We humans have a built-in predisposition to expect agency.
We look for the person or thing responsible for any action or phenomena we experience; we seek to ascribe “agency” to what we perceive. What this means is that when we notice that something happened, we tend to look for the cause of the event. This probably has a simple evolutionary explanation. If we hear a rustle in the bush behind us, we immediately turn around to see what moved. This reflex is a safety mechanism to detect threats. Before homo sapiens lived in houses, the individuals for whom this reflex worked most efficiently probably lived longer, and thus had better chances of passing on their genes. The point is, we assume that something or someone caused the phenomenon (the rustle) and seek to attribute it to an agent. If we are sitting in our living room and hear a floorboard creak in the hall, we would want to know what caused it too.
This safety mechanism has all sorts of ramifications. It influences aspects of our lives ranging from curiosity to religion.
It is also built into the deep structure of story. Perhaps that becomes most obvious in ghost stories. Our fear of not being able to attribute agents to creaky floorboards or other creepy phenomena feeds a whole genre.
The effect is there always. And it is something an author can use to build tension, not only in ghost stories and mysteries. We have said before that the two primary elements of story, characters and events, are essentially two aspects of the same thing. There are no actions without agents.
In real life, we cannot always attribute an agent or cause to every phenomenon we feel the effect of. We do not always know why the bush rustled – even if we attribute the sound to the agency of wind, we may ask ourselves what causes wind. Life and the world are simply too vast and complicated for us to understand everything – and this is a source of perennial insecurity for us. It scares us to live in a world we do not understand. So we construct explanations.
On the other hand, in a story, we need to feel agency, need to understand cause and effect. A story without agency does not seem like a satisfying story to us. A story where events occur at random, without clear reasons that derive from the plot or the psychology of the characters that cause the events, does not work for us.
In their deep structure, stories explain to us that behind the apparently random nature of life and the world, there is actually agency and the understandable clarity of cause and effect. Whether this is true or not is perhaps debatable. Either way: we need the stories because this explanation provides us with comfort. Unlike in the real world, where things happen without us really knowing why they happen, while we consume a story, we are in a world where we feel agency and can attribute cause to effect. And this is true of pretty much all stories, not just the ones sometimes labelled with the term “escapism”.
The “why things happen” mostly has to do with character motivations. A protagonist wants something and performs actions in order to achieve that, and thereby sets in motion a chain of events. Pure causality due to character motivation. In real life, we live in social structures. We exist within groups. Much of the time, we are – consciously or unconsciously – making assumptions about what the other members of the group want, what the motivations behind their actions are. We adapt our actions to the perceived motivations of others. This is so universal we often don’t even notice it, and it leads to us discussing the motivations of others with our perceived allies. Gossip has a purpose. Gossip exists to help us understand the motivations of people in our social group so that we can adapt our actions for what we think will bring about the best result for us. Stories are similar, but work by example. The characters in the story are not in our social group, but trying to figure out their motivations helps us learn social skills.
Taking the thought a little further, we might find a potential explanation for why crime fiction is so popular. A crime story is storytelling in its purest form, in the sense that redundancy is particularly unwelcome; usually, every single scene will be relevant, i.e. serve a purpose to the plot. Every scene will either convey a clue to the audience or reader regarding the outcome of the story, or provide a red herring, to deliberately mislead the audience’ or reader’s anticipation of the outcome. Going over a good crime story a second time, you’ll likely have lots of “ah” moments.
So we can hypothesize that crime fiction is the genre where agency, the attribution of cause, is most important. In the face of our real world life, where cause is often not apparent, crime fiction is thus the genre that provides most comfort. Despite all the murders.
Feel the urge to compose a story?