Character Agency and Picture Books

If you aren’t familiar with the term, one way to think of character agency is power. A character who has no agency is an observer or a victim. Things happen around this character and to this character but not because of this character.

Agency can be tricky in picture books especially if you have a child character. Children don’t have a lot of power and one way that some writers attempt to solve this problem is to limit the number of adult characters in the picture book. The reason being that if adults aren’t there, they can’t take over.

But I’ve also heard complaints about this approach especially from African American writers. They content that creating picture books about their community demands adults and even large complex families. That is, after all, reality. And it is worth nothing that this can work and work oh so well.

In Soul Food Sunday by Winsome Bingham, the family gathers at Granny’s every Sunday. The day of the story is the day the first person narrator is declared old enough to help. Granny teaches him how to wash and chop greens, prepare the meat for grilling and so much more. It is a real family experience but the young narrator still has agency.

How can he possibly have agency with Granny in charge? He could do the job poorly, but chooses to do it well. And in the end he goes above and beyond, using the skills he’s learned from Granny, to make something on his own – a cool, pitcher of sweet tea. The tea is the key because he does this all on his own.

That’s the key to character agency in a picture book. Your character has to take action. That action can work well and come toward the end of the book as it does here. The action could also be a series of bad choices such as if your character tries to sneak a snack or get dressed herself.

There are other work arounds. You can write a story with an animal character. You can also write a story with a childlike adult. The important part is to create a story that works.