I was thinking about a potential scene in a future project while I made breakfast this morning. About five minutes in, I realized I might not need the scene at all. The viewpoint character wouldn’t have any real agency. She would learn some news about her husband, but the scene would be, at best, a Proustian blend of impressions and people coming and going, with a climactic reveal near the end.1
Drama, as I understand it, is a combination of stakes and agency. Something must hang in the balance – the woman tied to the railroad tracks; the exit visas to Lisbon; the dream-thief’s sanity – and someone must make a choice to get closer to or further from it. Along the direct route between our protagonist and the stakes, throw in any number of obstacles: the bridge is out; the Nazis are on to you; your madness takes the form of your dead wife.
And yet (I thought, revising the lecture in my head)2, is agency really all that important? Consider the archetypal Mountie rescuing the woman tied to the railroad tracks. Does he have “agency” in any meaningful sense? Does the audience entertain the possibility that he might choose not to rescue the woman – that, confronted by a destroyed bridge or a raging river or a marauding band of Algonquin, he might say, “fuck it” and ride home?
To use a less dated example: is there ever a chance that James Bond (or Jack Bauer) will, when confronted with a terrorist mastermind, slump into their chair in defeat and rationalize their surrender? (My skills will make me useful to the new regime) Or do we know implicitly that the character will plunge ever forward, occasionally stymied but never discouraged by obstacles?
All the above examples are of a particular “men’s adventure” type, so we probably can’t build a whole theory on them3. But even the Hero’s Journey monomyth doesn’t require a lot of choice by the hero save for the Rejection / Acceptance of the Call. Once they’re on the road, it’s a treacherous yet straight line to the finish.
Maybe it’s the appearance of agency that matters more than the actual suspense of a choice (will she or won’t she?). Our willingness to believe in an ambivalent hero depends a lot on genre: the star of a late 30s noir drama might rat his union organizer pal out to the bosses, but Batman won’t shoot the Joker in the face. Oedipus had all the choices he might want, but his fate had been sealed on the road to Thebes, years before the action of the play even started.
The fascination with agency – with choices, with control over one’s own life and outcomes – is a rather late invention. Earlier dramas were far more concerned with fate, or with the true order of things being upset or restored. So maybe I’m reading more into this than I need to.
1. “Sounds like a real winner, Perich.” I never talk about projects before they’re in a workable stage. You know me. C’mon.
2. I think in blog posts, in lectures, in TED talks and Socratic dialogues. I compose my stream-of-consciousness as if I’m narrating it to a class of eager students. People who know me have caught me doing it. If there’s another way to think – to have thoughts about abstract subjects – LiveJournal and the Internet age have forever barred it to me.
3. A billion dollar franchise, yes.