Welcome to 3.2, covering character evolution. In longer works, you’ll often see characters changing over time as they go through the events described in the plot. However, not all characters change. In this guide, we’ll explain what some of these changes are and what they mean.
When characters develop or change over the course of the narrative, they are called dynamic. When they do not change, they are called static.
Let’s begin with a discussion of dynamic characters.
A dynamic character develops over the course of a narrative. This could be positive development, negative development, or neither, but the character needs to change in order to be dynamic.
Character changes can be both external and internal, but generally when we talk about dynamic characters we’re looking at their internal changes. We’re also generally talking about changes from the beginning of the text to the end, although it’s possible to track changes from section to section of the text as well. Often what you’ll find is that internal changes will lead to external ones — for example, after letting go of his quest for revenge (an internal change), a character will be “rewarded” for this decision by some material gain, such as becoming rich (an external change).
Here are some common changes we see in dynamic characters:
Health: Characters can become injured/heal from an illness or injury.
Wealth: Characters can gain a fortune/ lose everything.
Perspective: Characters can go from cynical to optimistic perspectives, or vice versa.
Motives: Characters can acquire new motives and/or discard old ones.
Skills: Characters can become more skilled at something they’re working towards (think of “training montages.” It’s also possible for characters to suffer from a reduction in skill and ability.)
State: Characters may take on new roles in life through certain events, such as getting married, taking on a certain profession (like superhero), having children, etc…
All of these changes can work with each other.
Often, the protagonist(s), or character(s) that the story follows, are the dynamic characters. Traditionally, protagonists are people with agency in the story; they have the power to act, and those actions have an effect on the world. Therefore, it’s often possible to trace the events that move a plot forward to choices that characters have made, and those choices are often made because of some change in the character.
In The Iliad, Achilles is a brilliant warrior, but he refuses to fight after a perceived insult. He takes the battlefield only after the death of Patroclus, the person who means the most to him, in order to take revenge.
In this example, an external change (the death of Patroclus) leads to an internal change in Achilles, which leads to his decision to take the field. As a result of this decision, the plot moves forward very violently.
Dynamic characters are an important part of many novels and plays, and the struggles of the characters as they change make for the stuff of fascinating literature. However, not every character — or even every protagonist — is a dynamic character. Let’s talk about static characters!
Some characters remain unchanged or are largely unaffected by the events of the narrative. These are called static characters.
It’s important to note that there’s nothing wrong with a static character. Indeed, static characters are essential for many narratives to work. For example, minor characters are often static because there isn’t enough room for those characters to change.
Here are some other examples of static characters in fiction:
Children’s stories often feature static characters.
Symbolic characters (ex: Tiny Tim from A Christmas Carol, Atticus Finch from To Kill A Mockingbird) who are meant to symbolize some quality such as goodness or morality are often static.
Mentor characters are often static because their job is to help the main character as they grow and develop, and having a mentor character change is often unnecessary for a plot.
Detective characters such as Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot don’t change because the focus of detective novels isn’t their character development but rather a mystery and the people involved in the said mystery.
Antagonists often don’t undergo change throughout the narrative the way protagonists do. (They may change at the end, when the hero defeats them.)
Now that we have our characters on stage, it’s time to begin the show! In the next guide, we’ll be talking about conflict and plot development.