On Agency

To be a person is to be constantly engaged in making yourself into that person.

  • Christine M. Korsgaard, Self-Constitution: Agency, Identity, and Integrity

Agency may be the most important word for an aspiring professional author. It is the means through which we make our characters real, and real characters are the most relatable by far. Agency is also the means through which authors find representation for themselves in the professional sphere. Yes, this is my attempt at a bad pun.

We’ll get to my pursuit of the latter soon enough, but for now, I wish to nerd out a bit and discuss the agency, or lack thereof, in other media. Before we get to that, though, I have the need to clarify a key difference in media/entertainment formats. I suggest, for your judgment, that there are two forms of media: interactive media and experienced media. In the former, the audience (and I choose that word with care, for the purposes of “know your audience”) interacts with the media to bring a narrative to its close. In the latter, an audience ‘experiences’ the narrative without possessing the means to drive the plot along themselves.

Examples to fulfill these definitions should be obvious: Books and Movies are experienced media, games (of all sorts) are interactive (even for edge cases, such as Visual Novels or “art games” like Dear Esther).

The agency of the characters within experienced media is, to some extent, superfluous. It exists, and must be done well, solely for the purposes of making an audience like those characters or the story as a whole. However, the agency of characters within interactive media matters tremendously more, for it is the audience that is involved with the story—their decisions drive the story onward, and thus an absence of player (audience) agency shatters the inherent compulsion to be involved with the story. Put another way, if players (an audience) are not shown that the repercussions of their choices or actions exists, they may be less inclined to choose or act. And as action is the driving force behind interactive media, inaction makes the whole story crumble to obscurity, perhaps never being finished.

I intend to cite three examples of player agency being dashed; one a few years old now, one very recent, and one persistent throughout time and space. All are, as required by the above description of interactive media, games of a sort. So, the nerding out follows below:

In Borderlands 3 (which is, as I recall, the fifth installment of the Borderlands series) players slay bad guys that do bad things. However, whenever those bad things are being done, the player characters (a colloquial term which has an implied possessiveness) are nowhere to be found. Likewise, the player characters are absent whenever a resolution or correction is made for the problems the bad guys caused. Instead, it is the non-player characters (not possessive, computer controlled) that actually make the hard decisions and advance the plot of the game. It is their lives that get threatened by the antagonists, and only ever in the player characters’ absence. It is they that make fictionally ultimate sacrifices.

This, for me, ruins much of the story of Borderlands 3 because the story does not have an impact on the lives of the player characters, the avatars of player involvement in the game, and thus players themselves needn’t feel too involved in what’s going on. The player characters may change over the course of the story—my favorite example being of my favorite character, Moze, slowly becoming more “bandit-like” toward the end of the game—but those changes are not incurred by the story itself; rather, they seem to happen just by the flow of time and the existence of those characters within their surroundings.

Contrast this with Borderlands 3’s predecessor, Borderlands 2. In Borderlands 2, the game opens with a failed assassination attempt against the player characters by the game’s antagonist, Handsome Jack (who has been often called one of the best [if not the best] written villains of all time). Jack continually derides the player characters and antagonizes them verbally, directly, throughout the course of the game. Jack makes the players hate him (and love him, for how awful and absurd he is) which is something never quite accomplished by Borderlands 3’s villains. And when Jack does something bad, the player characters—and thusly the players themselves—are always front-and-center to witness it, if often times restrained so as to prevent their input.

Borderlands 3 omits this agency entirely, and the story is far worse for it, widely criticized in games journalism and by its audience. Disappointment was always going to happen when trying to follow in the footsteps of a villain like Handsome Jack, but Borderlands 3 did itself no favors in eviscerating player involvement in its story. I’ll note that this analysis applies only to the base game of Borderlands 3, for I have not played much of its expansion content; I was so uninvested in Borderlands 3’s narrative that I just couldn’t be bothered to continue with it further.

So that was some time ago. What sort of agency violations are we running into now?


More accurately, Destiny 2’s Season of the Splicer…and, at that, its Epilogue, which at the time of this writing just unfolded a few days ago.

Ignoring a few criticisms about the “bad guys” having Stormtrooper-like inaccuracy with their weaponry, this Epilogue commits the same cardinal sin that Borderlands 3 did throughout its narrative, in omitting player character involvement from changing the tangible story. There are a few other occasions and nuances throughout Destiny’s narrative that likewise omit the existence of the player character, or the effect that that existence has (or should have) on the franchise’s universe. Instead, it is the brainchildren (literally) of the franchise that effect change upon the Epilogue’s narrative. Player characters, and players behind them, do not save the day in Season of the Splicer’s Epilogue. That credit instead falls to the likes of Ikora, Saint-14, Mithrax, and other spawn of the author’s (Bungie’s) designs.

The term that I’ve seen tossed around for this is “cape writing”, in derisive evaluation of the writing behind superhero movies. Iconic characters that an audience can recognize, albeit not those that an audience creates themselves, being used to drive a plot forward. It is these icons that save the day in Destiny’s Epilogue. And it is players left scratching their heads wondering whether their involvement really changed anything. Does the player character save the world, and if not, what do they accomplish?

This has happened before in the Destiny universe, and it’s likely to happen again. The Eliksni in Season of the Splicer fear “The Saint” (Saint-14) for his ruthlessness and apparent unstoppability (not a word). However, arguably it is the player character that is most responsible for crushing Eliksni forces throughout Destiny’s seven years of storytelling so far, yet the Eliksni wield no legends or fears about them. It would be wrong of me to argue that Destiny is without agency entirely, but this recent negligence—or intentional omittance—is nevertheless worrisome for the future of its narrative.

Finally, I wish to bring up an issue of agency that is far more perpetual in scope: Dungeons and Dragons. This is not the first I’ve discussed D&D in this blog, nor will it be the last. And unlike the above two agency issues, D&D itself commits to no such faults. Instead, as D&D is a tabletop game of intimate interactivity between all of its players—including those that run the game, called “Game Masters” or “Dungeon Masters” or GMs/DMs—I believe the omittance of agency stems from those directly involved in the game itself. More specifically, I believe GMs (such as me myself) often fail to provide a world or story that the player characters should be invested in on a personal level. This can vary from character to character and is definitely not universally true of all GMs. Sometimes this division between world and character is on the fault of the players, e.g., in the creation of characters that do not fit the setting laid out by the GM. (For instance, roleplaying a swashbuckling pirate in Curse of Strahd…I’m sure you can make it work, but it wouldn’t be easy.) However in most “home-made” (the ‘technical’ term is homebrew) campaigns, I’d argue the fault of the aforementioned division falls on the GMs designing that campaign.

Many D&D campaigns I’ve played in have ignored the backstory and aspirations of my player character, as well as those of others involved. The more recent campaigns I’ve run I have done the same to my players, which has led me here, blogging and reflecting about this failing of mine. Is this a problem or is it just unnecessary rambling? Likely the latter, but I’d argue it doesn’t feel good to waste time on a character’s backstory only to never once have it be relevant. I’ve received that complaint, personally, and I’ve felt as such myself likewise. So what’s the solution? Make cardboard-cutout characters instead so as to burn no time on the endeavor? Seems like the lazy approach.

Instead, I propose the following concept for campaign design prior to selling it to prospective players: don’t. Situationally. If your players have a propensity to make involved character backstories, sell them on your world and setting (if you can), and then wait for them to provide you with tales of the goings’-on of your world’s denizens; that is, their player characters. Then build the campaign in lieu of those characters’ backgrounds. It’s probably better to recommend this in the form of something supplementary, so as not to fall into the pitfall of devoting more time (in-game or in-real-life) to one character over others, which will allow you to still have a broader conflict (narratively speaking) for the characters to band together to address. But I am beginning to believe there is a good reason to build a narrative reactively, around the characters therein, so as to better acquaint those characters with your world and story and to make them feel as though they have some agency in the world around them. Shoehorningly (not a word) stuffing characters into a preexisting narrative is banal and will only sporadically generate emotional investment from one’s players.

Phew. That was a lot of words. But we’re not done yet! As is ever the case with these posts, I seek a double-meaning for my subject matter, and I hinted at the second thereof in my opening paragraph: Agency as it concerns professional representation, particularly with writers such as myself.

I don’t have an agent. I wasted several months, maybe a year, looking for one, only to be confronted by a myriad of problems in my search. Perhaps this is a little naïve or unprofessional, but I started entering the writing world shortly after graduating from college, and the collegiate and post-grad pursuit of education enables students, such as myself at the time, to pursue any number of potential schools in their application process. I believe I applied to sixteen from High School, being accepted to seven or eight. I intuitively assumed such a process may translate to other aspects of life.

I was wrong.

I was swiftly informed that it is considered fairly unprofessional to submit multiple applications (queries is the term) to different literary agents at once. And being as acceptance or denial usually takes 4-12(!) weeks, there is an inherent slowness to the professional pursuit of agented authorship. In today’s world of (nearly) instantaneous communication, I found this entirely unwelcoming. Don’t get me wrong, I understand why a response can take 4-12(!) weeks (reading and judging whether one wants to represent the submitted query as opposed to other alternatives), and the theoretical reasoning for why it’s uncouth for a prospective author to query more than one agent at a time (applying to X agents and only agreeing to work with one results in wasting time of X-1 people in the world) but I cannot help but feel as though there ought to be something more efficient for everyone involved. Something like…a Linkedin™ for authors. I’ve searched and have not found such a thing. (Prospective business idea? Filling a void in the needs of others has proven to be an effective means of generating a bit of cash…)

What I have found, however, is the ManuscriptWishlist (MSWL) website. MSWL doesn’t really address the inherent problems described above, but it does allow a prospective author to better look for agents that may theoretically be willing to represent them. However, MSWL presented me with an additional problem: Too Much Choice. With so many options to choose from, choosing one is particularly paralytic, especially when one cannot renege on their choice for 4-12(!) weeks. This ultimately led me to pursue a path of self-publishing, skipping agenting altogether.

But hey, if you’re an agent who has somehow stumbled upon this blog and you think you like what you see here, feel free to reach out (pro@morallygreymatters.com).

In furtherance of the side-post known as On Pause, I’m very near to arriving at a self-imposed deadline for the publication of my next work. One might even say the “Crunch Time” is beginning (although it doesn’t really feel like a Crunch yet, knock on wood). As a result, I don’t expect to contribute another post to this blog for a hot minute. However, I am planning a critical and reflective self-review of my first work a short time after the second is published, shared here like any other blog post. I think it’s healthy to iterate upon one’s own writings and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses I put forth in my hopefully-numerous forays into the writing world.

Previous Post

Latest Post

Next Post

On Magic

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

  • Arthur C. Clarke, Profiles of the Future: An Inquiry Into the Limits of the Possible

That is probably the most cliché quote I’ll contribute to the overuse of here in this blog.

There is a lot to discuss about magic, given its varied definitions. Merriam-Webster gives nine different definitions between uses of the word as a noun, adjective, and verb. Thankfully, some of these are archaic or otherwise not commonly used, such as the verb form ‘magicked.’ (I intuitively write this as ‘magic’d’ for reasons unknown.) Of these nine, I first want to focus on one of magic’s adjective forms, as given by Merriam-Webster:

Following the rabbit hole of definitions, enchantment can be cited as the quality or state of being enchanted, and likewise enchanted provides us with made to feel delightfully pleased or charmed. (In addition to two other definitions that loop back to ‘magic’) “That experience was magical,” says one enchanted individual. And it is this very usage that compels me to write this article.

You see, most people—painting in broad strokes here—like a certain degree of ‘magic’ in their lives. The first time you read a book, or see a movie, or play a game is going to possess a certain quality that subsequent read-throughs or viewings or play sessions will not (unless it’s a terrible book/movie/game). This ‘magic’ creates a nostalgia that in turn provokes us to return to things we so greatly enjoyed the first time. But the follow-up experiences are rarely so magical, are they? Nostalgic experiences can give us a comforting homeliness, but—from my experience with such experiences—that rarely makes up for the void left behind by the loss of the ‘new magic.’

So what, then, is an author—such as yours truly—or filmmaker or game developer to do to offer their customers longstanding magic? (One can ask why this is important or why such creators should even bother. After all, so long as they’ve made a sale, their job is done, right? But an author’s lasting legacy is also their ability to make subsequent sales, be they for one work or for many.)

Personally, I believe in liberal use of Chekhov’s gun, a foreshadowing technique named after Anton Chekhov, with several red-herrings sprinkled throughout a narrative. In the context of the above forms of media, this belief as much refers to foreshadowing within a single entry of media as much as it suggests alluding to eventual plot points in later works. A combination of these three techniques [intra-narrative foreshadowing (a term I made up just now), inter-narrative foreshadowing (likewise) and red-herrings] provide plenty of opportunities for lasting ‘magic’ to a dedicated audience:

  • Intra-Narrative Foreshadowing, or foreshadowing of events that occur later within the same media entity, provide an audience with an “aha!” moment when such clues come together to reveal something. For instance, a detective using evidence sprinkled throughout a story to deduce who committed a crime at the end of a book or movie. (From my perspective, most detective shows do this poorly, as often that evidence is obfuscated from a viewer’s eyes and thus they are unlikely to arrive at the same deduction for the same reasons. I posit that these shows instead bank on their viewers simply enjoying the characters doing the legwork for them.)
  • Inter-Narrative Foreshadowing, or foreshadowing of events that occur later within a different media entity related to the initial one, provide an audience with anticipation of future events. Cliffhangers and other such unsolved mysteries, for example, are inter-narrative foreshadowing. (One definition of cliffhanger seems to apply the notion to my above definition of intra-narrative foreshadowing. However, I can’t recall ever actually seeing this definition used in practice.) These give a dedicated audience a reason to come back for more. Moreover, when such an audience then goes back to earlier works, they can find once-overlooked details that hint at later events, granting them a renewed sense of ‘magic’ and wonder for other things they may have missed. Used well, this leads to…
  • Red-herrings, which I hopefully shouldn’t need to define, are an author/filmmaker/developer’s ‘out’ in distracting an audience. Not everything needs to result in something of any significance. Sometimes some details are just for show or greater immersion to help an audience better visualize or empathize with a scene or character. But coupled with actual hints or clues as described above, red-herrings can give a rabid reader or voracious viewer something extra to chew on over time, plunging them into a sea of unknown pathways and obscure dead-ends.

I do, however, feel compelled to note that cliffhangers are not very magical, at least not after the first encounter with them. By their very definition, they allude to something that must occur at a later date, and when that something eventually does occur, any magic once instilled is lost after a brief period of enjoyment for the elucidation. There is no mystery or guesswork about a cliffhanger—save for the effects the eventual event may have on the narrative/characters of a story; they are very much so “one time use” in regards to their ‘magic.’ After all, once you know how a trick is done…

And that brings me to the next point: the ‘magic’ of magic as a noun.

I firmly believe that Teller of Penn & Teller (not to be confused with Pain & Terror) gets this better than anyone. For those dodging the last thirty-four years of stage magic, Penn & Teller have been a duo of comedic magic performances operating primarily with illusions, sleight of hand, or other forms of deceit. There is a twist here: Penn does all the talking, and Teller…doesn’t. Teller’s insights as to why he refrains from speaking are as follows, from an interview with NPR. It seemed a disservice to not include everything he had to say on the matter, so do pardon the large copy/paste below:

The rest of the interview is absolutely worth a read/listen; click the image above for a direct link to it, but be forewarned: fans of Penn & Teller may lose a little magic in doing so…more on that below!

To see Penn & Teller perform (something I have regrettably managed only with recordings and reruns) is quite the spectacle indeed. How are their tricks done? Could it have involved X? Did they slide a card in when Y? The art of their performance sparks mystery and intrigue, and so, too, does the lack of Teller’s vocal presence. What does he sound like? For years, that was an unknown to me, and it was joyous.

And then, by pure happenstance, I stumbled upon and mistakenly viewed an interview with Teller in which he spoke. (Not the interview linked to above, not that it matters.) And so the magic therein was lost—I had my answer to the magic of Teller’s previously-nonexistent voice. And made-for-radio though Teller’s voice is, no sound was—or is—capable of replacing that silence.

And that’s the magic of it.

Stage magic invites guesses about solutions. But those that come to learn ‘how things work’ in magic performances often resent their own understanding. For when the magic is gone, what is left, save for an appreciation of once being fooled? Can that be enough?

It seems, in most cases, not. And so we arrive at the obvious: Magicians being unwilling to reveal the secrets of their trickery is a mercy in spite of our worst judgment. (It is also an economically-motivated decision—trade secrets, and all that.)

It is in this regard, then, that I want to speak of the final chunk of definitions for magic, that of actual supernatural ‘magic,’ as in the noun-form definitions 1.a, b) and 2.a, b) far above.

I have written of magic in my own fantasy works quite a bit. Within the first of my works, a fairly-knowledgeable being describes magic as “a confluence of mathematical engineering and willpower, bound by balance and limited by the instruments of the caster.” So often within the works of fantastical fiction does magic have some backbone of physics and fundamental techniques describing the what and how of its function.

But, in hindsight, I think this is folly and I have grown critical of such an approach. In Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeons & Dragons tabletop roleplaying game, for instance, magic is very well-defined down to a fine level of physicality. ‘Spells’—as they are known—feature finely described verbal, somatic, or material components for casting them. The process of utilizing such magic is much less the harnessing of some wild, mysterious force and much more a science by another name. (Nerdy author’s note: D&D’s “Wild Magic” background for Sorcerers counters this point to a tee, though it is the only ‘primal’ caster in an ocean of better-established Wizards and Warlocks.) And I think, ultimately, there is something very wrong with that.

When we know the ‘how’ of how to cast a magic spell, is it really magic anymore?

Fun point of fact: When writing this post, I initially misquoted the Arthur C. Clarke quote as being

Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.

And I think, actually, that rings true, too. The more we try to ground magic in reality, the less magical it really is. And I’d argue that’s a shame.

Modern ‘magic’ in Dungeons & Dragons or otherwise is very heavily inspired by the works of Jack Vance, in particular his Dying Earth series. As a result of this, the ‘technical’ term for fantastical magical casting such as described above is ‘Vancian Magic.’ The Evil GM, a seemingly-now-defunct blog about D&D, in 2012 wrote a fairly descriptive breakdown of Vancian Magic and its problems—from a gameplay perspective and on its issues with agency—and from one blogger to another, I must encourage my readers give it a gander. Having read that post many moons ago as an impressionable teenager, I now find myself unable to subscribe to Vancian Magic in good faith. To speak bluntly, it feels like a cop-out.

Now, the opposite may look like a cop-out too; simply doing nothing or very little to tether magic in reality may seem to strike a chord of laziness, and I cannot fault one for thinking that. But that a reader, viewer, or player may not fully grasp the fundamentals of casting magics within a given fantastical universe should be—in my opinion—by design. We, as creators, can bear the burden of understanding how our magic works; we need not deprive our audience of that wonder.

For to wonder is magical indeed.

Previous Post
Latest Post
Next Post