The University of Iowa

Agency, Struggle, and Transformation of Character in the Novel

Weeklong July 12 to July 17 2020

Agency is the word for a character’s central role in pushing a story forward. Often a first draft traps us in a story with characters who are passive, or who just can’t figure out what to do next. But responsibility for one’s own fate builds character sympathy. How do you develop your protagonist’s agency, especially if your character is in trouble? You build character struggle that comes from obstacles between what is desired and what seems possible. You upset the equilibrium and put good things at risk. Does every novel have to be about a hero? Absolutely not. Characters can fail and still become, just as characters can achieve but discover they have lost their true selves. But all protagonists have to try hard.


In this workshop, we will look at your manuscript excerpt (or a comprehensive outline) and assess plot points in terms of agency, struggle, and transformation—that is, the role of the protagonist in the context of the plot. Our discussions will be intense, lively, and above all, productive. You will write (or revise) and share scenes and summaries that deepen the meaning of your protagonist’s journey. The tone of our discussion will be generous and collaborative.


You will need a solid summary or chapter outline and at least the first chapter. More is better, but the writing doesn't need to be perfect, or even “great” at this point. We assume a mainstream or literary novel, not a strictly genre novel (e.g, thriller, fantasy) and not one with excessive violence.


In this workshop, we will generate new writing through exercises and assignments; critique writing you bring from home.