Karen Osborne

Karen Osborne

I just returned from a literary convention, where I spent the entire weekend talking about nerdy novels and stunning stories with 200 new best friends. I know that three days of the coolest English class you can imagine isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but for me, it is heaven.

Bookworms are just as much a valid subculture as geeks, goths and jocks, and as such, we have our own buzzwords and slang. One of the things we talk about is whether a character in a story has “agency,” or whether he or she is just being buffeted around by the plot, not doing much of anything at all.

Characters with “agency” are basically agents of good. They work to accomplish their goals, no matter how dire the world around them looks or functions. Characters that lack agency are passive, getting pushed from plot point to plot point. Boring!

One of the best examples of a character with agency is Katniss in “The Hunger Games,” a book and movie series popular with a lot of teens. Katniss lives in a dystopia and faces a lot of challenges. She could give up and allow herself to be manipulated by President Snow — to be another sacrifice to an inhuman game and a remorseless regime.

Instead, she and her team speak up and fight back, even as circumstances force Katniss to compete in what are called “The Hunger Games.” In the end, she wins.

When you normally think of an “agent,” you think of someone with power, someone who uses brains and brawn on behalf of something bigger: an FBI investigator or CSI scientist, a James Bond.

But agency can happen on a smaller scale, too. You can be an agent of good in small ways, and exercise agency wherever you go. The concept of “agency” is related quite a bit to the Catholic concept of free will, which means that every human being has the ability to choose for him or herself what to do in any given situation.

Agency is the capacity to act in a way that will affect the world, no matter what the environment entails.

I live in Baltimore, a city experiencing problems with drugs, violence and race issues. Life is tough for a lot of people who live in the city, and sometimes it seems as if things will never change.

That’s when you start to hear the stories about people being agents for good, making Baltimore a better place to live: community members organize peace walks, volunteer at youth centers, patrol the area and fund scholarships for youth. Together, they are a supremely positive force. They become agents of good in a world whose plot points are often dire.

You don’t have to be Katniss, Batman or James Bond to be just like the main character of a novel. Just look around, look at your skills and figure out what needs changing. What can you do, where you are, with what you have? What can you do to make the world a better place for yourself and your friends? You can speak up against bullying. You can study hard. You can break the cycle.

You can join clubs that pick up trash around town, collect coats for the homeless or speak up against injustice. You can listen to your friends when they need you, work on problems with your parents and make a stand for those who can’t. You can exercise your agency! Be a true “agent” for good!