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.
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.