Analysis, Agency, and Alienation

Thursday July 30, 2020

Literary criticism is often considered fixed — the things that are good and bad are objective truths, and we turn those objective truths towards examining a given piece of media. When put this way, this sounds ridiculous: what makes media good is obviously deeply subjective. Despite this, critics will often say that a protagonist is “static” or doesn’t have “agency” as a thing that is obviously bad. I think it’s worth examining this assumption, to see what sorts of media this pushes people to create.

The typical justification for why main characters shouldn’t be static and should have agency is so that the audience can identify with them. But this presumes that members of the audience see themselves as having agency, as growing and learning. How many people truly see themselves this way? How are we supposed to tell stories of alienation and powerlessness with characters that are not themselves alienated and powerless?

There’s a tendency to want to tell stories where the hero wins, where through the actions of our protagonist, the world is made better, if only in a small way. But this tendency limits the types of stories that can be told, and I think it’s important to tell other stories, and to realize that the way that we talk about what makes media “good” or “bad” inherently pushes us towards only telling certain types of stories.