Dynamic characters vs Static Characters: Definitions and Differences
A common piece of criticism you'll hear in fiction is that characters are "too static." Modern audiences can tell when a character isn’t interesting or realistic, based on their own lack of emotional investment in that character’s journey. As a result, authors feel compelled to ensure that their protagonist is a dynamic character — and that many of their other characters are, too.
And we want to help them out! Which is why in this article, we'll take a look at the different types of dynamic characters and how authors can write them into their books. We'll also examine static characters and why authors should avoid them most (but not all) of the time.
As a fun bonus, we've created an exciting new infographic that illustrates three common narratives associated with these characters. To jump straight to the infographic, click on Infographic: "The Book Deal" in the table of contents to your left! You can also watch our video on how to create dynamic characters below. Otherwise, let's dive in.
What is a dynamic character?
A dynamic character is a character who undergoes substantial internal change — in personality, attitude, or worldview — over the course of the narrative. This change usually happens gradually, though sometimes a character will have a revelation that changes everything about them very suddenly.
Most well-developed characters are naturally dynamic. After all, characters who don't change at all typically don't have book-worthy adventures. And no matter what the story, readers almost always prefer reading about dynamic characters over static ones. That's why some of the most classic tales of all time feature distinctively dynamic protagonists: Ebenezer Scrooge, Elizabeth Bennet, Don Quixote, the list goes on and on.
Keep in mind that protagonists, antagonists, and minor characters can all be dynamic. For the sake of focus, this article deals with main characters. However, everything we cover re: how to write a dynamic protagonist can also apply to supporting characters.
The difference between "dynamic" and "well-rounded" characters
Many people mistakenly believe that a dynamic character is exactly the same as a well-rounded character. But "dynamic" simply means that the character changes, while "well-rounded" means that they're fleshed out with a backstory, motivations, strengths, weaknesses, etc.
There's a great deal of overlap, and most well-written protagonists are both dynamic and well-rounded. However, it's possible to have a character that changes throughout the story, but otherwise lacks substantial development (though this is a pretty unusual occurrence).
You'll more commonly see well-rounded characters who change very little (if at all) in a story — usually to serve as a constant for another character. For example, in To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch is clearly well-rounded. But that doesn't mean he's dynamic; indeed, his attitude and views remain the same through the story. His steadfast morality serves to teach his daughter, Scout, about right and wrong. Consequently, she is the dynamic protagonist, while he facilitates that change.
What is a static character?
As you might expect, a static character does not develop or change throughout a narrative. Their beliefs do not evolve, their personalities remain the same, and their worldview does not expand or adapt whatsoever.
So why do static characters even exist? The answer is twofold. Firstly, static characters exist because not all authors know how to write a good character arc. Particularly in shorter pieces of fiction, you'll often see a character who seems like they should undergo some kind of development or change, but ultimately doesn't.
But secondly, sometimes static characters are written that way intentionally, to make a point or poke fun at a certain type of person. For example, Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice is a static character. However, he acts as an example of a silly society man, and his foolishness and pomposity contrast humorously with Lizzy's perceptive wit.
Static characters may be used as foils or even enemies to the dynamic protagonist, such as the Dursleys in Harry Potter, or just about every Disney villain ever. Finally, static characters can sometimes be positively symbolic or instructive, as in the TKAM example above. But this is relatively rare compared to the other types of static characters, who tend to be stupid and/or malevolent.
The important thing to remember about static characters is that they should almost always be accompanied by dynamic characters. Dynamic characters give static characters purpose; without them, our static friends would just be languishing in a plotless wasteland. The sole exception to this rule is satire — if the entire story functions as a critique, all the characters may be unchanging in order to demonstrate their unintelligence or weakness.
How to write a dynamic character
In a creative writing course, you could spend weeks learning different approaches for writing dynamic characters. This guide won't provide you with "the key" to creating a dynamic protagonist, but it will offer questions and considerations to guide you toward that goal.
We also won't talk about how to write static characters, as you want to avoid them most of the time. However, if you're hoping to create a static character to serve some significant purpose in your story, know that most of the steps are basically the same — you'll just stop short of actually setting them on a journey.
We recommend downloading this free character profile template before you start. Then read on for some helpful tips!
The first step to writing any character, but especially a dynamic one, is to get their essentials down first. For this, many authors find it useful to create a character sheet. This is a little dossier that answers some basic questions about each individual in your story, both physically and personality-wise.
So let's say your protagonist is a doctor. Her character sheet might answer these questions:
- What kind of medical school did she go to, and what kind of student was she?
- How is her relationship with her family? Does she currently have a partner?
- What is her religious faith and how does it affect her work (if at all)?
- Does she have any bad habits or strange quirks?
- How self-conscious or confident is she?
- How frugal is she with her money?
And so on. The answers to these questions might not always make it onto the page, but knowing even seemingly inconsequential details about your characters can have a big impact on your story. These kinds of character development exercises really help build believable people to populate your book — characters who readers want to follow, even before they begin to change.
Another critical component of dynamic character creation is motivation. In order for a protagonist to go on a journey of self-discovery, they have to pursue something that they want, need, or are otherwise compelled toward.
For instance, your main character might be a jet-setting career man who wants romance and a family; an army medic who wants to survive the war; or a retired gunslinger who wants to be left alone. This desire don’t have to be grand and philosophical! There have been great stories told about no more than a young boy who wants a new pair of shoes.
A protagonist’s desires will become a driving force in the story. How close or far a character comes to achieving a goal creates tension and moves their journey along. Typically, in order to change, a character must either A) reach their goal, or B) fail to do so, but realize something greater in the process.
Here are a few questions to help you determine your characters' motivations and trajectories:
- Will the character get what they want, but at a dear cost?
- What personal obstacle(s) must they overcome before the desire is reached/obtained?
- How will securing this goal — or failing to do so — alter them as a character?
- What if your protagonist’s greatest desire is simply impossible?
Internal character conflict
While conflict is often interpreted as "protagonist vs. antagonist," it’s far more important to consider a character’s internal conflict. When telling the story of your character’s personal journey, it's important for them to encounter conflict, as they themselves hinder their own success. Here are a few examples of dynamic characters' inner conflicts to show you what we mean:
- Dumbo is a story about fighting fears and self-doubt. Dumbo’s buddy, Timothy Mouse, gives him a "magic feather" to help him fly. He loses this feather in the final scene, and must overcome his internal fear and self-doubt to save the circus.
- In Great Expectations, it is only when Pip realizes his worldview has been wrong — that Miss Havisham is not his benefactor, that Estella has not been promised to him, and that he has treated his closest friends and family terribly in order to "become a gentleman" — that he can start to make things right.
- Elizabeth Bennet has feelings for Darcy, but before she can find happiness, she must overcome her own wounded pride. Likewise, Darcy must grapple with his class-bred prejudices before he can successfully woo Ms. Bennet. These internal conflicts are the essence of Pride and Prejudice.
Before you write your first draft, consider how your protagonist’s flaws or specific worldview will work as an obstacle between them and their goal. Likewise, consider how the resolution of these issues will bring your protagonist closer to their desires — and ultimately to a different state of being.
Use external conflict to show internal struggles
Most novels can’t unfold in an entirely internal, psychic landscape. Authors need to find ways to move their protagonists through time and space as they undergo internal changes. In other words, you have to show character development via external conflict, instead of just letting characters sit around thinking about self-improvement 24/7.
Jay Gatsby’s extravagant parties and upper-class affectations show his desire to rewrite his history and transcend the American class system. If Gatsby’s fatal flaw is his refusal to accept that the past is past, the external conflict that reflects plays out in his pursuit of and affair with Daisy, and the fatal repercussions it has.
Fitzgerald more extensively shows this conflict by putting Gatsby at odds with Tom Buchanan. A cruel, unlikable figure, Tom is nonetheless everything Gatsby aspires to: an old-money WASP married to Daisy, Gatsby’s childhood crush. But because Gatsby cannot turn this desire into a change he can actually make — i.e., he can't go back in time and change the circumstances of his birth — he becomes increasingly desperate, careless, and ultimately meets his karmic maker.
Can they change for the worse?
Growth is subjective, as is morality. Characters sometimes fall to the "dark side" over the course of a story, like Walter White in TV’s Breaking Bad. Walter White is a family man and high school chemistry teacher with terminal cancer. To make money before his death, he starts manufacturing drugs and becomes involved with the criminal underworld.
Over the course of the series, Walter White's morality is put to the test in ever more extreme ways. Each external conflict Walter faces has an internal result, and throughout the series we watch him toe the line between good and evil. His original intentions — to protect his family even after his death — are noble, but his means to this end are nefarious. As a result, Walter must “break bad” in what has become a modern exemplar of character evolution.
But what if the protagonist doesn’t really change?
If the mark of an interesting lead character is their personal growth, then their story will chart a journey from the person they were in chapter one to the person they are on the final page. But surely there are plenty of compelling characters who encounter conflict, yet do not change all that much over the course of a narrative?
As we've discussed previously, it's definitely possible for a character to be well-rounded without changing very much. But what about a main character? Let's look at a few examples here.
- From the outside, Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games wouldn’t be your first example of a dynamic character. She starts out courageous, resourceful, and principled, and stays that way throughout the story. Even after the Games put her ideals to the ultimate test, it's only through her selflessness and resourcefulness can she beat the system and leave with them intact.
- In Andy Weir’s The Martian, supremely chill botanist Mark Watney is trapped on Mars. He quickly realizes that only his ingenuity and knowledge of science can save him. He encounters a chain of disasters that threaten to break his resolve. Instead of finding some internal flaw that needs resolving, it’s only by maintaining his trademark cool and returning time and again to science, that Watney is able to escape the Red Planet.
Don't worry: they're still dynamic
Both Katniss and Mark Watney find the strength to survive by sticking to their guns and having faith in their beliefs. But this doesn't mean they haven't changed at all — it's just that the primary change they've undergone is a strengthening of their core beliefs, rather than a fundamental alteration. They also experience smaller, more subtle changes, such as becoming more hardened to their surroundings and wary of danger.
In other words, Katniss and Watney aren't what you'd call "exemplary" dynamic characters, but they're not static characters either. And clearly their journeys were compelling enough to engage readers, since both The Hunger Games and The Martian became mega-hit bestsellers and blockbuster movies!
Speaking of which, let's take a look at this awesome infographic (featuring some of your favorite characters) to really nail down the arc of a dynamic character.
Infographic: "The Book Deal"
To see how a protagonist's wants, strengths, and flaws will influence how a story plays out, we took three familiar characters and placed them in an unfamiliar setting. Let's see how they develop over the course of a narrative:
Failure to change results in tragedy
When your protagonist grapples with inner and outer conflict, but fails to adapt, they are almost always punished — by themselves, another person, or the universe. This is what we call tragedy.
In Cyrano de Bergerac, the titular character is in love with Roxane. However, his self-doubt prevents him from revealing that he has written the words that have won her heart. Cyrano does not overcome this doubt in time, and becomes mortally injured before Roxane realizes that she loves him.
And in an example we've already covered, Jay Gatsby learns too late that “there are no second acts in American lives.” He wants to force his way into the upper classes, but he’s unable to see that this world will not allow him in. He refuses to divert his course so, in the end, we find him bleeding out, alone, in his swimming pool.
Both of these characters encounter conflict and grapple with their flaws in a fascinating way. But in the end, their failure to change themselves results in their tragic deaths.
How much change is too much?
Assuming you want your book to remain within the realm of believability, your character’s change should be relatively small. Human beings are capable of great change, but only a bit a time.
Again, Ebenezer Scrooge is perhaps the most classic example of a dynamic protagonist. But if we’re being honest, the man at the end who buys 300-pound turkeys for the poor does not remotely resemble the penny-pinching miser in the first scene. However, nobody questions the psychological truth of Scrooge’s overnight transformation because A Christmas Carol is a moralist fable. It's not meant to be realistic, only to instruct.
That said, if you’re writing a modern series, you should also be conscious of changing your characters too quickly or drastically. Let’s say that your breakout character is an irreverent, womanizing highwayman. You can have him confronted by a victim of his crime or philandering — something that forces him to reassess his lifestyle choices.
Yet you don’t want him to learn too much. Otherwise you run the risk of turning your series into the ongoing narrative of a former highwayman, who now very much respects property rights and does not flirt with women quite so aggressively. The key is balance: don't stray too far from your character's original personality, but allow them to change in an organic way, at a reasonable pace.
Remember: there's no formula for great characters
Should your story not follow one of these common patterns, you may find it’s harder to nail down exactly how internal flaws and external conflicts play out over the course of your book. But even in unconventional narratives, always remember to think of the basics: What does your character want? What’s stopping them from getting it? And will they find the strength to change? These questions will help you — and your characters — find the right way.
If you have any questions, thoughts or observations, please share them in the comments below.