Friday, November 28, 2008

I Don't Have to Live This Way

agenda--what a character wants; an achievement, goal, or status that propels the character's behavior throughout the arc of the story in which the character is involved. As the story develops, the reader and perhaps other characters in the story gain an understanding of what the individual with agenda is willing to do in order to realize his goal. Agenda is much like the magnetized cards substituting for keys at hotels and motels; without them, the character doesn't get entry into a scene much less the story. Even minor characters have agendas. Major or minor in status, each character has a strong sense of entitlement to the agenda and is impacted by the hoped-for result of achieving it. Simply put, agenda is the armature about which character is wrapped.
Before considering such details as physical appearance or relationship to other characters, a writer will do well to consider the why and wherefore of the agenda that character carries, then perhaps the writer can consider the relative importance of what that character was doing before making appearances in various scenes, then the expectations that character had in entering the scene. Next would come the character's relationship (if any) with the theme of the story and/or the other characters. Then the writer may consider physical attributes.
A postal service worker, taxi driver, or deliverer of a pizza or take-out Chinese, more or less faceless, throw-away characters, nevertheless preserve the vital atmosphere of plausible reality if they are allotted agenda. Thus the mail delivery person has the agenda of wanting assurance that the recipient gets the intended letter, the taxi driver has perhaps a political agenda or wants an agent for his screenplay, the pizza delivery person is an actor awaiting discovery by a casting director. The extra line or dialogue or gesture provided by such individuals is another layer of reality painted onto the story.
Regardless of whether the story is genre or literary, agenda is an essential ingredient. By checking agenda, the reader is drawn in to a greater understanding of the intent and scope of the story, the writer is given clues for the ending, and the characters are given clues for idiosyncratic behavior that yanks them, kicking and screaming, from the comfortable shadow land of cliche.
Some characters of necessity hide their agendas, their behavior carefully controlled to conceal their overarching intent. Thus one of the more useful tests applied to persons in reality and characters in story: Does this individual's behavior hint at a hidden agenda? The result of behavior intended to conceal an agenda is an entire layer of irony. (Imagine the delicious irony in a character hoping to conceal an agenda with a range of behavior that ultimately convinces him of the wrongness of his agenda and the moral correctness of his subterfuge.)
One of the many reasons for the popularity of the mystery or suspense story is the opportunity for the reader to match wits with the author, the detectives, and the cast of characters in the examination of agenda (motive).
Agenda in fiction does not have to be any more rational than it is in real life. Ahab had intellectual reasons for wanting revenge on the whale, but seeing his tortured physical appearance was enough to suggest validity to his quest.


Anonymous said...

Agenda, whether hidden or overt, is one of my favorite ways to try and understand people's actions and attitudes in the everyday. Thanks for the reminder of its significance in exploring and developing characters in fiction as well.

Anonymous said...

Knowing a character's agenda is harder than it looks--for me anyway.

Querulous Squirrel said...

Thanks for the post inspiration. I'd been out of ideas.

Rowena said...

I agree with Marta. Agenda is hard. Maybe a what-I-want-right-now is easy, but the more subtle and complicated what-I-want-in-life is hard. I find I have a hard time being consistent, buffeted about by the winds of fate and plot, the character's agenda seems to shift, too.