Wulf Moon’s SUPER SECRETS:
Character Agency—I Need a Hero!
By Wulf Moon
“This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes."
In the movie The Matrix, the hacker Neo is given a choice by the leader of a rebellion against machines that have enslaved humans in a virtual reality matrix. Neo stands at the threshold between the world he knows and the world he suspects is out there, and he is given a choice. He can give up his life’s search for the truth about his world, fall asleep, and wake up the next day in his cozy bed back in the Matrix. Or...he can take a chance, choose to leave his world behind, and find out how deep the deception and enslavement of humanity goes. Neo must choose one, and there’s no turning back from this decision —it’s a once in a lifetime offer.
Because the Wachowskis knew their business, Neo chooses the red pill, joins Zion’s desperate rebellion against the machines, and through a series of trials and choices, Neo’s belief in his abilities grows. In the end, the Matrix and its agents no longer hold power over Neo. Now, Neo can manipulate the Matrix, and even the strongest agent cannot stand against him. Why? Because Neo quits doubting himself. He finally believes he is indeed The One. Neo chooses to stand his ground, defeats his enemy, and becomes the hero of Zion’s rebellion.
What Makes a Hero?
Stories are about heroes, although that term has gotten quite loose in our modern times. What makes a hero? Well, a French loaf filled with sliced deli meats, cheddar and pepper jack cheese, tomato and lettuce and pepperoncini (trust me on this!), slathered in lots of mayo and yellow mustard will do the trick nicely. But when we’re talking about people, dictionaries define a hero as a person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities. Granted, that is a broad definition, and just like in life, in fiction it’s not always so clear. So we often substitute the term, opting for tags like main character or protagonist. Same thing, but these heroes don’t have to be so shiny.
But I’ll argue your protagonist still better shine at some point, or at least have some sparkly bits. In fact, if your protagonist has no redeeming qualities whatsoever, I’m going to assume your story is a “get what’s coming to him story.” These can work, but they tend not to be as satisfying, and here’s why. We’ve been hardwired since the first story was told around a fire that stories should not only entertain, they should teach lessons, featuring heroes that effect change for themselves and quite often, for the people around them. Fables, myths, and legends are filled with characters faced with thorny problems. But in hero stories, instead of avoiding the problem or hiding from it, the main character rises up, often at great personal sacrifice, and figures out a way to defeat the problem. Quite often, their actions benefit others. In fact, the more people the hero saves through their efforts, the greater the estimation of the hero becomes.
Heroes are reflections of ideals in our real world. We respect people that grab the bull by the horns, that fight for the little guy, that are willing to stand against oppression. They come in all shapes and ages and gender and sizes. At the micro level, a child protecting another child from a bully can be a hero. A single mom struggling to put food on the table can be the hero of her little household. A volunteer at a pet shelter, a food bank, or a nursing home can be a hero in her community. School teachers are often praised as heroes. So are health care workers, especially in times of a pandemic.
At the macro level, there are national and international heroes that have led racial and social equality movements, or have stood against dictatorships, or have even given the entire world hope by making man’s first footprints on the Moon. Point is, there are many types of heroes, and mankind has always liked reading and hearing about them, both in real life, and in fictional stories. Heroes give us hope, reflect noble ideals, and reinforce our belief in the goodness of humanity. And they’re fun to read about, because when the dragon is out there belching flames on the village, we know at some point the hero is going to have a faceoff with the beast, and we get to follow them into battle...from the very safe position of our recliner.
Does this mean the protagonist we write at the beginning of our stories must be the ideal of moral excellence, the pinnacle of human perfection, with the smell of fresh-minted hero exuding from every pore? No, that would be a Mary Sue story...unless you’re producing a CHANEL Nº5 commercial, then layer on the flawless beauty! Heroes are not perfect. In fact, the best heroes are flawed, just like their writers, just like their readers. It’s why we identify with them —they’re much like us! In fact, sometimes they’re as far from what society considers a hero as one can imagine, but here again, maybe we are too, and we love a story of redemption because everyone deserves the right to a second chance (or two, or three). Hey, it’s not easy bein’ green!
When you’re creating your troubled protagonist, it’s important to remember readers need to spot some redeeming quality glimmering within their makeup early on that allows them to identify with your protagonist, even sympathize with them, so they can hold out hope for change. Do your job right and because of that bond, they’ll stick with your character to the bitter end, hoping it will turn out sweet for them.
But there’s another type of hero altogether. Many hopeful writers create this hero without ever knowing they’re doing it. And instead of a fatal flaw, this kind of protagonist is the kiss of death to any writer hoping to get published. Ready to find out? You sure you don’t want to turn back? This could get embarrassing. And that sandwich you made is getting cold...
Character Agency: Proactive Heroes vs. Passive Heroes
Character agency? What’s that? Good question. Character agency is a phrase I heard tossed around last year like a ping-pong ball on a panel at a writing convention. “What’s this,” I thought, “some new discovery in the realm of writing? How have I never heard of this term before?” Perhaps you haven’t either, but now you can be the one to impress your critique group by making a blood-red circle on someone’s manuscript while exclaiming, “This protagonist needs more character agency!” Bravo! Of course, first you’ll need to understand the term. Have no fear, that’s why we’re here!
At that conference, I listened to the panelists give their rundown of what the term means and why it’s so important that protagonists have it. I have to admit, those Canadians know their character agency! And as the panelists did their verbal ballet, I realized I did know the concept, I just didn’t know the fancy term for it. No offense to my Canadian brethren, I still think Thor said it best in Thor Ragnorak: “But me, I chose to run toward my problems, and not away from them, because that’s what heroes do.”
As Thor (and the Canadians!) said, character agency is about choice. It’s about characters that aren’t content to be shoved along by circumstance. Instead, they choose to shove back. And they keep shoving back, all through the story, until they find a way to defeat their enemy. Proactive characters grab the bull by the horns, knowing full well the bull is stronger than them, but it’s better than sitting on their butts and letting the bull trample them under their big pointy hooves! Proactive characters try to solve their problems, even when those problems seem insurmountable.
Think back to our opening example, this time, when Neo faced off with his nemesis in the subway tunnel. With Neo in a chokehold upon the tracks, Agent Smith said, “Do you hear that, Mr. Anderson? That is the sound of inevitability.” Well, sure, if you want to roll over and give up and let a commuter train turn you into deviled ham. Proactive heroes do not give up. They face those impossible odds and wrestle with the opposing force and even if they fail, they’ll get up, dust themselves off, and keep trying to the bitter end. And if they don’t have a backbone, we expect them to find one before the story ends.
Passive main characters? They yield. They surrender. They give up. They sell out. Let’s return to The Matrix. It’s a great example, because it’s a story about choice. Cypher is an operator aboard a Zion hovership. He betrays his shipmates so that he can escape the hard life of rescuing people in the real world in exchange for juicy virtual steaks, wine goblets filled with rich Burgundy, and instant artificial fame, like being an actor or something. Hah! Spoiler alert. He even pulls the plug on his friends while they’re in the Matrix, killing them in the real world. By the time the writers get done portraying Cypher, we can all agree, that man has one bad goatee.
And yes, he’s a bad man. But he could have been a hero. He made the same choice Neo did. He chose the red pill, learned how the machines enslaved humanity, and had been living a life of sacrifice on the hovership in order to free people trapped in the Matrix. Sounds noble to me! But at some point, Cypher stopped resisting the opposition. He craved the easier path, the one of least resistance. He even went so far as to pass Neo a tin cup of rotgut and said, “You want a piece of advice. You see an agent, you do what we all do. You run.”
Run away! Run away! Passive characters run from their problems. They avoid conflict. They let the opposing force shove them around, only reacting to plot events instead of taking action and pushing back against those events. Because they fail to flex their muscles over the plot, the plot controls them, and they become little more than ragdoll puppets. They never develop their muscles because they let others in the story do the heavy lifting. Are they really a hero if someone constantly pushes them down the path? Makes their tough decisions for them? Fights their battles while they stand on the sidelines and wait for the outcome? Does the Medal of Honor go to the ones that were just following orders, or to the ones that were told to retreat, but chose to turn back in the face of imminent death because they wouldn’t leave their comrades behind? We know the answer.
There's another issue of our times. The moral vacuum in our world. When nothing is right and nothing is wrong, we start craving something that will highlight better virtues. For instance, we know that gun violence is wrong. We wish something could be done about it, but our world appears to be in a deadlock as to how to fix the problem. Reading a story about a hero that prevails against such darkness can give us hope, something many desperately need.
From the beginning of time, most stories have provided lessons in morality and justice and love while entertaining. Joseph Campbell documented this. His famous monomyth is based on comparative analysis of heroes “with a thousand faces” across the world’s cultures, all having commonalities most cultures view as heroism. True, the line of what's right and wrong, what's good and bad, may be less defined in our times, but we still crave a line as we see so much senseless suffering taking place. Good stories can help us make sense of chaos, can even highlight a better path, and can shine a light on virtues we'd like to see more of in our world. And if others like that spotlight you're shining, they’ll be loyal to your work, gobbling up everything you write.
Good stories help us escape our world, but the great ones? They help us shape our world. They define what is virtuous, highlight hopeful pathways, and reveal that anyone can rise up to be a hero within their own sphere of influence if they choose to do so. If our protagonist is a victim, or the story is about the victimized, we can still give them victories relative to their circumstances that can prove to be monumental stands or changes for them at the end of the story. Even if our protagonists get dragged along by unfortunate circumstances at first —think of young Paul Atreides in Dune —they do need to find a way to turn tragedy into triumph, even if it’s only a personal one. Paul Atreides often quoted the Litany Against Fear when facing deadly circumstances as he moved through the story from a weak state to a powerful one. “...I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” That person that remains? Readers will view him as a hero...because he faced his fear and triumphed.
A New Type of Hero— No Capes!
There is a new type of hero arising from our present-day culture as global society becomes more sensitive to the individual’s needs and personal circumstances —yes, even to the personal needs of people we already view as heroes. Admired by society and expected to achieve further victories, some real-life heroes set the mantle of fame aside in order to take care of family, community, or even themselves. The latter seems the most counterintuitive. Aren’t heroes supposed to be selfless? Isn’t sacrifice on behalf of others what makes a person a hero? Many hero definitions state this, but in today’s world, that’s no longer an absolute. Why? Respect for the individual, and their personal circumstances.
Take tennis champion Naomi Osaka. At the time of writing, she ranked No. 2 in the Women’s Tennis Association’s singles category. It takes heroic dedication and tremendous personal sacrifice to achieve such a high rank in international competition. There is no question she’s a sports hero. However, she pulled out of the French Open in 2021 before the second round due to experiencing huge waves of anxiety. And she admitted before the media and the world that she has suffered long bouts of depression. She took a mental health break and sat out Wimbledon this year as well.
Olympic champion Simone Biles on the USA Gymnastics team pulled out of team competitions at the Tokyo Olympics, and all but the last individual competition, in which she won a bronze on the balance beam. Similar to Naomi Osaka, at a press conference she said she put mental health first. Is this the mark of a hero, choosing a mental health break over winning championships, and in the case of Simone, over representing her country? Not long ago, mental health issues were not even spoken of, for fear a stigma would be attached to you for life, destroying your career. Western society had little regard for those that couldn’t “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.”
But society has changed. This is because medical science and new treatment methodologies have transformed the way we think about those coping with stress, depression, and even chronic mental illness. Our culture has become much more understanding and empathetic toward these issues. You don’t have to look back far to see the transformation— recall 20th century mental institutions, how easy it was to be placed in them, and the kind of treatments those suffering had to endure.
Happily, the outpouring of support and respect by fans, reporters, and institutions alike for Naomi, Simone, and more was tremendous. In fact, these stands have been hailed as a watershed moment for sports heroes. Just like us, sometimes our heroes need a break from stress. Just like us, sometimes it takes courage to say I need to sit this one out. Instead of booing them as failures, or thinking they are somehow deficient, we cheer them on for taking care of themselves, and admire their bravery to admit before the whole world that they’re only human. It takes a lot of courage to do that —there is tremendous pressure to perform. But these athletes weren’t swept along by expectations; they made a proactive choice. That too, is heroic.
What makes a hero? As you can see, it’s complicated. The heroes we write about are reflections of people in the real world, and the real world is always changing. The defining characteristics of heroes shift over time because society’s values change over time. On top of that, the term is relative. What you consider makes the stuff of heroes may not seem very heroic to me. So I can only give you my working definition of a hero in relation to story. It’s the main character of a story who triumphs, or fails to triumph, against the opposing force, but they gave it their best shot.
Whatever you choose to call them —main character, protagonist, hero— good stories are about people who try.
I have given you a choice. This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in front of your keyboard and go on typing protagonists swept along by circumstance. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and you write heroes that might appear to be rabbits, but you give them big pointy teeth!