It’s pointless to debate whether plot or characters are more important. They are both essential, and they work together to create the story. Unfortunately, they don’t always work well together. More than a few storytellers have planned their plot to the end, only realizing once they started the story that their characters wouldn’t come quietly. Balancing character agency will help you prevent this kind of disaster, while still allowing you to mold the direction your story takes. Here’s some things to keep in mind.
Characters Must Make Their Own Choices
Most experienced roleplayers can recall a time when they felt powerless to steer the story. The corridor in the house they were exploring offered no side passages, and became a brick wall behind them. The Duke asked them to defend the walls, and offered instant death by spikes as an alternative if they didn’t want to. This is known as railroading, and any GM who does it regularly will have a rebellion on their hands.
Railroading can also happen in written works. Just stuff your characters in a body bag and toss them around without a chance to strike back. Or worse, have the hero make decisions that are out of character in order to serve the plot. Strong written characters have a will of their own, not unlike roleplayers.
Regardless of whether stories are interactive, they are infinitely more satisfying when characters make meaningful choices. A common complaint about the Hunger Games is that Katniss had no agency. The series gave her few chances to steer the story. Some of this was necessary – if given the option, she would have kept her sister safe without battling 23 other kids. But as the conflict grew wider in scope, she should have picked the role she would play. Instead, other characters made that choice without her input.
For character choices to be meaningful, they need to have a significant effect on the story. Something very important should change based on the decisions the characters make, and the audience - players or readers – should have an idea of how the outcome would have changed with a different choice.
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