Dynamic is not always about being flamboyant or extroverted.
Static is not always about socks sticking to your sweater.
These are two great words that describe the types of characters each story contains. Dynamic does not actually mean lively, charismatic or even likable. A dynamic character is one who evolves during the course of the story in a significant way: a change of heart, a change of values, a change of capacities. As a literary term, it refers to a character that undergoes a significant thought paradigm shift. Someone who started out the story thinking and acting one way, and has matured (or declined) considerably by the end. Dynamic characters are the ones with the big a-ha moments that change their perspective and their course of action. They overcome something feared because they are motivated by something greater.
The opposite is called a static character. A static character is predictable and steady. This does not mean he has to be boring. Most sit-com characters are static. They can be funny, lively and totally crazy, but they behave with the same general motives in every episode. It’s a rare writer who can wrap a whole story around such characters and mold it into anything deep, but every now and then you get a series like M*A*S*H or Frazier that evolve into something really smart.
In the course of any really good story…
A lead character should reach a turning point when he or she abandons the reality of a prior mindset and embraces a new outlook. Sometimes the change is subtle, unseen even to the character himself. In those cases, the actions take a while to follow the new course of thought, but by the end of the story, the audience feels it. Some famous slow changers who pack a punch by the final curtain are Huckleberry Finn, Bean (Ender’s Shadow series) and Scout Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird). All three of these people change their opinions of others and of themselves, and they move forward with those new interpretations. Dynamic characters don’t always lead to a happy ending, but they consistently lead readers to a level of mental or emotional catharsis and self-discovery.
When writing a story, an author must determine which characters are dynamic and which are static.
If all the characters in a story are static, then there is no real arc or evolution. There may be action and excitement, but the outcomes as they affect each individual are predictable. To go deeper, the author must ask, “Whose story is this?” It isn’t always obvious. I have started reading (and even writing) some stories convinced that I was supposed to be watching Character A, when in fact it was Character D that proved the one to grow.
What do static characters look like?
When a child picks up a puppet, she picks up power—power to control what that puppet says and does. She can make it fly, dance, or bop the other puppets on the head. When a child turns on cartoons, she sees attractive, well-mannered good guys in cool outfits battling ugly, gravel-voiced bad guys with demonic laughs. The good guys are completely altruistic, and the bad guys bathe in evil juice twice a day. Neither of these formulas convinces audiences over the age of about nine. Boring! Kids’ stuff. And yet I’ve read an alarming number of novels that try to do this. Some of them even go so far as to call character X “pure evil”, or paint a Miss Perfect, who is indeed all but hovering over the water she walks on. When characters like that fill the page, my eyes glaze over and I lose all interest. I know that Pollyanna will be perky, positive and pukingly devoid of conflict. I know that Dr. Evil will be cruel, heartless, selfish and motivated only by a lust for power and revenge. I just don’t know anybody like that in real life.
How do we write dynamic characters?
Most novice writers include entirely too much back story in their novels. Why? They are exploring their characters. They spend time describing what the character looks like and how he moves, dresses, talks, smiles. They rifle through all his emotional baggage and then, somewhere around page 36, the story actually starts. I think all of that writing is valuable—for the author.
But we really don’t create characters. We get to know them. Like unwrapping a tapestry one fold at a time to discover the beauty of the design within. To do that, we have to spend time with them out of script, just thinking about what they’d be like if they were here in the room with us. When we know them, we can write them.
I’ve been known to write thousands of words, just getting to know a character: setting him down in a situation and seeing how he reacts to his environment and the people around him. Much of that prose never shows up in the actual story because, frankly, it’s boring to read. But what I’ve written locks in my mind. I know him now. I know what motivates him, what fears he has, and what it will take to get him where I need him to go.
The more we view our characters as real, sentient and independent persons,
the more they become our allies in the story-telling process,
and the more they become memorable to our readers.
Every soul deals with conflict, and that has to show up in the character. We must know what our main characters are afraid of (snakes, rejection, war, etc.), and what keeps them going forward (desire for love, fame, a chance to make a difference, etc.). When we know that, we just have to nudge them into situations that will bring about the reactions and changes needed to forward the story. Their behavior is just the manifestation of how they’re dealing with the conflict. All we have to do is think of obstacles and goals and then ask what the character would do. He’ll answer for himself if I we’re willing to listen, and we’ll have a truly dynamic character to star in the story.
And if, every now and then, he doesn’t react the way I want him to, I know he will undoubtedly take the story to a better place than I was going.
A neighbor friend of mine is part of one of those amazing big black gospel choirs of the sort that gets asked to sing for the President. For reals. (She’s the beauty in the middle that looks like Serena Williams.) We got to talking about what it takes to lift people up out of their seats. For me, a well-executed concert will get my applause, of course, but to get a standing ovation, the music has to pull me up. Like, I can’t resist standing because it’s just so electrifying! A clean, antiseptic performance won’t do that. It’s got to be busting with energy. They’ve got to sing or play like they mean it. They have to fill the room with more than just sound. They have to fill it with soul.
My friend nodded. “That comes from studying the music–but really studying it–so that its meaning gets into you. You’ve gotta be living it, too. You can’t just show up and expect the Spirit to flow out of you. You fill your life with the Spirit, and then you sing. That’s the overflow!”
The same thing has to happen when we write. It isn’t enough for us to write a clean essay or story that’s free of mechanical errors. True, we writers don’t typically get standing ovations, per se, but when someone forwards our link, or reads the paragraph or article aloud to a friend, or recommends buying our book—or leaves a glowing review!—that’s the equivalent of standing up and saying, “Amen!” or “Encore! Gimme more of that!”
To get that kind of response, we have to do more than fill the page with well-ordered words correctly positioned amidst commas and periods. We’ve got to write like we mean it.
And to do that, the meaning has to be in us. We have to be living it, growing it, developing it. Challenging it, tasting it, risking it. Examining it, nurturing it, believing it.
Then, by the time we reach the keyboard, or the pen and paper, the message overflows.