughly defined as a person’s ability to act autonomously to control their own life. Source.
C-PTSD and the Loss of Agency
Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) is a disorder usually brought on due to sustained, inescapable, relational trauma in early childhood. It is distinct from its singular C-less form of PTSD in that the trauma is ongoing and not a singular incident. This repeated abuse causes a child to suffer a lack of agency during critical times in their brain development. The lack of agency often carries over into adulthood even after the childhood trauma has ceased. Adult survivors of C-PTSD suffer from a wide variety of symptoms including amnesia, alienation, mistrust, chronic physical pain, re-victimization, debilitating flashbacks, nightmares, body memories, anxiety, dissociation, trouble regulating volatile emotions, severe depression, toxic shame, and auto-immune disease. They’re 27% more likely to have COPD, 33% more likely to be smokers, and 24% more likely to be heavy drinkers. Source.
Oh hey, that’s me. More on this in a second.
What is an Active Protagonist?
An Active Protagonist is basically a hero with agency. Usually the main character. Listen, you can quibble with me all you want about well technically agency is more than active because it requires a focused goal, so an active protagonist doesn’t always have agency, and sure. But for the most part, if your main character (1) wants something and (2) actively does stuff to obtain that thing, you have an active protagonist with agency. Trying to keep it simple. I know you’d all appreciate I keep it under 40 pages today.
Where the Active Protagonist Fails and Falls
The Active Protagonist is not the end all be all of storytelling. In fact, to think so is to limit yourself to a very narrow view of the whole of the human experience which is, interestingly enough, one of the reasons people read. To learn and all.
This is where I’m going to plug Mathew Salesses’ book Craft in the Real World again. Oh look! There’s a picture if you click on it, you might be able to buy the book!
Matthew speaks on experiences outside my own far better than I ever could, but beyond western storytelling’s obsession with agency and the active protagonist is a whole world of literature waiting for us to embrace a style that is… not that. Just saying.
Active Protagonists and Trauma Narratives: Debunking Survival as an Active Want
I write trauma narratives. Even when I don’t mean to. Write what you know, they say. Well, what I know is trauma baked in deep. What I don’t know as well is agency. Despite over a decade (going on two) of therapy, working toward reclaiming agency, that beast is still fuzzy around the edges. Especially when it comes to writing young adult. I find it extremely difficult to write an authentic, traumatized teenager who possesses agency. Probably because the entire concept of a teen with C-PTSD is (in my opinion) their loss of agency.
This is, of course, where that squishy definition of active protagonists could really get squishy. Because I really don’t want to go down the rabbit hole of the focused goal part of this (like I said, aren’t my blogs long enough?) let’s stay with my abbreviated definition of an active protagonist who has agency and try to apply it to a trauma narrative. And yeah, some of you aren’t going to like where this is going, but I hope you’ll stick with me.
Step One: Wants something. Cool. It would be reductive to say traumatized people don’t want things. They do. Obviously. Usually the want at the forefront of their minds, however, is survival. Even after the trauma has ended, the brain of someone with C-PTSD has often developed in such a way as to hyper fixate on survival. And while survival might seem like a big want, it’s not active in the way western storytelling expects. Why? Because of…
Step Two: Actively does stuff to obtain the want. Active is the key word and needs to be delineated from reactive. When you live in a state of survival, you aren’t actually active. You’re reactive. Your central and sympathetic nervous systems have been wired to respond to every stimulus in your environment with a flight, fight, freeze, fawn response. It’s nearly impossible to make forward actions when all your energy is spent reacting to perceived threats because your body and brain are fried by trauma.
Wanting to survive is therefore reactive. Not active. A character whose primary desire is survival is therefore very likely not active but passive. They do not do unto the world and the world responds. The world does unto them and they respond.
Are there other things that a traumatized character can want besides survival? Absolutely! As I said, it would be reductive to say traumatized people don’t want things. In fact, I might go so far as to argue they possibly want things more because they can’t pursue them. But that’s the problem. They often can’t pursue them. Because they’ve lost their agency, aka their ability to actively chase things they want. So even if your character does want something besides survival, if they’re still in that mode, and they haven’t found agency because they’re living in trauma, then they likely can’t pursue it. I know because that’s how I’ve lived most of my life. Wanting desperately. Unable to chase. It’s a sad story I’d love to tell but can’t because it isn’t wanted. Apparently, characters like me are not particularly interesting. Perhaps because they’re too true.
Trauma Narratives and Seeking Agency as the Arc
One of the main arguments for why you, the writer, should write an active protagonist is because people like to see character growth. The argument goes that “people” want the arc. The hero’s journey. The descent into darkness. They want the emotional journey that goes with a character starting off at point A and ending at point B. First, let me just again mention this is a very western view of storytelling that focuses on the individual. Not all cultures require, desire, or demand an emotional, individual journey. Some cultures prefer a moral. Or a history. Some prefer a story that centers the growth of the group, not the individual. Others like stories that are sweeping with no human focus at all. And over the years tastes and wants and societal demands change and change again.
But that isn’t my story to tell, and others can and have made their own arguments better as to why western audiences should pay more attention to non-western storytelling.
If I speak to the story that is mine then, I find myself asking: within the framework of western storytelling and arcs and the active protagonist, is there a place for a trauma narrative? And if so, where?
Let’s try again.
Step One: Want something. In my opinion, survival is always at the core of the trauma narrative. But if we dig a bit deeper into the stage that might come after survival, we turn toward a new want for the trauma survivor. It can take many forms: a friend; an education; a place to live; a pet; a job; a hobby. But often, when you boil these wants down, you find at the center a quest for agency. Through connection, or eduction, or financial independence, or the stability of a place all your own, or simply doing something just for oneself a trauma survivor is cautiously asserting (or learning to assert) agency.
Step Two: Actively does stuff to obtain the want. It seems deceptively simple to write a story about actively seeking agency. Want something. Go after it. Except you need agency to go after something. And around and around our active protagonist seeking agency goes. How do you chase something if you need that same something to know how to chase?
I can tell you one thing: it isn’t something I’ve ever managed to convey in a five or ten page writing sample. Which is probably why the most common feedback I’ve heard from queries and samples is silence. Or form rejections.
Personal experiences aside, I do believe it’s possible to tell this story within the western storytelling framework. In YA Fantasy, where I’ve had least success telling it but where I believe it’s most sorely needed, I think it’s a quieter, slower story than the current market demands. The two books that spring immediately to mind are The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. Weymouth and Ever Cursed by Corey Ann Haydu (please be mindful of huge trigger and content warnings on both these books). Both left me with deeply complicated feelings regarding their content and their endings but as I sit here writing this, I know my own YA Fantasy, Deathbringer, were it to ever find its way to shelves, would be critiqued similarly. Perhaps that’s what it is to tell a trauma narrative. It isn’t pretty or quippy or vibey. It is, in fact, quite ugly, and messy with an arc that doesn’t always lead you to a happily ever after.
But it does lead you somewhere different than the start. And that’s all that’s required of an arc.
Tell the Story but Remember the Audience
I wrote this heading about ten different ways before I settled on this. I started with “Tell the Story Anyway.” I wanted to say bold advice like that didn’t come from a place of privilege but was instead a recommendation to the traumatized soul to help with healing. To say that even if the book of your heart doesn’t get you an agent or dies on sub, you’ll have the cathartic experience of pouring your trauma onto the page, and it isn’t a privilege to give yourself space to heal.
That would have been a lie.
Sadly, getting to the point where you’re safe enough to heal is a privilege. Which is why western storytelling has failed so many people, because right now the only maybe sellable trauma narrative (as I see it, in YA Fantasy anyway) is one related to healing. Survival still isn’t sellable. There’s one notable exception, yes. I’m not forgetting The Hunger Games. That’s a whole separate rant for another day. Also, that was 15 years ago. One story every 15 years when we have the amount of early childhood trauma we have in this country is… oop, starting the rant. Gonna stop.
Instead, I offer to you this, take it or leave it, advice is only advice. I don’t believe in hard or fast rules, and only you can know your heart and what you need. But if you find yourself writing a traumatized protagonist who’s getting critiqued for lacking agency, and you’re lost on what to do to change that (and you want to), please know this is the arena you’re playing in, these are the rules you’re expected to follow. I know they’re confusing.
Often, writers are given the advice to put things in the way of their protagonists. To create conflict. Talk of messy middles seems to be based on this concept. Personally, I never have trouble with middles. Or conflict. I’m actually laughing to think of having trouble with conflict. Where I struggle is beginnings. The place where we’re supposed to define the want. The goal. The motivation. If you’re in this position, and you have a trauma history, I might suggest you need a new brand of advice specifically for you. So you can write in a system not made for you even though you shouldn’t have to.
Here’s the advice: If you lived in one of your books (or one of your favorite books) outside the chaos of your life, where the possibilities were bigger (not boundless), what would you want? If no one (including you) was holding you back, what would you do? Where would you go? Who would you dream to be? To learn? To love? To chase?
Picture it. Now, unshackle your characters even if you can’t unshackle yourself.