At the centre of any great story is the character. The writer’s job is to create fascinating people that we (as readers) cannot get enough of. These are the people who we fall in love with and want to follow throughout all their adventures; watching them grow as an entity and become the person they are meant to be.
After all character growth is what it’s all about, isn’t it?
The aim of story is to demonstrate the best way to live our own lives. As the character ventures through their story, they change, they grow. That happens in every story. Right? Well, perhaps, but not always. There's a difference between plot driven and character driven stories. There's also a difference between dynamic characters and flat characters. We'll explore more in this article:
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What is a static character?
The static character does not change—their personality, their outlook on life remains the same throughout the novel. Fully formed at the start of the story, the static character knows who they are and they experience very few if any dramatic changes. They have a flat character arc and their role is to help the characters around them grow and change.
However, do not confuse a flat character arc with a one-dimensional or flat character. Static characters have their own goals and character motivations. They have their own story and backstory: they simply do not embark on personal growth. For this reason, the static character often has a secondary role in the narrative. Sometimes they are there as a foil to contrast against more dynamic characters.
Consider Atticus Finch, for example. Atticus is a delightful person with a flat character arc. He hardly changes and, his role (as the father) in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was to help Scout and Jem grow and develop. He was who he was and it’s with his guiding hand that Scout becomes the woman she was destined to be.
How to write static characters
Even if the static character has no story arc themselves and are there to aid the central characters—don’t make them boring or flat.
Flat characters are one-dimensional and frankly dull.
Imagine a stock character of a high school jock archetype that doesn't deviate from the stereotype or have any character development throughout the book.
The static character still has to be a fully-rounded person with goals and motivations. They still have to want something. Atticus Finch (in To Kill a Mockingbird) had two children to raise and protect in a difficult world and he had a contentious court case to win. Those aims are what made him a compelling character even if he had no personal development throughout the course of the book.
Harper Lee created Atticus Finch with an entire backstory and a great personality to make him a compelling person. He had a moral compass and did not deviate from that. It made him someone his children could look up to and learn from.
So, the best way to avoid your static character being flat and dull is to imbue them with personality, and a number of ways to do this are listed below.
- Dialogue: The way characters speak tells the reader a lot about them. When you write dialogue well, you answer questions implicitly like: Are they educated or not? The reader will be able to spot that from their speech patterns. Are they sarcastic? Are they serious or always lighthearted? Are they a negative person or someone who always finds something positive to say? They don’t have to be Pollyanna, but they may find that their glass is half-full. Read this for more on how to write great dialogue.
- Actions: again, how someone behaves tells us a lot about them, as can their hobbies, habits and other interests. What about their approach to problem solving? How do they handle tricky situations?
- How do they react to other characters? I’ll pick up more on this in the article on foil characters, but how someone acts toward others can tell the reader a lot about them. Someone who is kind may see someone’s smile as a nice thing. If they are paranoid or skeptical character then they may see the smile as something much more sinister. Are they a trusting person or are they usually suspicious of others?
- Inner thoughts and feelings: by making the static character rounded with a backstory it gives you the opportunity to share their dreams and their hopes. Adding in past experiences and memories also adds depth and complexity to your character.
Examples from real books
In addition to Atticus Finch mentioned above there are several other static characters in literature.
In Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, Mrs. Joe is a very cruel and stubborn character. One of the ways this is shown is her habit of always holding the bread close to her apron to cut it. She doesn’t care that needles in her apron end up in the bread. Miss Haversham too is very stubborn as she refuses to leave her room—remaining exactly how she was dressed at the precise moment she discovered she’d been jilted.
One of my favorite characters is Sherlock Holmes. Created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the late 1800s, Holmes undertakes very few changes. His relationship with his friend does change him slightly, but his personality, his quirky nature and his excellent deductive reasoning remain static throughout the novels and short stories.
Holden Caulfield in J D Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye remains pretty much the same throughout the novel. At the end, he is as disillusioned with society as he was at the start and he’s still struggling to find purpose and meaning to life.
Hans Solo (Star Wars) is another example of a character who doesn’t change. He’s still the same irascible, sarcastic rogue at the end of Star Wars that he was at the beginning. Again, although central to the Star War story, he was a secondary character.
Yoda too was a static character. Get what you see, it is.
Bella Swan in Stephanie Myers’ Twilight series is a static character as well. Despite everything that is going on around her: the move to a new town; moving in with her father; missing her mother; a new school and then meeting Edward Cullen, she remains fairly unchanged with her adoration of Edward providing her with a constant.
So is it ever possible for a protagonist, the lead character, to be static? Again, the answer is, yes. Although I would contend that this tends to happen more in plot-driven novels such as the Jack Reacher novels by Lee Child (now by Andrew Child). Reacher arrives in town, with hardly anything to his name, he discovers there’s a problem, he buys a toothbrush, resolves the problem and gets back on the Greyhound Bus. Like Shane, in Jack Schaefer’s eponymous novel, Reacher and Shane simply disappear into the sunset.
Santiago in Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, perseveres in his goal of catching the giant marlin throughout the novel. And whilst this highlights Hemingway’s themes of perseverance and resilience, there’s an element of stubbornness too.
Other types of characters
Stories can have many different types of characters.
Dynamic Characters: the types of characters that we meet most often in fiction. They react to what occurs around them. They use those challenges to grow and develop.
Foil Characters: often used as a device to show personality traits of other characters; for example, Ron and Hermione are used in Harry Potter to show aspects of Harry that only they see. I’ll cover these in more detail in this article.
Flat Characters: similar to static characters, but slightly different. Static might be three-dimensional and complex, but they stay relatively the same from start to finish; while flat characters are one-dimensional, stereotypical, or cliche.
Download the character development worksheet to continue building out the characters of your next novel.