(Originally published as a guest post on JerryJenkins.com)
Memorable, believable characters are crucial to every good story.
Consider what makes these literary classics so unforgettable:
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Each has a cast of flawed characters whose growth—their character arcs—makes all the difference.
Two essential types of characters exist in a story: dynamic and static. Understanding them can help you compel readers to keep turning the pages.
What is a Dynamic Character?
One who, because of the internal and external obstacles he faces, and the lessons he learns, experiences significant change by the end of a story.
The more challenges, the better the story. The toughest challenges beget the most radical transformations.
Lead characters are usually dynamic, but not always.
Dynamic Character Examples:
Katniss Everdeen: She begins The Hunger Games trying to feed and protect her family following the death of her father.
But when Prim, her sister, is selected as Tribute for District 12, Katniss knows she won’t survive, so she volunteers to take her place alongside the baker’s son Peeta, the chosen male Tribute.
Peeta has had a crush on Katniss since childhood, but does Katniss feel the same way, or does she merely pretend for strategic reasons?
As Katniss and Peeta fight to survive, the twists and turns of the game keep readers wondering if either will. In the end, Katniss becomes a hero who inspires hope (and a rebellion) in her countrymen.
Ebenezer Scrooge: He begins A Christmas Carol selfish, miserly, and miserable, an old man who seems to despise anything good, even carolers trying to spread cheer on Christmas Eve.
But that very night he’s visited by the ghost of his former business partner and then the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future. He watches as not a single soul cares enough about him to mourn his death.
In the end, he becomes a generous, gracious, kindhearted gentleman bent on keeping the Christmas Spirit alive for the rest of his life.
Walter White: The main character in the hit AMC series Breaking Bad begins as a high school science teacher who learns he has cancer. His insurance company refuses to cover all his treatments, putting him on the verge of bankruptcy.
He’s already working two jobs and has taken out a second mortgage on his home. A ride-along on a drug bust with his DEA brother-in-law gives Walter an idea: he could use his scientific knowledge to develop quality meth and make a bundle.
A chance encounter with a former student results in an unlikely partnership, and so begins the secret life of Walter White. Not only is he able to quickly meet the financial needs of his family, but his drug business also becomes so lucrative it ultimately destroys everyone involved.
The opposite character arc from Scrooge, for example, White has gone from high school teacher to drug lord.
Dynamic vs. Static Characters
Static characters often get a bad rap, but that’s not always deserved.
While dynamic characters experience life-altering changes, the personalities, behaviors, and morals of static characters remain largely unchanged.
But that doesn’t have to mean they’re boring. It just means they don’t experience a major internal transformation like dynamic characters do.
Static Character Examples:
James Bond: In his 12-novel series, Ian Fleming created the perfect static character. Though he’s a charming, sophisticated, dangerous British Secret Service Agent who fights crime, he personally remains unchanged.
Smaug: The deadly, fire breathing dragon who captures Erebor in The Hobbit, sits atop a golden treasure he’ll protect at any cost.
When Bilbo steals a chalice, Smaug wakes and fights, which results in his ultimate downfall. His character remains unchanged throughout.
Albus Dumbledore: For most of the Harry Potter series, Dumbledore is seen as the beloved grandfatherly Headmaster at Hogwarts.
We readers grow fond of him too, as we learn his backstory, but his character remains unchanged during the series.
Only after his death do we learn more about his sins and virtues, and that he never fully rid himself of the dark side he hid so well.
How to Create a Dynamic Character
1. Give him a history.
Your character’s history—his backstory—shaped him into the person he is today.
The more thoroughly you know him, the easier it’ll be to determine where change can occur during your story.
Things you should know, whether or not you choose to include them:
- When and where was he born?
- Who are his parents?
- Does he have brothers and sisters (include names and ages)?
- Did he attend high school? College? Graduate school? Where and for how long?
- What’s his political affiliation?
- What’s his occupation?
- How much does he make?
- What are his goals?
- What are his skills and talents?
- What does his spiritual life look like?
- Who are his friends?
- Who is his best friend?
- Is he single? Dating? Married?
- What’s his worldview?
- What’s his personality type?
- What triggers his anger?
- What gives him joy?
- What’s he afraid of?
2. Give him human qualities.
To be human is to be flawed and vulnerable.
Even superheroes have weaknesses. Superman’s is Kryptonite. Daredevil’s is a high-pitched sound. Thor is stronger when he has his hammer. The Green Lantern can stop just about anything unless it’s made of wood.
If you want readers to identify with dynamic characters, those characters must have human weaknesses and vulnerabilities.
Just make sure those faults aren’t irreparable—don’t make your protagonist a fearful, wimpy slob who can do nothing right.
3. Give him heroic qualities, too.
Plunge him into terrible trouble and allow him to learn valuable lessons as he tries (and fails) to fight his way out. But eventually allow him to show readers what he’s made of.
Have him develop courage and conviction. Make him grow strong, selfless, honest, and determined. Give him moral integrity.
Maybe he begins as the underdog deathly afraid of spiders or heights, or has an unhealthy addiction. But in the end, he must rise above his flaws, overcome the challenge, and become the hero who keeps readers turning the pages
4. Make sure there’s internal and external conflict.
Conflict is the engine of fiction—and that’s usually external.
But what happens to your character internally is also important. What your hero thinks, feels, and tells himself directly influences his eventual transformation.
Draw upon your own experience to create a whole character, inside and out.
What are your innermost doubts and fears? How do you respond to danger?
Mix and match behaviors from yourself and others to determine your hero’s natural internal and external responses.
5. Show, don’t tell.
Like Jerry always says, this is the cardinal rule of fiction.
Show readers who your character is through his thoughts, actions, and dialogue. Then trust readers enough to let them deduce the rest.
That gives readers the best reading experience.
Start Developing Dynamic Characters
Positive growth or not, a dynamic character always changes over the course of a story.
Explore dynamic characters in stories you read to learn what makes them work, and how you can do it.
Develop dynamic characters who feel real, and they’ll become unforgettable.
For additional help developing your characters, visit:
- Your Ultimate Guide to Character Development: 9 Steps to Creating Memorable Heroes
- Internal and External Conflict: Tips for Creating Unforgettable Characters
- How to Create a Powerful Character Arc
- Character Motivation: How to Craft Realistic Characters
- 12 Character Archetypes You Can Use to Create Heroes Your Reader Will Love
- How to Create Memorable Character Names