Even if you’re not familiar with the term “static character,” chances are that you’ve encountered one (or many)—either in books you’ve read or even in your own writing. Static characters pop up in a range of classic literature, but this is one area where you might want to reconsider emulating the methods of the masters.
While static characters can serve their purposes, they can also often detract from establishing a deep point of view for your main character and, if written incorrectly, can feel flat. However, even though static characters can be problematic, that doesn’t mean they don’t have their place in a good story.
To help you better choose when and when not to incorporate static characters into your writing, here’s everything you need to know about this character type, including a static character definition, the differences between static and dynamic characters, and a few well-known examples.
What is a static character?
A static character is a character who remains the same for the entire story, and doesn’t change as the story progresses. At the beginning they’ll exhibit certain strengths, weaknesses, and beliefs, and then those elements will still be in place at the end of the story. A static character can be rich and complex, but doesn’t undergo any significant change.
One of the main things that any book or article on novel plotting will mention is character or narrative arc. While a character arc matters most for your protagonist, just about every character in a novel can have their own arc.
A character arc takes your character on an internal journey. They start their story at one end of the arc and, during the story’s events, travel along the arc and end up on the other side—where they’re somehow changed, either for better or for worse.
So how does character arc play into static characters? Simple—a static character doesn’t have one.
They start the story one way and, despite all external factors and plot events occurring around them, don’t really experience any true internal change. If they start the story as an anxious, meddlesome neighbor who pokes their nose into everyone’s business, at the end of the story, they’re still the same. They never learn that maybe they should find a solution for their anxiety or that meddling wins you no friends.
Because of this, static characters rarely work well—especially for modern readers—as main characters. Your reader wants to feel deeply connected to your main character. They want to root for them. That’s easier when they see the character struggling with—and overcoming—internal weaknesses over the course of their character arc. It’s more difficult to relate to a character who remains static, never changing their mind, opinions, or approaches to life throughout the story.
Do you need static characters in your story?
Static characters aren’t always an ideal choice for a central character, especially if you’re trying to create a very relatable protagonist and establish deep PoV. (After all, despite how much literature fans may love Sherlock Holmes and Jay Gatsby, none of them are likely to claim that either one is relatable.)
But just because you might not want to write static characters for your main characters, that doesn’t mean you won’t want static characters elsewhere in your story.
Static characters can be very helpful for creating conflict, and so you might choose to make your antagonist a static character. After all, what could be more frustrating for your hero than a villain whose personality just won’t budge?
You might also choose to use a static character in other secondary roles. For example, if you have a character that acts as a never-wavering mentor to your lead, they might need to remain static as a constant voice of reason or wisdom for your protagonist. Similarly, you might have minor characters that provide comic relief; they might also remain static.
Static character vs. flat character
As you incorporate static characters into your writing in the most suitable places, though, it’s important that you don’t inadvertently turn a static character into a “flat character.”
In literature, “flat” refers to a character with no depth or agency of their own. They might be a sultry, convenient plot device to get your hero moving, or a henchman who’s evil just for the sake of being evil. Unlike static characters, flat characters should be avoided in writing at all costs.
Think of every last one of your characters as a real person with real backgrounds, personality traits, motivations, etc. Even static characters, who don’t experience any internal changes over the course of your story, will still have their own backstories and goals.
Examples of static characters from literature
There are many static character examples in classic literature, including static protagonists. Some of these characters are beloved by generations, and this is just another example of how there are always exceptions to the rule in writing. Just because something is best practice doesn’t mean a literary genius won’t come along and prove us all wrong.
A few recognizable examples of static characters throughout literature include…
One of the most famous examples of a static character, Sherlock Holmes always remains the same throughout each and every story. There are no changes in attitude or emotional arcs. In fact, many readers might argue that they would never want Holmes to change anyway. His stalwart wit and clever attitude are what make him a great character. Besides, you don’t read a Holmes story for the character development; the focus is all on unravelling the mystery.
Another famous static character, Jay Gatsby remains the same Daisy-obsessed billionaire throughout the entirety of The Great Gatsby. There’s no great revelation that he experiences in the latter half of the book that inspires him to change his ways. His character remains unchanged. However, again, some fans might argue that they wouldn’t want Gatsby to change. This makes him an effective foil character to the story’s other protagonist, Nick, a dynamic character who does undergo a change by the end of the novel.
Of course, you can find a static character example in just about any great literary work. These other characters fill more secondary or tertiary character roles, such as Mrs. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice or Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. Other static, one dimensional characters that you might be familiar with include James Bond or Scar from The Lion King.
The opposite of static characters: dynamic characters
If a static character is one that experiences no internal changes and has no character arc over the course of the story, a dynamic character is the exact opposite. A dynamic character is defined by their personal growth over the course of the story. Dynamic characters change; they don’t have the same personality or beliefs by the finale as they did at the inciting incident. Nick from The Great Gatsby, which we looked at above, is a great example of a dynamic character.
While protagonists should always be dynamic, you’ll also see dynamic characters used in secondary roles or in the role of antagonist. A dynamic secondary character might be a love interest that experiences some emotional evolution, or a parent who comes around to their main character child’s lifestyle or choices.
This doesn’t mean a dynamic antagonist will necessarily become one of the good guys all of the sudden. Maybe, instead, the dynamic antagonist becomes even more evil, or they have some internal change that subsequently changes their motivations.
As you choose which characters in your story should take on a more dynamic role, be careful not to overwhelm your story with too many dynamic characters. Each dynamic character needs a character arc of their own, so adding too many can make your story feel unmanageable, both for you as the writer and for your readers.
How to transform a static character into a dynamic character
Have a story that you’re worried is too chock-full of static characters? No worries. There’s no need to scrap your draft and start fresh. You can often turn many static characters into dynamic characters during your revision process.
Look at your currently static characters—main character or otherwise—and consider their actions throughout the course of the story. What can you add in about why they choose the actions that they do? What happened in their past to influence their choices in the present? Is this an opportunity for a flashback scene? All of these can give you hints as to how to shape your character’s arc from beginning to end.
If you’re dealing with a “good guy” static character, consider giving them an internal flaw that they must overcome by the end of the book in order to reach their goals. You might not necessarily need to change your story’s plot to incorporate this flaw, but just scatter it throughout. Make sure, however, that this flaw coincides with your story’s theme or the broader plot issues.
Static and dynamic characters? Why choose—you need both!
Dynamic and static characters have their place in every story. It’s all about how you use these two character types that matters. So long as you ensure your main character is dynamic, give them a satisfying character arc, and you give your static characters plenty of depth, you’ll be well on your way to writing a relatable, immersive story that will appeal to modern readers.