What is a Dynamic Character? Definition and Examples
A dynamic character is one who changes over the course of a story. Something might alter about their personality, their attitude towards something, or their overall worldview. Usually, this happens slowly over a narrative, but a character will sometimes have a revelation that suddenly flips how they see things, or how they behave.
Characters at a crossroads
In everyday life, human beings do change, but usually over a long period of time — or because they reach a particular turning point, such as college or retirement. The narrative arcs found in fiction, however, are all about exceptional moments: the moments when characters are confronted with drastic circumstances and forced to adapt.
For example, in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Christopher finds out that his dad killed a dog and that his mum is not dead, as he previously thought, but instead living with his neighbor’s ex-husband in London — events that would surely change anyone’s perspective on life.
Christopher only has these revelations because he discovers a dead dog at the beginning of the novel and decides to find out who killed it. His quest for answers sends him on quite the journey, during which he has to overcome several personal obstacles. To surmount those obstacles and solve the mystery, then come to terms with everything that’s happened, Christopher has to become less naive and more independent — changes that inspire new hope for his future.
Christopher’s is exactly the kind of trajectory you’ll find in lots of novels: a condensed, dramatic transformation, kick-started by a character’s goal, and brought about by the personal obstacles they face while trying to achieve that goal. So not the sort of change that happens during the life of your average Joe.
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Small personal changes can still be significant
As a coming-of-age novel, The Curious Incident is particularly introspective and character-focused. But not every dynamic character needs to experience an earth-shattering change. In fact, characters in serialized narratives probably shouldn’t have life-changing epiphanies in every installment, lest they transform into an incredibly demented version of themselves.
Demelza from Winston Graham’s Poldark series is a great example of a serialized dynamic character. At the beginning of Demelza’s story, Captain Ross Poldark saves her from a brawl in the streets and employs her as his maid. Dirty and ragged, Demelza needs cleaning up before she can work in the house.
Here the reader might expect an ugly duckling transformation, but it doesn’t happen like that. Demelza grows more into herself, helping Ross to see her beauty, but it's a gradual change: though she’s trying to fit into her new world, she continues to be awkward and different.
Even when she marries Ross and learns how to read and behave like a lady, she still retains a lot of what makes her character so unconventional. She stands out as brave, brazen, and strong (in an important juxtaposition with Ross’ previous love interest), yet also grows in her social capabilities — achieving her goal of belonging among her new society in her own way.
What Demelza shows is that it’s possible for a character to undergo meaningful change — no matter how many books they star in — without losing what makes them interesting, or becoming a caricature.
Dynamic characters can resist change
As mentioned in the previous post, it’s certainly possible for a main character to be well-rounded without changing at all — but it’s rare. Among the protagonists we call “static”, you’ll find several examples of characters who resist fundamental change, clinging even more closely to who they are. So does this mean they haven’t changed at all? Let’s take a look at a couple of examples.
From the outside, The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen 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.
In Andy Weir’s The Martian, supremely chill botanist Mark Watney is trapped on Mars. He quickly realizes that only his ingenuity and scientific knowledge can save him. He then encounters a chain of disasters that threaten to break his resolve — but by maintaining his trademark cool and returning time and time again to science, Watney is able to survive and ultimately escape the Red Planet.
Both Katniss and Mark Watney find the strength to survive by sticking to their guns and having faith in their unique skills and 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 character traits.
In other words, Katniss and Watney aren't what you'd call "exemplary" dynamic characters, but they're not totally 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!
Heroes can evolve into villains
Much like in real life, saying someone has “changed” isn’t always a good thing. Dynamic characters sometimes fall to the "dark side" over the course of a story, like Walter White in TV’s Breaking Bad.
For those who haven’t seen it, Walter White starts off as a devoted 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 scenarios. 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 “breaks bad” in what has become a modern paragon of character evolution.
INFOGRAPHIC: An Illustrated Look at Three Dynamic Characters
Speaking of Walter White, let's take a look at an infographic (featuring three of your favorite characters) we’ve put together to help you nail down the arc of a dynamic character.
To see how a protagonist's desires, strengths, and flaws influence how a story plays out, we took Han Solo, Walter White, and Katniss Everdeen, and placed them in an unfamiliar setting. Let's see how they develop over the course of a narrative.
If the characters in your story 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.
Of course, too many dynamic characters can spoil the broth. To learn how to flesh out your story with purposeful static characters, read on to the next post!