What is a Static Character? Definition and Mistakes to Avoid
A static character is a type of character who experiences little to no internal change over the course of the story. Even as the plot develops, their personalities, beliefs, and characterization stay the same. Examples of static characters in literature include Sherlock Holmes, Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird, and Mrs. Bennett from Pride and Prejudice.
Now when it’s put like that, static characters sound tragically boring. But they are absolutely essential in almost any narrative — and we think you’ll discover that some of your all-time favorite characters fit this definition of static characters pretty perfectly.
Stories need characters who don't change
If they don’t change or develop in any way, then why do static characters exist? Well, while most authors opt for a dynamic protagonist, they recognize that too many dynamic characters will spoil the storytelling broth. The protagonist is the main event — the protein, if you will — while our static friends exist to fill out the story — the vegetables.
That doesn’t mean that static characters are trivial. Any strong static character will serve a particular purpose in relation to the protagonist. They might create conflict, build drama, or provide context, for example. Usually, a static character is one of three things:
A foil character: The purpose of a foil character is to draw attention to the attributes of the main character. They might contrast the protagonist, often in a humorous or negative way, or simply provide context by being more conventional. For example, Meg March in Little Women acts as a foil to her impulsive and tomboyish sister Jo.
An antagonist: An antagonist is written not only to contrast the protagonist but to be in direct opposition with them. They prevent the protagonist from achieving their goal and this propels the story forward. While the protagonist has to grow to overcome the antagonist’s obstacles, the antagonist usually remains the same (and is defeated). Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is an example of a static antagonist.
- An instructive constant: Though silly and evil static characters are far more common, it’s not unheard of for static characters to be positively symbolic or instructive. The attributes and views of these characters provide a guiding constant for the protagonist. A good example of this kind of static character is Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Static characters don't have to be 'flat'
Many people mistakenly believe that a dynamic character is the same as a well-rounded character, and therefore that static characters must be flat. A flat character is one that lacks complexity and motivation — their personality is considered one-dimensional; while "static" simply means that the character’s personality doesn’t change over the course of the narrative.
It is therefore possible — and actually quite common — to have static well-rounded characters: characters who are fleshed out with backstory, motivations, strengths, and weaknesses, but nevertheless change very little, if at all, in a story.
Returning to our instructive constant example, Atticus Finch is by all accounts a complex, well-rounded character, but he is not dynamic: his attitude and views remain the same throughout the novel. His steadfast morality serves to teach his daughter Scout about right and wrong. She is the dynamic character, while he facilitates that change.
Static villains can also be well-rounded characters. In fact, any good villain should have an interesting backstory that feeds their motivations, strengths, and weaknesses. Gollum, as we meet him in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, is a static character: though complex, he remains tormented by and fixated on the ring until his death. But through his backstory, we come to understand his journey earlier in life from virtuousness to wickedness, and our sympathy deepens.
Every character has the potential to become dynamic
As well as revealing past character growth through backstory, it can be fun and effective to make your static characters dynamic by giving them room to breathe in their own narrative. We would certainly read a LotR prequel about Gollum’s journey from a regular hobbit to… whatever a Gollum is. And recent blockbusters exploring the beginnings of The Joker and Cruella de Vil have been lapped up.
Of course, the development of a static character doesn’t have to have happened in the past. Perhaps you have a side character with depth and interest of their own. Firstly, nice work. Secondly, maybe it’s time to explore their journey in a sequel? Romance novels are perfect fodder for this: those best friends, siblings, or romantic competitors will transition seamlessly into the main characters of a second book, and can be given the fully-developed character arcs we know they deserve.
For this to succeed, however, you first need your static side characters to have depth and complexity. So now you know that a flat character is not just a static character, it might be a good time to learn what exactly a flat character is, and how to avoid writing one.