The Chain of Consequence: Character Agency in Fiction (and Bedtime)

I’m trying to get out of the habit of sleeping with my phone at my bedside. It’s not because of what I do before I fall asleep — though I’m as guilty as anyone of rage-scrolling through the news and social media late at night when I should be practicing “good sleep hygiene.” No, my problem is what I do when I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back asleep. 

I reach for the phone, and suddenly I’m swept up in the chain of consequence. Really, I should know better. I do this to my characters all the time.

An example:

My children’s school district has yet to announce its plan back-to-school in Fall 2020, because like all school systems in the United States, it’s contending with a pandemic, and a vastly underdeveloped national response, and a vaster network of grown adults who have refused to stay the course of reasonable precautions. I don’t know yet if my children will be back five days a week, back on some kind of “A/B” schedule, back virtually, or what. I’ve dreamed about this, because anything that worries me ends up in my dreams. It’s part of the emotional and mnemonic labor of being a woman. Thus, I awoke in the early hours of the morning a few days ago, dreaming about school shopping lists.

Because, if my children are going back to school for some period of time, I’ll need to buy things for them.

Among the things I’ve always needed to buy are tissues and sanitizing wipes.

Tissues and sanitizing wipes remain either unavailable for purchase at stores near me, or can only be purchased with strict buying limits.

Given present conditions, my kids will likely need many more of these things than they have in years previous. I might have to go out four or five times, and hit up several stores, to find what I need.

I can get some of these things online, but shipping is slow, and pricing is high, and purchasing volume is often limited online, too. 

Every other sensible parent facing this quandary will know this.

At least some of them, I reasoned, were lying awake, thinking about it, too. 

Actual image of Tracy at 4 AM

And so, I reached for my phone, and started investigating how many different online vendors I might have to shop from to fill their needs — how shipping windows might overlap to maximize beating the rush without quite crossing the moral threshold of “hoarding” — and this process led me to remember how many masks we launder every week, and the likelihood of my children losing the ones we have, and so I looked up fabric masks, and then. . .

And then, seemingly all of a sudden but really many hours later, it was daylight. And people wonder how, when I “don’t work” during the summer, I get so little sleep. 

Also, lack of sleep means I haven’t made my writing goals a single day of the last week. I’m falling asleep by 9 PM and can’t wake up (productively, anyway) for my 6 AM writing alarm.

And that’s the whole point of this article.

Human beings navigate through difficult situations by making decisions (and yes, I am counting the refusal to engage or decide as a decision, Bartleby). Our decisions always have consequences, even if they don’t seem particularly significant. And each idea, each decision, each action, each attendant consequence elaborates on this cycle of activity — hence, my sleepless game of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie

One of the hardest things for writers at any stage in their careers to get good at is character agency. I sometimes think of problems and plots first, and then some interesting characters, and then have to work very hard to ensure I’m not just bolting characters onto a chassis of plot, patting the hood, and insisting to my readers that, sure, it’s not very streamlined or anything but when you get this baby out on the road she really moves. Characters need agency so we can believe in them, because agency is all about how choices influence outcomes. Everything in our lives reinforces this concept, whether we’re conscious of it or not. (Often, we prefer not to be. Many is the time I have had to sit a student down in my office to explain how the grade they’re pleading about really is a product of their agency. I have yet to meet the student who appreciates that talk; in fairness, I probably wouldn’t, either.) Readers are sensitive to problems of character agency because, even if we can’t always articulate just what we mean when we see them, we sense in our bone structure that something just isn’t right when nothing a character does seems to shape their situation much. It flies in the face of everything living tells us.

I stopped taking my phone upstairs and putting it at my bedside two nights ago, and while I haven’t stopped waking up with the wild urge to research squash seed prices for winter planting or learn where American passports are still accepted, it’s cut the chain of consequence that kept ruining my nights, my mornings, and my writing.

When you’re writing, stop to think about what chains of consequence your characters are stuck in. If you can’t identify at least one, that in and of itself tells you something. As a human being, I needed to put the phone away. But as a writer, I know I need to give my character that phone, so to speak. 

Ask yourself what tools or traps lie at your characters’ disposal to complicate their lives. Ask what fears or obsessions guide their actions. (If you’re in the habit of reading my columns, you know already that resource-hoarding is my go-to coping mechanism in the face of anxiety.) Ask how the decisions they’ll make as a result will snowball, and how you can make that into a katamari of disaster your story can use. After all, authors aren’t under any obligation to make their characters happy. We ruin their lives, at least for a little while, because the most basic, primal definition of a story is “The moment after which nothing will be the same.” Stories are about chains of consequence — the “therefore, but” push-pull structure of what we intend versus what actually happens.

Try this exercise with what you’re writing now: 

Jot down what your characters are doing or facing in the plot. Not “they must defeat the witch-queen and return the land to its rightful rulers,” but something far more granular. What very specific challenge are they facing, in this specific moment? Like, “they must persuade the merchant to hide them in his caravan.”

Now, walk it back a little. How did the last thing they did set them up for this? 

How about the thing before that?

And before that?

And while we’re here, what are the chains of consequence — possibly unknown to the characters — that will inform that merchant’s decision about the caravan, or the witch-queen’s decision about whether and how to pursue them? Does everyone (or at least the most critical everyones) have some kind of agency, some chain of activity that shows their conscious desires and responses in play?

If you find you can’t get more than one step backward in that chain, you might want to think about how you’re building a chain of consequence in your story. Or, more pointedly, how you might not be. What can you do to give your characters decisions that influence their future in meaningful ways? What can you do to make clear that they had options, and still chose this path?

Sharpening your awareness of agency — including your own — is hard work, but it’s necessary. 

For my part, I’m still leaving the phone downstairs tonight. But I can’t guarantee I won’t be looking up the going rate on Clorox wipes via eBay during the day, and that may mean not having time to finish the laundry before I’ve got to cook dinner.

Oh. Darn. I guess not every decision has to lead to tragedy.