Characterization and Agency in Children of the Dead City
This blog post is inspired by a thought-provoking post by The Fantasy Inn’s Hiu over on Reddit. The post was asking a lot of questions about character agency and how necessary it is for a good, well-written character that people will connect with to have agency. Basically, does the character have to have agency in order to be a “good” character.
What I liked about it most was that it inspired all kinds of questions about different types of characters, personalitites, external vs. Internal constaints on a character’s agency, and so on. Questions that are worth asking when it comes to any character. So I thought I’d do a little exploration of some of my own characters and look at them from an angle that I never necessarily thought about specifically and examine their level of agency and how it affects their stories.
I’ve come up with nine general questions inspired by that original post and the replies/discussions.
- Does the character have agency within their society on a day to day basis?
- Does the character have agency in a specific situation or key moment because they are in a position to make an important choice?
- Does the character have agency on a large scale that can influence the fates of their entire kingdom/many people?
- Does the character tend to be proactive when it comes to making decisions or do they consult or need encouragement from others?
- Does the amount of agency the character has change over the course of the story? Is this because the character proactively worked to change their level of agency?
- Does the character face internal limitations to their ability to act/influence those around them? Is this internal limitation due to trauma, a moral choice, or something else?
- Does the character ever act in a way that is not typical of their usual level of proactiveness? What effect does this have on the story and on the other characters around them?
- Does the story include the points of view of characters who do not have agency both in terms of their society and the overall plot of the story? Do these characters have their own motivations and goals or does their presence in the story serve the goals of the main character(s)?
- Who is the main character of the story and how much agency do they have in society and in relation to the main events and happenings in the book?
I’m going to choose a few characters from my epic fantasy novel Children of the Dead City and use those nine questions to examine their agency. I'll attempt to avoid major spoilers, but a few minor ones are inevitable for a post with this much detail.
The thing about this novel is that I’d been trying to write it for a while. The stories of all the characters that appear in this novel all existed and I was trying to put them into words. I went through several attempts, one of them a full length novel and several short story attempts, but these attempts just weren’t working out until I hit upon the right moment to start telling the story, the moment when eight year old Dargoth is kidnapped and separated from his mother. I think this moment, and the reason I chose it, is inextricably linked to this idea of agency.
Does the character have agency within their society on a day to day basis?
These two characters, while they had a relatively stable, comfortable life before the kidnapping, didn’t have enough agency to immediately fix the problem and easily reunite. And the incident kind of pulled them outside their comfort zones and forced them into a larger scale of conflict where they had no agency at all.
Rikkitta was a respected woman in her community. She owned a bakery and would often bake food for the kids at the city’s orphanage and for the old people in her neighbourhood. She sometimes took food to the soldiers in the nearby barracks as well. Her husband, who died shortly before the beginning of the novel in a Sorcerer attack, had been a well-known swordsman and a sailor. And when her son is kidnapped she uses every bit of this small amount of social agency she can to try to get him back.
Dargoth also attempts to escape his kindappers and get back to his mother. As a child, he has very little agency, especially in the new places he’s taken to and among people who don’t know him. For a long time his main obstacle is that lack of agency as no one will even listen to him when he tries to explain that he was kidnapped and needs to get back to his mother.
So both characters are forced to come face to face with their lack of agency and inability to control the things going on around them due to the kidnapping incident. Being forced out of his small world Dargoth meets people who have a lot more power and agency than anyone he knew growing up and when he sees them missing opportunities to use their influence he develops very strong feelings against them.
Does the character have agency in a specific situation or key moment because they are in a position to make an important choice?
Dargoth’s kidnapping and the events after it put him into a position where he knew some influential people, including the commander of the Palace Guard, who ultimately has some influence with the King as the head of his guard. In the moment, as a child, Dargoth wasn’t really thinking of this position, the agency it might give him, but an old woman encouraged him to use this connection to help his people.
“Those men want you to go back with them. Whoever they are go with them and get out of the city. It may be much harder to leave in a few days once the sorcerers have strengthened their hold on it.”
“I’ve been trying to come back every sinc-”
“Listen to me, boy,” she hissed impatiently, “from outside you can get us food and herbs for healing. You can get us news and hope. You can get us weapons and help.”
With this encouragement Dargoth sets out on a journey to help his people. A journey which brings him in contact with some characters who were born with much more agency than he was. And through his influence they start to realize how much proviliedge they have and how much they’re taking it for granted.
Does the character have agency on a large scale that can influence the fates of their entire kingdom/many people?
King Sharr is one of these characters born with a lot of priviledge and a lot of power, but he doesn’t necesarily know what to do with it. An evil man known to the rest of the world as the Mad Sorcerer shows up and begins taking over towns and cities in his Kingdom and he panics. He’d just lost his wife and is left with a baby daughter to take care of. He escapes rather than defend his fortress city at the top of the mountain and locks himself away behind the closed doors of the Palace near the city of Dalaiabeth. While he holds power over the entire Kingdom and all its armies he doesn’t feel powerful enough to act. This situation isn’t helped by his advisors who encourage his fears in order to prop up their own ambitions. He’s not one of the main characters in the novel, but because of his position and his influence over many people’s lives he does have a significant, if sometimes disastrous, role in the story.
His daughter, the Lady Shila, wasn’t meant to be a main character. But somehow, the second half of the novel ended up focusing on her growing into her own power and learning to use it. I very much enjoyed writing her adventures and discovering this interesting character as she developed.
Does the character tend to be proactive when it comes to making decisions or do they consult or need encouragement from others?
Dargoth is definitely proactive throughout the novel. In fact, he gains a name for being daring because he tends to go out and make the decisions that other would hesitate a thousand times before making. As for Rikkitta, I’d say Dargoth gets his daring qualities from her. She’s very proactive and always does things when she sees the opporunity, and often works to make opportunities where they don’t already exist.
King Sharr would definitely be a reactive character. He’ll often take advice from those around him, and many of his advisors use this as a way to feed his fears and prop up their own ambitions. But it’s not just his advisors that he listens to. He takes advice from others around him, such as the Palace Blacksmith, Azad.
Shila is also more of a reactive character by nature, but she ends up having to be proactive to fill her role in the Kingdom. She realizes that she needs to act and needs to use her power for the good of the people, even though she’d rather be doing other things. Just like her father, she surrounds herself by people whose advice she can rely on, except I think she’s a bit more sucessful at choosing the right advisors than her father. Her biggest supports in terms of encouragement and advice and helping her get things done are Yerin and Raimi. These two are opposites when it comes to proactiveness.
Raimi does his share of “action,” but it’s always out of necessity or as a reaction to something and he really doesn’t want anything to do with politics or big conflicts. On the other hand Yerin is one of the most proactive characters in the novel. She doesn’t have a lot of priviledge or agency - she’s just a cook’s assistant in the palace - but she manouvers herself into a position where she can protect the young princess and eventually becomes her closest friend and advisor - constantly pushing her to use her power to get things done. Yerin’s character and that whole relationship grew out of a single scene where I just wanted some random palace servant to accidentally come across a conversation and be an observer, but Yerin’s personality imposed itself and she ended up playing a big role in the novel.
Another more reactive character that I loved writing is Acklavion. He’s often pushed into a role of leadership within the rebellion, but he’d really just rather observe and advise others. Because of his wealth of knowledge he’s often the only one who can solve certain problems and he doesn’t hesitate to act quickly and decisively when the need arises, but again, this is usually in response to some kind of threat posed by the Sorcerers.
Does the amount of agency the character has change over the course of the story? Is this because the character proactively worked to change their level of agency?
Dargoth had very clear goals for himself and worked towards them from the beginning, gaining agency slowly, but surely as the novel went on. He saw the need to be strong and trained himself. He saw the need to help people in the city and immediately went and got them that help. The events he witnessed starting with his kidnapping, a couple of run-ins with Sorcerers, and the take-over and destruction of his city, affected him deeply and made him want to do whatever he could to gain more agency so could do something about the situation his Kingdom is in. Dargoth works hard throughout the novel to gain enough strength to help others. For him, it was a very clear progression towards more and more agency as the novel progressed.
But there are some characters whose agency changed in a much less linear way.
Does the character face internal limitations to their ability to act/influence those around them? Is this internal limitation due to trauma, a moral choice, or something else?
Now this is the interesting question. Children of the Dead City essentially deals with a bunch of characters who had a pretty traumatic experience when the Sorcerers took over their city and it follows them as they try to fight back. So many of them have to deal with their experiences and that trauma and it definitely influences their actions.
Some of these characters try to stand upright despite all these horrors in their past. Raven, for example, becomes the leader of the rebellion and gives everyone hope and a way to fight back against the Sorcerers. Even thought he’s not that much older than them Finns ends up becoming something of a father figure to some of the younger survivors, but he’s so deeply affected by what he experienced that those experiences continue to haunt him, despite his outward strength.
But war and killing are in no way natural or easy things to deal with. Hawk, the main character of the original novel and one of the main characters in this final version, is one of the most powerful fighters in the rebellion, but internally he struggles with what all the fighting and killing is doing to his soul. His entire arc is centered around this internal struggle and this affects the majority of his choices throughout the novel.
Without straying too far into spoiler-land, these characters all make a pretty big discovery that leads to a moral dilemma and they have to make a choice as to whether they can keep fighting in the same way that they have been doing.
Does the character ever act in a way that is not typical of their usual level of proactiveness? What effect does this have on the story and on the other characters around them?
The choice not to act, to ignore an opportunity that presents itself, is one that a few of the proactive characters make in this novel. They’re taking a stand, relinquishing a power that they could have and potential victories that could come from it, and they do this as a moral choice. I hope that this not-very-typical level of proactiveness helped to lend some weight to those moments and choices.
On the other hand, my favourite one of these out of character moments is a change in the opposite direction. When Hotaru, a normally very careful, calculating character who does act, but extremely carefully and in tiny ways, decides to make a life-changing choice and act a lot more proactively than normal.
Does the story include the points of view of characters who do not have agency both in terms of their society and the overall plot of the story? Do these characters have their own motivations and goals or does their presence in the story serve the goals of the main character(s)?
This novel has a lot of characters. It starts off with Dargoth and his mother Rikkitta, but slowly expands to include many other POVs as well, a few of which I’ve highlighted in this blog post, but there are more. In a sense, the plot doesn’t exist for or around one character in particular, it doesn’t hinge on a single character’s actions or motivations. There’s no ‘chosen one’ and I couldn’t have told the story properly without ALL these POVs. But there are characters that have the role of observers more or less and characters with varying levels of agency, both internal and external. In some ways their struggles against the Sorcerers kind of unites them and makes their goals similar, but not always the same.
For example Yerin is a lot more focused on pushing Shila to take control over the Kindom and taking that opportunity to prove that a queen can rule well. Shila herself is more concerned with figuring out and navigating the politics of the kingdom and making sure to do it with justice. Sometimes these goals align with the goals of the other main characters, who are fighting against the Sorcerers, because after all, the Sorcerers do pose a threat to the people they’re trying to rule, but it’s more a cooperation and everybody still has their own immediate goals that take a greater part of their focus. They also team up with a couple of side characters in Bridgetown, to solve some local issues there. So characters like Commander Karam and Lady Hala have their own worries and motivations and goals specifically related to Bridgetown.
One of the main players in the rebellion ends up leaving the kingdom entirely and setting himself on his own separate journey for a large part of the novel. There are characters on the adjacent fire-mountain who are much more concerned with their own sphere of power and their own problems and don’t know much at all about that entire Kingdom except that Sorcerers have taken it over and to stay away from it. A traveler, Ragash, travels from the fire-mountain and makes his way through the Kingdom, observing and helping people along the way, but still maintaining his own separate motivations and just trying to teach his son the Traveler way of life.
Together, all these separate characters and their individual threads come together to tell the story of this city and its children.
Who is the main character of the story and how much agency do they have in society and in relation to the main events and happenings in the book?
As I said above, there’s not really one main character. In fact one reader got mad at me for shifting the focus away from Dargoth in the second half of the novel. But there are some characters that are definitely more prominent than others so I’ll pick the top 4 that get the most consistent pagetime:
Dargoth - starts off with very little agency as a child who was kidnapped and taken to a place he knows nothing about. He slowly works his way up to have a much more significant agency and influence over the fate of the entire Kingdom.
Rikkitta - has a significant amount of respect from her community, but realizes the limits of her agency when her son is kidnapped. She never really gains any agency over the fate of the entire kingdom (nor does she attempt to do so) but she is proactive and always strives to help others on a smaller, individual scale.
Shila - born as the princess/heir. Slowly gains more and more political agency as she grows up and grows into her role. Her choices can and do affect entire villages, cities, etc which are under her control. She also attempts to make alliances and use what powe she can to affect the fates of the villages which have slipped/are slipping out of her control.
Hawk - an important part of the rebellion. He has physical strength which makes him a useful fighter in the rebellion, but he doesn’t necessarily believe that his contribution or level of agency can make that much of a useful impact and doesn’t necessarily capitalize on his abilities as he feels like more of a small piece in a much larger puzzle led by Dargoth, his brother and the rebellion’s leader Raven, and the Sorcerers on the opposite side.
Overall, taking into account the characters I did and didn’t mention and looking at the bigger picture I think that there’s a slight prejudice, if you will, towards more proactive characters - or normally reactive characters being proactive for a while - but I think within that there’s enough variety that I’m kind of happy with. It was definitely interesting to examine the story from this lens where I had given no thought to proactiveness while writing or even in the planning stages.
Socially speaking, and this was definitely by design, there are characters from all walks of life and social backgrounds represented and given POV scenes. Only one of the main characters is royalty (Shila) and we see a few other lords and ladies and advisors and of course her father the King as side-characters or background characters, but the vast majority of the characters are ordinary people from this Kingdom including blacksmiths, bakers, weavers, sailors, orphans, Travelers etc.
Well, I had fun exploring that. Thanks again to Hiu of The Fantasy Inn for inspiring this blog post.
If you’ve stuck around this long, you may be interested in checking out the novel that features all these characters: Children of the Dead City. It’s currently on sale for $2.99 so this is a great time to pick it up. Not sure it’s for you yet? Check out the book’s page on my site for some excerpts, blog posts, and other related material.
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