Agency. Or Why We Love Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings.

Complexity and the Future of Story Telling.


If you are tuned into the public consciousness, you know it is impossible to avoid discussing JRR Tolkien and George RR Martin these days. As the masses eagerly await HBO’s fourth season of Game of Thrones and Peter Jackson’s final Hobbit film, be aware that this popularity is part of a transformation in writing. Tolkien and Martin have more in common than some spare R’s; the fantasy writers are driving a paradigm shift in literature that is changing how we tell stories.

Storytelling is traditionally reductionist, offering simplified narratives that follow a single protagonist or (worse) force the protagonist into a culturally conceived pattern, such as the Hero’s Journey archetype. Our world is rife with these prescribed scripts: Hollywood romcoms where the guy always gets the girl, mysteries with a revelation that the killer is someone we already met in a world of a dozen people, and action films where the good guy always survives despite increasingly high odds. We enjoy these stories for their predictability because they reinforce our shared ideals and offer safety in their familiar format.

But a change is occurring. It is slow and perceptible mostly from the longue durée, timeframes best viewed with a wide-angle lens. Storytellers are starting to jailbreak protagonists from the Hero’s Journey and a small number of authors take it even further. These revolutionaries not only unfetter their main character, but every character. We are starting to see stories reflect the complexity of reality. Protagonists are simultaneously antagonists; “characters” behave like actual people. Authors are bestowing characters with agency.

Agency is “the capacity of an agent to effect change as well as to matter and make a difference in the world” according to archaeologist/theorist Jim Dolwick. You and I possess agency because we are individuals that have an impact on the world (and so are many other things, if you go further down the actor-network theory rabbit hole; for non-humans that effect change in the world think of the whale in Moby Dick, the HIV virus, or the role of oil in geopolitics). In traditional writing characters are dependent on narrative patterns or cultural norms, but this new approach reflects reality by giving characters agency, albeit in an imaginary world.

Tolkien is one of the early writers to broaden the agency of characters. The Hobbit is an excellent example of a story told through the eyes of a character, but readers have a clear sense of complex events and individuals influencing Middle Earth. Bilbo is a tiny part of a very big world, one that readers did not a get full sense of until the publication of the Lord of the Rings and Tolkien’s posthumous publications. Tolkien drew heavily on mythology, folk stories, and contemporary writers, borrowing concepts and themes from many sources and integrating these many threads to create complexity in his writing. While the Hobbit is a departure from traditional writing on several levels, the Lord of the Rings books (and his works published posthumously) are more traditional Good versus Evil narratives. However, the characters are unfettered in their roles, often expressing their own motivations and pursuing their own interests. The exception lies with characters such as the Witch-king of Angmar and goblins/orcs or Easterlings (though interestingly they have agency in some of his posthumous works). Consider the competing motivations in the Fellowship of Ring— of Gandalf, Sam, Aragorn, and Boromir, not to mention elves and humans— just to get Frodo to Mount Doom, only to find him unable to cast the Ring away. It takes another complex character, Gollum, to complete the act. Does this sound like a traditional Hero Journey or more like actual conflicting personalities such as Abraham Lincoln’s team of rivals?

Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, which the HBO series is based on, fully develops the individual agency of characters. He creates incredibly complex plots with characters that have flaws and make decisions that are half-chance. Readers have been shocked at how characters can be killed off with little notice, but they describe his writing as having “realness” and “humanity.” Anything can happen to any character at any time, but in a realistic way. If Tolkien followed the trajectory of agency-based writing, it arrives with Martin’s truly complete world of agents. Each personality is multi-layered, acting on their history and experience, changing as the story does. Tolkien clearly favored a central character with the narrative weaving around them; however, his stories give an air of a much wider world that the main character simply exists within. Going further, Martin writes characters with such realistic motivations, reflecting the complexity we see in others and ourselves, that it is a significant shift in storytelling. This paradigm change is of course not simply relegated to fantasy writers, but the popularity of the two writers underscores this transformation.

If you have followed me thus far, allow me a short digression to explain conceptual development and its role in human thought. Storytelling is building conceptually from traditional simple narratives toward complex agency-based stories. Conceptual growth is what allowed humans to spread to every environment in the world. The human brain has essentially remained the same since the emergence of modern Homo Sapiens approximately 120,000 years ago, when we broke from other hominids. The difference between us and “them” is that we have the ability to effect rapid change through conceptual development, such as idea sharing, exaptation, visual theft, and other social learning methods on a far larger scale than hominids with more limited short-term working memories. Evolution is a process that takes generations, but conceptual development works on far shorter time scales. People were not “dumber” in the past, they simply had different conceptual frameworks than we have today (which we can thank them for). Conceptual development is what allows a kid to be a computer wiz while people from different conceptual times or places— older adults or non-digital cultures— have difficulty understanding computers, though they essentially have the same brain.

The popularity of GOT and LOTR shows this conceptual development is not only among writers, but society as a whole. We traditionally identify with the hero, equating them (and their values) with ourselves (and values we wish we had). But stories today show a different truth- we are cognizant that the world is full of diverse people motivated by individual goals and influencing the world in different ways. We are able to comprehend this complexity that was either simplified or ignored in the past. Characters are no longer simple facades of a single desire and manifestations of lust, envy, honor, or greed. They are cultured, complex entities that change over time following experiences in the story. We are breaking from reductionist storytelling and allowing the agency of dozens of characters to impact the storyline. It is an exciting time for human creativity. Perhaps being bombarded with simple narratives (TV commercials, political ads, and Hollywood movies) on a daily basis allows us to compare reality to these cut-down versions, causing us to recognize the world is more complex than the stories we grew up with and surround us today. Our intellectual growth yearns for stories that describe the world, or imaginary worlds, in the terms that we understand: a complex web of individual agents.

As you sit down Sunday and flick on HBO (or watch it illegally online, I’m not judging), appreciate the complexity of the show and the shift you are a part of. Poor old Gilgamesh and Odysseus never had a chance. Like every new paradigm, the door is now open for writers to go into uncharted territory. What will happen? Stories without a single protagonist, but a collection of characters with the potential to be good, bad, or die? Female characters with equal agency to men? Motivations more complex than simply money or lust? Anything, and everything, is possible when authors leave cultural fetters behind and let their writing reflect the complexity of life.