Fictional Agency

23:37 Fri 28 Mar 2008. Updated: 01:39 29 Mar 2008
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I came across a distinction in fiction recently that I don’t think I’ve paid much attention to before, and that I don’t know the word(s) (if extant) for: works in which the characters play a part in the major events that occur in their milieu during the narrative, and works in which they play no such part, but are caught up in those larger events.

It’s not fatalism: fatalist narratives can involve, for example, leaders working their plots and causing/influencing (even unintentionally) the major events.

The contrasting examples that brought this idea to mind were Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance and Ian McDonald’s River of Gods, both set in India, both during periods of major political upheaval (one historical, the other set in a fictional future). Mistry’s characters are profoundly affected by the political machinations going on at the time, but have no impact on them. McDonald’s characters cannot control the events, but do influence them and are also caught up in them. This strikes me as a rather important thematic difference, and I’m sure there are a ton of other stories where the fact that characters do or do not influence significant phenomena in those stories. I’ll have to look out for more examples. I suspect that the “influenceless” characters/stories are comparatively rare.

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