What is a Dynamic Character? Writing 101: Definition & Examples
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, and won't waste time investing in them. As a result, authors must ensure that their protagonist is a dynamic character — and that most of their other types of characters are too!
In this article, we'll look at the different types of dynamic characters and how authors can write them well. 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 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 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 pretty rare).
It's more common to 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 well-rounded, but not dynamic: his attitude and views remain the same through the story.
In this way, Atticus's steadfast morality serves to teach his daughter, Scout, about right and wrong. She is the dynamic character, 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 (see also: flat character).
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 shallow, foolish nature contrasts humorously with Lizzy's wit.
Static characters may also be used as foil characters or even enemies to the dynamic character, such as just about every Disney villain ever. Finally, static characters can sometimes be positively symbolic or instructive, as in the To Kill a Mockingbird example above. But this is rare compared to the other types of static characters, who tend to be stupid and/or evil.
The important thing to remember about static characters is that they should always be accompanied by dynamic characters. Dynamic characters give static characters purpose! Without them, our static friends would languish in a plotless wasteland.
The sole exception to this rule is satire — if the 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
1. Develop the essentials first
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 dossier that answers some basic questions about each character in your story, both physically and personality-wise.
So let's say your protagonist is a doctor. Her character sheet might answer these questions:
- Which medical school did she go to, and what kind of student was she?
- How is her relationship with her family and/or 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 the smallest details about your characters can have a big impact on your story.
If you need a bit of help with this part, character development exercises are a great way to build believable people to populate your book! These questions and exercises will help you create characters who readers want to follow, even before they begin to change.
2. Give them realistic motivations
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 or need.
For example, your main character might be a jet-setting career man who now wants a family; an army medic who wants to survive the war; or a retired gunslinger who wants to be left alone. Your protagonist's desire don’t have to be too 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?
- What if your protagonist’s greatest desire is simply impossible?
3. Add some internal conflict
While conflict is often interpreted as "protagonist vs. antagonist," it’s far more important to consider a character’s internal conflict. 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 — 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 her. These internal conflicts are the essence of Pride and Prejudice.
Before you write your first draft, consider how your character's flaws or specific worldview will keep them from their goal(s). Likewise, consider how the resolution of these issues will bring your protagonist closer to their desires — and to a new state of being.
4. Use external conflict to show internal struggles
Of course, unless your entire book is a running internal monologue, these internal struggles won't always be obvious to the reader. This is why 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 its fatal repercussions.
Fitzgerald more extensively shows this conflict by putting Gatsby at odds with Tom Buchanan. Cruel and unlikable, Tom is nonetheless everything Gatsby aspires to: an old-money WASP married to Daisy.But because Gatsby cannot turn this desire into a change he can actually make, he becomes increasingly desperate, careless, and 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 paragon of character evolution.
What if they don't really change?
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 goodness and resourcefulness can she beat the system and leave with them intact. Characters who remain the same can often be the driving force of a trilogy.
- 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 then encounters a chain of disasters that threaten to break his resolve, but 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.
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 desires, 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.
Remember: there's no formula for great characters
If your characters don't follow typical character arcs, you may find it’s harder to nail down exactly how their internal flaws and external conflicts should play out. But even in unconventional narratives, you can almost always rely on 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.