Many authors dream of being the one to write a character so good, readers cry over them. They dream about them. They wish those characters were real. This happens often when the authors writes a dynamic character.
We all know characters make the story. Some books are entirely character driven, in which the arc and journey the character goes through is the entire point of the novel. But even in plot-driven books, your characters will make or break the story.
We want to see characters grow and change, make mistakes and overcome. Doing this is what creates raving fans who follow that character from book to book.
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What is a dynamic character?
A dynamic character is one that experiences significant internal change over the course of the story, whether it's one book or an entire series. While a dynamic character is often the protagonist, they can exist in secondary characters as well.
What you should aim for with this type of character is evolution. From the beginning to the end of the story, they should be changed in dramatic ways. This can be displayed in physical characteristics, sometimes subtle like a character donning a new look or in more dramatic senses like a shifter fully transforming into their beast for the first time. This stands in contrast to a flat character, as well as a static character.
Dynamic Characters VS Static Characters
Dynamic characters change and evolve throughout the story, but static characters remain as they are. An easier way to tell the difference is to think about dynamic characters as your main characters and static ones as your secondary characters.
Keep in mind that you can write a protagonist who is a static character, so this isn't a hard-fast rule. Most often, you'll find static protagonists in serial stories like spy novels, mystery, and genres in which each book is a standalone story but with the same main character.
This looks like Benoit Blanc in the Knives Out movies. His character—a detective—doesn't change or grow throughout the movies, but it's still an interesting and captivating story. James Bond is similar (though later movies do have him grow emotionally).
Examples of other static characters in stories:
- Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series – secondary character
- Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings series – secondary character
- James Bond in the 007 franchise – main character
- Indiana Jones in that franchise – main character
- Yoda from the Starwars series – secondary character
- Addie LaRue in The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue – main character
- Luna Lovegood in Harry Potter – secondary character
Contrast this with characters like Sansa Stark in Game of Thrones series, in which the story begins with her as a spoiled, snotty little princess, and ends with her the disciplined, honorable ruler of the north. Her character and arc is among the best example of a truly dynamic character in fiction today.
Examples of Dynamic Characters
Any good protagonist is a dynamic character. The entire point of most stories is to see the evolution of the main character throughout the story. This is often referred to as the character arc. You can't have a static character who has an arc, because the very nature of the character arc requires that the protagonist be changed throughout the story.
Here are some examples of strong dynamic characters who are the protagonist:
- Luke Skywalker in Starwars – protagonist
- Harry Potter in that series of the same name – protagonist
- Feyre in A Court of Thorns and Roses – protagonist
- The Grinch in the movie of the same name – protagonist
- Ebenezer Scrooge in various stories – protagonist
These are dynamic characters who are secondary to the protagonist:
- Sansa Stark in Game of Thrones – secondary character
- Arya Stark in Game of Thrones – secondary character
- Neville Longbottom in Harry Potter – secondary character
- Ron Weasley in Harry Potter – secondary character
- Haymitch Abernathy in Hunger Games – secondary character
How to Write Strong Dynamic Characters Your Readers Will Root For
So how do you create the characters that readers rave about? It's not rocket science, but it's also not as simple as you might think. Studying the stories mentioned above will help you understand how the author crafted these changes, but we've also compiled a list of tips below.
1. Give them a meaningful goal
Your character has to want something. That's rule #1 in writing any sort of story. If there is no desire, there are no obstacles, which means there isn't an actual story. Stories are comprised of want, obstacle, action.
In order to create a dynamic character, you need a goal that's meaningful to them. Only something truly important to them will be enough to cause them to change. Shoot for the stars with your character's goal, but remember that means from their perspective. What is a big goal to them?
These are some examples of character goals:
- leaving behind a life of generational poverty to work in a major city
- to change an unjust law so justice can be served
- to live a simple life after the one they've had has been chaos
- to break a curse that's been on their family or people for generations
- to fall in love (romance novels)
- to kill someone for the promise of money, prestige, or something else they truly want
- to pay a debt
- to keep their family safe
- to escape an abusive situation
- to become respected or authoritative
These are vague examples, but you want to make them concrete or they'll read as motivations. The difference between a character goal and their motivation is that the motivation is why they want to achieve the goal.
Why is the character saving every penny they earn for years in order to move to the big city? Because their family has been living in poverty for years and this poverty has made them sick.
- The goal = save enough money to move to the big city
- The motivation = find a way to cure their sickness, which is promised if you make it to the big city
The Savior's Champion by Jenna Moreci has a great example of goal vs motivation: the main character Tobias joins the Sovereign's Tournament, which is a fight-to-the-death style trial to win the hand of the Savior (reigning woman over the lands). But his motivation is not to marry. He joins because if selected, his family would receive a lot of money—money that can be used to pay for medicine for his crippled sister who writhes in pain most days.
- Goal = be selected to participate in the Sovereign's Tournament
- Motivation = earn coin for his sister's medicine
2. Give them a strong motivation behind the goal
There's nothing like want to make a character do things they never thought they would. That's what the motivation in character development is. It's what they're after, what they'll stop at nothing to get.
The character motivation is one of the first things we'll learn about them and should be present very early on in the story. It can be something as simple as leaving their hometown or something far more complex, like saving the entire wizarding world from dark forces or saving their family before they're killed.
Keep in mind that sometimes a character's motivation can change (especially in a book series) due to a realization or new information being revealed. Where they may have wanted nothing more than to leave and never return, they may decide that their new motivation is to stay and fight. This can actually make for an even more dynamic character because not only are they changing internally, but their very reason for operating changes too.
Either way, the motivation has to be strong enough to carry the character through every hardship they're faced with. It has to be strong enough to be worth it.
3. Craft the plot to put them at odds with their motivation
Katniss Everdeen is a great example of this. At first, we know that she wants to keep her family alive and safe. It's the very opening scene in the book; she's hunting to feed her family.
But the plot takes a turn and now her sister's life is in danger. In an effort to fulfill her motivation, her life is put at risk, which in turn actually puts her family's life at risk because of her need to leave them. This level of odds makes for a really good story because it forces growth onto the character.
Katniss can't do both, right? That's the question we'll ask and we'll read the whole book to uncover the answer.
The best way to do this is to ask: what will conflict with their motivation enough that they can't act upon their desires?
4. Create obstacles that force your character to make hard choices
Every choice your character makes is revealing who they are. This is pivotal for dynamic characters because the choices will need to change as the story progresses. This is how we will be shown (not told) of the changes necessary to deem them dynamic.
So you have to give them obstacles that force them to make choices.
But those choice have to specifically be in relation to the flaws we want them to overcome in their character arc. This involves knowing who your character is deeply and how you want them to change.
Here are some common character flaws, obstacles, and possible choices that create change:
- A character who has a flaw in trusting others. They're forced into a situation in which they have to rely on others in other to get closer to their goal (or also die). They can either walk away and try to do it by themselves, and fail, or they can trust the others and succeed in the end. They choose to trust others, and have learned that relying on others can help them achieve even more.
- A character has a flaw of being a compulsive liar. They end up in a situation in which telling the truth is the difference between moving toward their goal or failing. They make a choice to lie. This lie actually helps them succeed and this flaw is reinforced, so they will continue to lie and believe it's the only way forward. A while later, this flaw is tested again and they choose to lie and fail. This creates doubt (change) that lying is the solution, and next time they choose a different solution.
- A character is flawed in that they're very naive, they don't understand the workings of the world. They're put in a scene where someone much more aware gives them a choice that seems simple. They make the simple choice, only to realize that it was a trick all along. This character then matures and becomes more wise to the workings of the world.
5. Create foil characters
One way to showcase a dynamic character is to pair them with characters that are their complete opposite. These opposites are called foil characters. The point is to create contrast and highlight certain characteristics of your protagonist so we can track the changes.
The more alike the foil character they become since the start of the story, the more dynamic they are.
A strong example of using a foil character is in the story (and TV series) The Expanse. James Holden is a main character who is a do-gooder. He's never even shot a person, but becomes the face of what many think is a terrorist movement. In reality, he's trying to uncover the brutal murder of his ship and crew mates. He's more of the hero in the story.
Contrast that with foil character Detective Josephus Miller. While a “good guy,” Detective Miller will resort to shooting someone without even blinking, so long as it means he can continue on and solve the mystery both men are after. They don't meet until the end parts of season 1, but are then forced to work together for survival.[MILD SPOILER]: Even through the episode where these two are forced to work together, we see James Holden not only confess that he's never shot a man, but by the end of the episode he does end up shooting someone. We also see a moment where he loses control and fires many shots at someone who almost got him and his crew killed earlier in the episode. This looks an awful lot like a normal behavior of Detective Miller.
The key to making foil characters work well: give both characters the same goal with a different motivation. This forces them to work together but because their reasons are different, there can be conflict.
6. Write conflicting characteristics
The idea that a character can only tell the truth to others, but then continuously lies to themselves allows for the opportunity to grow and change. Creating conflicts within your dynamic character is a great way to indicate what will need to change in order to accomplish their goal.
It also helps them feel real. Humans aren't perfect people and we're full of contradictions . Sit down and think up all the ways your character can be at odds with themselves.
Here are some examples of conflicting characteristics:
- highly naive in many areas, but intelligent in others
- very outgoing and talkative but doesn't trust anyone
- never wants to be alone but can't stand being around other people
- intensely curious but will jump to conclusions
- quiet and shy but makes demands instead of asks questions
7. Foreshadow their flaws
We need to see the ways in which you'll make your characters change. It's not enough to just tell the reader they have a bad habit of lying, we have to be shown, with a scene, what this looks like and the negative ramifications of it. As the reader, we have to see that this is a flaw that's big enough to disrupt their plans or life in some way.
An example of this would be if a character doesn't let anyone else do the work—they're not trusting of others. This can be shown with a scene where many characters are making plans, and then the main character ignores the plans and does everything themselves. This ultimately makes the plan fail.
Later, when a similar situation arises toward the end of their character arc, we should see the character make a different choice that leads to a positive outcome. Then it needs to be done again tenfold for the climax, because remember, the plot and character are connected.
Here's how you can think of it:
- character flaw failure = downswings in story progress
- character flaw progress = upswing in story progress
Whenever the character faces their flaws and fails to grow, the plot has to take a turn for the worst. When they face their flaws and shows growth, the plot will hit progress and upswings.
Ultimately, to be believable, we have to see instances of the flaws so we can actually see the changes.
Dynamic characters are all about using their goals, motivations, and flaws against them in order for them to make different choices in which they learn, grow, and change. It takes practice, but by studying strong dynamic characters in other stories, you'll pick up on what your story needs to do it well.
Work on developing your characters more fully, using the resource below.