I’ve been thinking about agency this week - the degree to which characters, and maybe writers themselves, have agency to act, how the limitations that we have made for them, and ourselves, dictate the range of what’s possible in terms of plot and action. (Even moreso if you are writing memoir or creative non-fiction and bound up by the pesky nature of truth.) It seems to me there is sometimes a desire, especially as we revise or workshop, to ratchet up the stakes to a fever pitch because we don’t want to disappoint readers, agents won’t take it, etc, etc.
Here’s the thing. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Yes, the character needs to want something. Yes, there should be obstacles. These wants don’t have to be grand. The obstacles should be of the same degree as the wants.
I began to think of works where characters had little to no agency. Charlotte Gilman Perkin’s The Yellow Wallpaper came to mind. (And what a lovely shade of yellow this copy has!) I can’t tell you how many times I’ve taught it and still, every time I read it, I find something new to ponder.
In terms of agency, our narrator has some but it’s certainly limited. It’s the end of the nineteenth century, she’s just had a baby, and has postpartum depression and anxiety. But no worries. Her husband / doctor is on it. He’s rented them a country estate so that she can get some fresh air and recuperate away from friends and family. Money affords them the luxury of getting away and a couple of servants, including a nurse, so that our narrator has even more time to focus on getting well. Only John
does not believe I am sick! And what is one to do?
What indeed? She has a second opinion - her brother, also a physician, agrees with John. So what actions can she take? She voices her preference to take the downstairs bedroom which is more open and inviting. But John says that won’t do. Instead they take the upstairs one with bars on the window, and rings on the walls. Hmmm. Okay. Perhaps this tells us that John is a little more worried about her than he lets on. Later, she tells him that she’d like for him to take her away. But he tries to convince her that she is getting better, whether she knows it or not. Doesn’t she trust him on this?
The word choice in the piece adds to the tension. There is a vagueness to it. Regarding the downstairs bedroom and why it is not suitable:
He said there was only one window and not room for two beds, and no near room for him if he took another.
Another what exactly? Another bed? Another woman? The text is purposefully not clear. Perhaps she is not able to be clear, to say the words, to do so would be to admit things she’d rather not talk about. Some nights he stays in town. We are led to believe that it’s for work but sometimes I wonder if it’s not for some other reason.
The one thing the upstairs room has for it are windows and beautiful views.
I always fancy I see people walking in these numerous paths and arbors.
Are there people coming and going? Is John entertaining? Or is she imagining these people? She does not see them. Only fancies that she does. Perhaps they are the bars she mistakes for people?
Other than the windows, there is the wallpaper to occupy her time. And it is:
a smouldering unclean yellow
the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down
the pattern is torturing
There are things in that paper that nobody knows about but me
The more she looks, the more she notices, the more it bothers her. There seems to be some sort of figure trapped inside of the wallpaper.
And with this discovery, comes a shift in her wants: from the desire to get well to the desire to free the woman trapped inside the wallpaper. So, even though she has no agency, can not leave nor really care for herself, and certainly not her newborn, she has wants. She has flaws and limitations. And she has obstacles - how to get this woman out without arousing the suspicion of John or Jennie.
There’s also a ticking clock to add tension. They only have the house for three months. So much of her time is spent getting better, she only has a few days to free the lady. There’s also the threat of going to see Dr. Weir if she isn’t better at the end of the three months. This raises the stakes while decreasing her agency.
Because she is confined, the story is limited in the range of possible actions she can take. Everything must take place in the room.
We see her spiral downwards even if she herself can not really see it.
She contemplates burning the house down. She confiscates a rope. She gnaws on the bedpost! She would jump from the window if those pesky bars weren’t so darn strong.
I’ve also been thinking about this lack of agency, and character action in regards to Parul Sehgal’s recent article The Case Against the Trauma Plot and I wonder if it’s not the trauma per se that Sehgal is against but is instead a problem rooted in agency, of moving beyond being a victim of said trauma, or using trauma as a shorthand for characterization. It does seem to me that illness itself is one way that constricts agency. (As well as poverty, race, power, etc.)
I’m curious to hear what you all think in terms of how much agency a character needs to have in the course of a novel. Have your ideas have shifted in the last few years? What are some good, limited examples that you can think of?
Gilman sets up her story to suggest that the house is haunted. And I suppose that becomes true enough. She also personifies the wallpaper which increases it’s creepiness. It moves. It grows. Write a story in which some household object that is supposed to be fixed begins to shift and move.
Revision. If you’ve been reading these revision suggestions for a while now, you’ll notice that almost everyone leans in the direction of specificity. But, perhaps, there is a way that vague language can also make some tension in your piece. Is there a place that’s too specific? Something that could become a mystery that you reveal too easily?
Likewise, if you’ll take a look at the text, you’ll see how many of Gilman’s paragraphs are a single sentence - especially as the text progresses. Is there a way that you could build tension by the way you re-paragraph?
Artist Kehinde Wiley was inspired by The Yellow Wallpaper and William Morris’s prints to create his collection. Here’s the behind the scenes video.
Here’s a great resource from agent Eric Smith for those of you crafting query letters and book proposals.
Kathy Fish is teaching a class on Writerly Play & Experimentation Jan. 25th for $5. Sign up for community craft classes here.
Maybe you just need to be wowed by some of the best written paragraphs. This Twitter thread is full of them.
If you are looking for a more contemporary take on postpartum psychosis, I just finished Julia Fine’s The Upstairs House and loved it.
Okay scribblers, that’s it for this cold January day. The best way to stay warm is by moving that pencil. Let’s go~