You know how some stories stay with you for a long time, while others gather dust and get pushed further and further towards the back of your bookshelf, languishing in literary obscurity? One of the things that makes novels resonate with readers is dynamic characters—and you’re going to need to know how to use them to make your own writing as powerful as it can be.
In this article, we’ll take you through what dynamic character means in writing, why it’s important when it comes to character development, and how to craft dynamic characters that make your novel or short story shine—plus some helpful dynamic character examples from beloved literary works! Let’s dive in.
What is a dynamic character in writing?
A dynamic character—sometimes called a literary or dramatic character—is someone who undergoes a great, overarching transformation between the beginning and end of the story. Most protagonists will be dynamic characters (but not always—we’ll look at some examples below).
Often, the change a dynamic character undergoes will be for good—overcoming a fatal flaw and becoming a better person for it. For example, an avaricious man learning the true value of immaterial wealth is a common dynamic character archetype.
In a tragedy, however, the opposite can be true—for example, an honest man coming into great wealth and allowing it to erode his moral center is a tragic dynamic character.
Whether positive or negative, a dynamic character always undergoes some sort of change.
Why are dynamic characters important?
You’ll find that most main characters in literature are dynamic, and this is because dynamic characters engage readers with their complex, multi-faceted journeys.
A dynamic character doesn’t just experience the world around them—they allow the events of the story to reach them and affect them in new and surprising ways.
A writer also uses dynamic characters to communicate valuable lessons and themes to the reader. For example, a dynamic character can teach us that even a meek, scared boy can become a hero when it matters most, or that not even the most well-meaning among us are immune to the pitfalls of temptation.
By telling your story through the lens of a dynamic character, you can convey a powerful message that will stay with the reader for a long time.
Dynamic characters vs. static characters
Another term you’ll hear when talking about character development is “static character.” A static character is the opposite of a dynamic character: they retain the same strengths, weaknesses, and personality all through the story.
By the time the plot reaches its conclusion, they remain unchanged and have the same character traits as when they began.
Generally, static characters aren’t a strong choice for a protagonist because they don’t take the reader on a journey of becoming something new. However, this isn’t always the case.
Sherlock Holmes is an example of a static character who rarely changes, and so becomes a beloved figure that readers return to again and again. If he were to suddenly undergo a dramatic shift in personal values, readers might feel cheated out of the character’s personality they’d grown to expect.
Static characters can be effective as secondary players like best friends, love interests, sidekicks, or other characters. That’s because their constancy can help highlight a dynamic character’s development.
For example: if you begin with two unscrupulous best friends, and one is a dynamic character who decides to go on the straight and narrow, the juxtaposition between the static and dynamic character’s traits will make it even more obvious how much the protagonist has grown.
Round characters vs. flat characters
Some other related terms you might hear are “round characters” and “flat characters.” While these are similar to dynamic and static characters, they’re not quite the same thing.
A round character is a fully formed person with goals, motivations, interests, fears, secrets, hopes, and personality traits.
In the most effective works of literature, all characters are round—from the main character down to that guy they said hi to one time on the bus. (This is one of the reasons Harry Potter fan fiction has become so multifaceted and widespread; even minor characters in the series are well-developed enough, or round enough, to star in their own potential story.)
A flat character is the opposite of a round character. It’s a stock character who appears in the story only long enough to motivate the hero or throw a wrench in their plans. These characters are simple, universal, and usually approached as plot devices rather than real people.
Most of the time, round characters will be dynamic and flat characters will be static… but not always. Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a good example of a novel with a round, static protagonist. The unnamed main character is clear, vivid, and lifelike, but doesn’t change very much from the beginning of the novel to the end.
This is used to show that in spite of the horrific and fantastical things he’s experienced, life goes on the way it always has.
Flat characters can still be effective in fables, faerie tales, and children’s fiction. For example, Robert Munsch’s The Paper Bag Princess (one of the great unsung works of literature of our age) features a flat, dynamic main character: a princess who is forced to go rescue her prince charming from a fearsome dragon.
Although the short book doesn’t develop its characters very much, the princess undergoes a clear personal growth from her experiences in the story.
Examples of dynamic characters in literature
Let’s take a deeper look at some examples of dynamic characters who experience significant change and transformation through their character arc.
Bilbo Baggins from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is a classic dynamic character example.
When the story begins, he’s a conservative, respectable creature who likes his homegrown comforts, thank you very much. He finds the idea of adventuring terrifying and, if he’s perfectly honest, a tad distasteful. But through his adventures of empowerment and derring-do, he comes into himself as a thief, friend, and true hero.
The protagonist of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden broke the mold of classic little girls’ stories by being ornery, self-centered, and generally disagreeable.
Being both a wealthy young girl and in a constant state of fragile health meant that she was always catered to and never learned how to feel compassion for others. But as she experiences the restorative qualities of the natural world and learns to care for someone other than herself, she becomes stronger, more temperate, and more maternal.
Père Francis Reynaud, the antagonist and antihero of Joanne Harris’ Chocolat series, undergoes a transformative change as he overcomes his own prejudices and weaknesses.
He’s the series’ first installment’s primary antagonist and clashes with the main character’s atheism and propensity for sensuality, believing her to be an affront to his rigid beliefs. Yet over the course of the series he becomes more open-minded and understanding, finding goodness not in religious tenets but in human connection.
How to create your own dynamic characters
Writing dynamic characters is an essential skill in creating compelling stories that readers will return to again and again. Here are three things to help you understand dynamic characters and how to weave them into your own story.
Give them a flaw
To have a compelling character arc, your protagonist needs a weakness to overcome. This might be something like greed, cynicism, or fear of commitment.
By showing the reader what’s holding your character back, you’ll be able to illustrate how far they’ve come by the end of the story.
In a tragedy, you might instead think of a flaw you want your main character to gradually adapt throughout the plot. For example, they might start out as open-hearted and optimistic, and slowly become more cynical in response to their experiences.
Give them something to fight for
All dynamic characters need to want something. To help your dynamic characters overcome—or fall victim to—their flaw, they need a reason to change the circumstances they’ve grown accustomed to.
For example, maybe they’re terrified of leaving their comfort zone and trying new things, but a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity forces them onto a plane and into a new way of living.
Or maybe your protagonist is unmotivated and coasts through life on looks and charm, but a loved one’s illness forces them to take a job that challenges their self-perception.
Your character needs to know that if they face their greatest weakness, their ultimate goal may be within reach.
Give them a reward
Once your protagonist undergoes this dramatic, dynamic shift, they’ll have earned the reward at the end of the novel—the thing they need. What a character needs may be related to what they want, or their goal, but it might be something different.
For example, if a character is forced outside their comfort zone for the career advancement of a position abroad, maybe what they really need is to feel more independent and self-assured. In this case, the novel might end with them failing at their new job, but feeling like they can now confidently take on whatever challenge life throws at them. The reward is something greater than a material goal.
In a tragic character arc, the inverse of the reward would be the punishment. This dynamic character might get the thing they want but lose the thing they need—for example, succeeding at a new job but losing their marriage in the process.
Rich character development makes characters dynamic
Vivid character arcs are at the heart of any good story. By using this step-by-step process, you can create dramatic characters that make your story feel alive.