Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Free (From) Agency

I've been listening to the Dunesteef Audio Fiction Magazine a lot lately. The podcast is distinguished in two ways: firstly, they do professional quality full-cast audio productions that are really fun to listen to, and secondly, they are still a relatively small and young non-professional market, which means that goons like me stand a snowball's chance of getting published there. Most of my other podcasts are single reader and professional or near-professional, which makes the Dunesteef a welcome change of pace.

As a sub-professional market, the Dunesteef also publishes a lot of stuff by relatively inexperienced writers, which has given me the opportunity to notice something interesting. Many writers - myself included - siaplt a fondness for what I call the "Agency Hook." While the Agency Hook is a venerable tradition and has spawned numerous popular books and television shows, there are problems with it, and reasons that inexperienced writers find it so attractive.

I can hear you asking me: dude, what the hell are you talking about?

The Agency Hook works like this: the main character(s) are operatives of some organization who sends them out to do its bidding. The characters might be cops, soldiers, FBI agents, part of a secret cult, or members of some shadowy and clandestine bureau. Almost invariably, there are problems of organizational politics, bureaucratic incompetence, and secret agendas. Famous examples of the Agency Hook include Mission Impossible, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Avengers, and many other spy shows and movies.

The advantages of the Agency Hook are manifold. The agency at issue can provide numerous premises; want your characters to go anywhere, do anything? The agency sent them! Need a complication? From agency politics and antagonistic superiors to simple disorganization and stupidity, the possibilities are nearly endless.

So, then, what's the problem?

In the hands of an inexperienced writer (or, for that matter, someone who just made a mistake), the Agency Hook can have the side effect of deprotagonizing the protagonists (which is never a good idea). Put bluntly, (in my opinion), when a main character is only doing what he does for someone else's reasons, what you have on your hands is a dead fish of a story. Characters are good when they take charge of their destinies and make both interesting decisions and interesting mistakes (or, alternately, dramatically fail to take charge of their destinies, which is itself an interesting mistake).

In my mind, the best way to make sure you're using the Agency Hook and not the Agency Crutch is to carefully examine your story. Is your character personally, deeply, passionately involved in what he does, or is he only doing it because it's orders? Does your character have a unique style that shines through the narrative, or is he simply falling into the role of Yet Another [Insert Organization Here] Agent (or - and this is harder to spot - Yet Another Archetypically Styled [Insert Organization Here] Agent. Spooky FBI Dude, anyone)?

I've kind of moved away from the Agency Hook these days - not because it's universally bad, but because it doesn't really interest me right now. I'm finding it more interesting to explore character who act wholly on their passions and experiences rather than being tangled in an organization that dictates their actions. That said, I still engage with the Agency Hook - anyone who's ever run or played a White Wolf game, especially the old World of Darkness, plays with the Agency Hook - so I'm definitely not condemning it. I'm just saying that it has its flaws, and you should remain cognizant of them.

That's all for now. Until next time, remember that orders are orders, and if you've got a problem with that you should take it up with the boss.


christian said...

Agency Hook! Thank you for giving me name to the whole, "You are hired to do X."

I'm not sure if yo consider him to be good author or not, but I've read a few Dresden Files books. Like many detective story writers, I love the way Jim Butcher has Harry Dresden get more and more emotionally invested in whatever it is that he's investigating.

Great post!

Scattercat said...

I'm actually writing an Agency Hook story right now. If it helps, the Agency is headed by Satan.

Anonymous said...

@ Christian: I actually just finished Changes a month ago, and I'm eagerly awaiting Ghost Story. Butcher, you bastard!

Anyway, I agree that The Dresden Files is a good example of a story - and a character - who begins with the Agency Hook and gradually grows past it. It helps, though, that Dresden is always doing what he does for his own reasons. He just happens to do it for someone else's money.

@ Scattercat: The Agency Hook can work really well, as long as its not a crutch.