Ten Books Which Feature Characters with Agency

Sometimes I get really tired of reading books where characters don’t have control. Some of the most popular books out there have plots that happen to people. I don’t want life to happen to me, I want to happen to life, and I like to read books like that too.

agency characters

I first learned about the concept of “agency” during my Illness Narrative class during Semester at Sea. It’s still a concept that is hard to describe, but I think the gist of it is that someone with agency is able to act within and upon their environment.* To illustrate, the conclusion of Mockingjay really annoyed me because it essentially stripped Katniss of any semblance of agency she had (if you’ve read the books, I think you’ll understand).

So for this week’s Top Ten Tuesday, the prompt is “Top Ten Books Which Feature Characters who…” and this is mine (duh).

1. White Cat by Holly Black

Cassel is such a cool character! In the beginning of this book he really is just a pawn in his own reality, and Black keeps the reader in the dark about as much as poor Cassel is. He really is a bit of a loser in his family and he doesn’t realise how much he is used and trodden upon. But what I love is how he does not settle for being in the dark, and when he realises what is going on around him, he takes control of his life.

I bought this book for ridiculously cheap a few years ago, and only read it recently after Cait’s rantings. It has magic and messy family dynamics and IT’S SO GOOD. YOU MUST GO READ IT. NOW. PLUS: CATS.

2. My Best Everything by Sarah Tomp

So the worst possible thing happens to Lulu: her dad loses her college money. Now, she doesn’t go get a student loan, which kind of annoys me, but she does take matters into her own hands and MAKES FRIKKIN’ MOONSHINE. I really loved the character progression here because Lulu has always done what was expected of her and (wow this sounds like a trope) now she actually doesn’t.

On the point of tropes: somehow this book has a lot of them but still manages to pull them off, so I’m impressed. The ending is a bit too neat and tidy but, you know…

3. My Life After Now by Jessica Verdi

Lucy really kind of acts like any silly teenager after a bad week, but gets the worst kinds of consequence for it. Where she really displays her agency is the way that she takes things further after the initial shock, starting with something so small as changing her healthcare provider because he is a patronising idiot.

4. Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

Apart from the fact that this is an absolutely incredible book, it also features a handful of characters that have agency. As such, this book has less plot and more movement as each character acts within its own environment, and so affects the others’ environments.

5. Every Day by David Levithan

Life has withheld agency from A by his very existence: being plunged into a new body every day. And A withholds agency from himself because acting within his environment would mean taking agency FROM the person who actually belongs to the environment. And yet, A does acquire agency bit by bit, even if not entirely, and its an interesting lens from which to view the story.

6. The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards

It’s dangerous to suggest that simply acting against what is expected of you is displaying agency, but although this is how Caroline’s story begins, it spans further. She lives in an era where it would have been easy to institutionalise Phoebe, to let others take control of her life. But she does not, and in so doing she provides her adopted daughter with agency too. In contrast, although Caroline is not the sole protagonist in the novel, the other characters generally drift along in the current of the plot rather than acting upon it.

7. Hate List by Jennifer Brown

Introspection is underrated. Although Valerie’s boyfriend took action and caused a whole lot of damage in the process; Valerie’s agency lies in her assessment and recovery of herself.

8. The Karma Suture by Rosamund Kendal

It’s fictional, but Sue obtains agency within her professional and personal lives in a way that I wish all doctors would. Our work often tries to deny us agency, and we often comply – because it’s easier that way. Of course.

9. Saving June by Hannah Harrington

There are a whole lot of active characters in this book, so much so that it felt messy and uncontrolled at times. It kind of reminds me of the way life gets when you have a whole lot of strong people together who refuse to be pawns of a plot.

10. The Help by Kathryn Stockett

These are what “strong female characters” are! I loved them. I loved them all. This topic has exhausted my brain so if you want to know why they have agency you need to read the book. It’s a pretty good book.

*Oh, Chuck Wendig wrote a really good thing about character agency here. You should read it. He makes more sense than I do.


  1. Cait says:

    I hadn’t heard of the term “agency” before but I totally love it! I LOVE books where characters take control of their lives. Gah, I’ve just read a whole batch of them where everyone was so passive and just got tossed around by circumstance. Not okay.
    I LOVE WHITE CAT SO MUCH. IT’S ONE OF MY FAVOURITE SERIES IN THE WORLD NOW. And I have infinite respect for The Help. ^-^
    Here’s my TTT!

  2. Katherine says:

    Great flying doctor stories its a trilogy of books, rescue pilot, books by SJ Bolton and another I can’t remember the name of but I’ll see if I can remember it are all great books to read some are short some are long

  3. Love the concept of agency. I hate it when supposedly strong characters spend the whole book REacting instead of acting. Huge pet peeve of mine. To be a hero/heroine you have to DO SOMETHING.

    Happy TTT!

  4. Alice says:

    Have you ever read Little Bee by Chris Cleave? It’s one of my favorite books about immigration and agency, especially creating your own agency in the most difficult situations.

    1. barefootmegz says:

      Sorry for taking so long to reply – I haven’t read it, but I’ll look it up and add it to my TBR! Thanks for the suggestion 🙂

  5. Rachel says:

    I LOVE you topic this week, and I didn’t know “agency” was even a thing. I also love the “I don’t want life to happen to me, I want me to happen to life” YUS!!! I’m in complete agreement with the end of Mockingjay, I was totally with the series until that part where I thought it kind of lost the point. That wasn’t a choice, it was a lack of choice that resulted in that meh ending. R x

    My TTT: http://confessionsofabookgeek.com/2015/04/28/top-ten-tuesday-male-characters-who-have-my-heart/

  6. bellsiebooks says:

    Excellent topic! I’ve been meaning to pick up White Cat for a while and now I’ve added even more books to my TBR list 🙂

  7. I definitely love characters who are in the drivers seat!! My Life After Now is definitely one I’ve been meaning to read. And The Hate List is one of my all-time faves!

    Thanks for stopping by my list

  8. Kaja says:

    I liked how Cassel took control of his life, too. He refused to put up with his family’s craziness – though I would have preferred if he severed ties with them completely (what a bunch of assholes…).
    The cover for Tell The Wolves I’m Home is gorgeous! Definitely adding it to my tbr (I’m shallow like that…).

  9. John says:

    Reblogged this on Writing and other stuff and commented:
    I am going to have to check these books out.

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