agent (sociology) Rather than defining a person as an individual, having a number of universal human qualities, and also unique characteristics and personality, agency places an agent within a social field, where their individual potential and ability to act and cause change is dependent upon social circumstances and status rather than concepts of personality or psychology. Agency as a sociological concept constructs agents within a matrix, a doxa, a framework of social circumstances and values: the economic status of wealth and property, social status through formal education and qualifications, status through social position, family role and gender roles, and cultural status, the status of ethnicity and identity defined through social history and individual history. These concepts of agency are known and grouped as Forms of Capital and while there are different formulations of capital, different headings these are variations in definition and effectively state the social circumstances of a person, an agent.
In narrative fiction, its creation and analysis, character is often discussed and defined through personality: psychological factors such as aptitude, temperament and drive are thought to define character, and story world is a separate factor, the social setting of the narrative is something that the character lives in. This separation is valid, but what the use of agency offers for the creation of stories is the need to closely define the character’s relationship to their social world and importantly the economic, social and cultural aspects of that world subscribe their ability to act.
If there are two tendencies in fiction one is towards the mythic where characters embody qualities and act in story worlds where there are clear moral divisions, and there is social drama where the world depicted is historically specific, it represents an actual time and place. Both forms of story, mythic and social, offer moral rhetoric, but social worlds have characters where agency/action is constrained by social circumstances: agents in realist settings have no special superhuman or supernatural powers. Mythic worlds often have little or no sense of actual history unless the story is understood to be allegorical, but superhuman power in a mythical story is an agency, and the appeal of this kind of story is that a character can have significant agency: they save the word, free the people, end tyranny, defeat the villains, win the day.
Both mythic and social stories are often centered on figures who can create change, or have plots that focus on points of change, conflicts over power, so that agency as a concept and the framework of forms of capital can be applied to all stories. In a mythic story world this will not attempt to mirror any actual society, but create its own history: warriors, superheroes, wizards, and this means that the audience are free to enjoy the idea of success, power and agency, without reference to money, wealth, education, career, class, race or social history.
The proposal of moving to understand characters as agents to create fiction might be resisted as this is not an established methodology for story making and it also undermines what might be basic assumptions: that there is such a quality as human, that there are human rights, that there are people, citizens, inherent moral qualities. These are beliefs that structure many societies today, we have rights, we are people, but these are historically formed beliefs supported by economic social structures rather than being natural and universal: an agent can be embedded and embodied as part of a social system that gives them rights, privileges, or the same system can deny and disclaim these. The concept of agency reduces the assumption of individuality, but then reforms this because of the social distinctions and differences that define each agent in the society: in a story why does a character behave in a certain why, how does this character place themselves in relation to others, what are the conflicts and challenges that the agent faces due to their specific place in society?
To work with agency, to develop characters, story world and story narrative, one can map out wealth and economics, social stratification, social history/histories and then characters will only have agency within these parameters, and the story world defines the possibility and potential for action: the aim for the narrative here would be to have agents/characters who can only act within this social framework: they are true to their setting and period. Within the detailed writing of the story what needs to be considered is how this social setting will be represented, how characters are understood within it and how characters understand themselves and others.
In storytelling there is historical narrative, with history as a telling of significant events, their cause and effect, and the people who are important to these events: ordinary lives are not considered to have much historical relevance within this context. In the development of storytelling and then stage drama it was Gods, Kings, Ruler, Nobles, who are first given representation and importance by having their stories told. However, and while the stories of great historical events are still recounted, contemporary drama is also concerned with the social circumstances of everyday people and in this light, using a sociological framework, having a social model for a story is helpful. In comparison to the history of great figures being the main factors to influence events, sociology steps away from the significance of a particular historical personage to study the range of actions within shared social circumstances. Here, researching sociology can certainly help a creative writer develop and support how they engage with storytelling: psychology is not dropped as a factor, but this is now shaped by setting: the character is angry, humble, arrogant not because of internal mental processes, but because of how they are defined by society and how they define themselves within that society.
In narratology agency is understood as implicit and vital to drama, because stories concern action. Stories are primarily centred on characters who are able to act, and story offers the understanding that action is possible: saving the world, being the one who survives when others perish, defeating oppressors, reaching a goal, being free. Stories are also concerned with the inability to act, of being subject to the action of others: being defeated, failing, action coming to an end. Story might be separated from ritual: in a ritual the symbolic roles and duties of a society or a group are performed, either publicly or privately, so ritual is an expression of power or of submission. Story functions to confirm and define moral action, and also to test moral action.
The concept of agency in narrative indicates that story is a social entity. Developing stories with familiar concepts such as character and plot, setting and theme, can be effective, but by using the concept of agents as a development tool to create and understand the action of a story has a precision which can offer coherence and cohesion to the story. Writers, storytellers, need some sort of measure to develop and test their story. An immature storyteller will often tell as story where what they want to happen, happens, but this is not within a credible framework. When a story has a specific historical setting there is a need to research to develop characters and this can be within the framework of forms of capital and through the concept of agents who do or do not have agency.
Copyright: Eugene Doyen 2019