Imagine that your best friend invites you over because she needs some advice. She’s finally decided to leave the job she’s been complaining about for the last two years and has been offered two great jobs. One is her dream job, but it’s halfway across the country and her boyfriend, whom she loves very much, isn’t willing to move. The other job is only an hour away, allowing for a long-distance relationship but, while much better than her current job, it doesn’t fulfill her dreams as well as her other option. You discuss the pros and cons and agonize with her over whether to choose love or her dream. She tells you she’s made a decision and you wait with bated breath to hear what she’s chosen. She takes a deep breath and says, “I’ve decided it’s too hard to decide, so I’m just going to stay at my current position.” What in the world was all this for then? Why did you spend two hours of your life going over it with her if she wasn’t going to do something?
This is how readers feel when your protagonist doesn’t make purposeful choices, but instead just drifts along wherever the plot takes him. People read books because they want to get to know characters and see how they respond to challenging situations. They expect that your protagonist is going to make decisions that have consequences. Then they’re going to have to decide how to handle those consequences. And on and on. All of this drives your plot forward toward its exciting conclusion. A character that has the ability to affect the plot through their actions and decisions has agency. And your characters need it.
Now, just because a character has agency doesn’t mean they always make good choices or that the consequences are always what they’d hoped for. A bad choice can be more interesting than a good one! But they must act, for better or worse, if readers are going to stay interested and be invested in them. How can you root for someone who isn’t taking any action? There’s a reason we root for the football player on the field and not the guy selling hot dogs in the stands. Hot-dog guy has no control over the outcome of the game.
This isn’t to say that your protagonist will never react to the events in the story. The other characters in the book will also have some agency and when two characters with different goals both act, interesting conflict can arise. But their reaction must be active. Maybe they fight back against the antagonist’s attack or confront their unfaithful lover. They maintain their agency even when responding to events around them, and the plot moves forward the way it does because of what they say or do. Without this—when your characters bounce along within the plot without actively affecting it—readers may wonder why they are investing time with this person if they aren’t going to take some control. Just like your friend who is staying at her crappy job.
As important as agency is, your protagonist doesn’t have to start your story fully formed, ready to confront every challenge. Many characters start off with less agency and then something happens that changes everything, and they can no longer go on the way they were. At this point, they start to take control, gaining agency with every vanquished obstacle. By the end of the story, they are in charge of their own destiny. They don’t have to start that way, but they should grow into it over the course of your novel.
So, give your protagonist a threat, an obstacle, something that busts them out of their comfort zone and makes them realize that they have to start doing something. And then make sure those actions have consequences that affect how they move through the story. Your readers will stay engaged and your character will be someone worth cheering for.