agency, authors, character development, Henry Cole, Jacqueline Woodson, Leo Espinosa, main character, MC, MG, picture book, writing tips, YA
“Ask an Editor” is a forum wherein SCBWI members submit questions that are answered as part of our quarterly Kite Tales blog.
Hi Christine–The feedback I received from an agent on my picture book was that my main character “lacks agency.” What does this mean and how can I fix it?—Michelle, Burbank
Hello Michelle – People have trouble with the word “agency” when used in this manner. As writers, we think “agency” means a literary agency so I understand the confusion. The comment that your main character (MC) lacks agency, may mean the character is too passive. (This feedback doesn’t just apply to picture books so writers in all categories, take note, we’re looking for your input—more at the end.)
To start with, ask yourself: Does the MC drive the plot or is the plot something that happens to them / are they a bystander?
In kid’s books, the MCs are often kids and it’s up to them to overcome the obstacles of the story. An example of an MC lacking agency may be when an adult solves the problem for the child. Books don’t even need words to show the MC making purposeful choices and taking action. One of my favorite recent picture books with an MC that has agency is Henry Cole’s Forever Home: A Dog and Boy Love Story (Scholastic, 2022). We see the problem at the start: the boy wants a dog, but his parents won’t let him get one. The boy takes charge and does everything he can to show he’ll be able to take care of a pet. Art alone can drive a story.
Another recent picture book abound with agency is The World Belonged to Us by Jacqueline Woodson and illustrated by Leo Espinosa (Nancy Paulsen Books, 2022). The text and art directly drive this active story.
Of course there are “quiet” books and others where an MC doesn’t need agency but, since you’re getting this feedback, the reader seems to think your MC isn’t doing enough or should be more involved in the story. Take a step back to read other books, analyze yours, then bring your MC alive on the page. And don’t forget to involve your critique partners. If you feel comfortable sharing the agent’s feedback with them, they can provide targeted feedback.
Readers – Please reply to this post or repost on social media with the title of a kid’s book that you know where the character has a lot of agency. All categories (PB, MG, YA, etc.) are welcome. Thank you!
To ask a question which may be answered in an upcoming Kite Tales, please follow this link and fill in the form. You must be logged in to your SCBWI account to access this feature: http://losangeles.scbwi.org/ask-an-editor/.
Answers by Christine Van Zandt, literary editor and writer, and owner of Write for Success Editing Services.
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So many! Don’t let the pigeon Drive the Bus. Mo Willems.
Anzu the Great Listener Benson Shum
(Those two happen to be sitting on my desk.)
Clementine by Sarah Pennypacker
Anne of Green Gables. Ill stop now.