The most crushing piece of criticism authors can hear is that their main character is “flat” or “two-dimensional.” This is especially true for writers who have poured a lot of their personal experience into their protagonist’s journey. Conventional writing wisdom tells us that main characters need to be “dynamic” characters who evolve over the course of the story.
But what exactly does “dynamic” mean? If your protagonist doesn’t actually change all that much, does that make them flat and static? Are they, by default, a poorly written character?
What does it really mean to be a dynamic character?
A dynamic character is popularly defined as one who goes through substantial internal change over the course of a story. For instance, misanthropic miser Ebenezer Scrooge is presented with the consequences of his behavior and becomes a kinder, more generous man because of it.
Scrooge is the classic example of a dynamic character—although his personal transformation lacks a certain … psychological truth, shall we say?
Protagonists will often “learn a lesson” and change themselves for the better before they can achieve their goals. To use a cliché: a high-flying executive doesn’t pay attention to his family—but faced with the prospect of completing that giant merger or attending his kid’s ballet recital, he realizes that there’s more to life than work. That is a classic (though overused) dynamic character arc.
But is it intrinsically better than a story in which a character doesn’t learn a lesson and change?
People are resistant to change
Most popular books in Western literature will feature a traditionally defined dynamic protagonist. There are very few intentionally static main characters. If an author’s aim is to capture a reader’s attention and investment, they must look towards creating a protagonist with whom they can empathise.
That’s part of why dynamic characters are so appealing: we like to see ourselves as creatures who can acknowledge when we’re wrong and adapt ourselves to a changing world.
But how realistic are these changes? As human beings, we very rarely encounter epiphanies that alter our perception of ourselves. We are creatures of habit, and it takes a lot for us to modify our behaviour. So it stands to reason that compelling fictional characters might sometimes not change in the face of conflict.
Don’t change the player, change the game
Instead of seeing dynamic characters as ones who change over the course of a story, I believe it’s better to think of them as dealing with a conflict that compels them to change.
The example I’ve used before is Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. We are introduced to the protagonist, Katniss: a resourceful, selfless person who refuses to kill. She is placed in a deadly game in which she is told that killing is the only way to survive. Her instincts for self-preservation come into conflict with her principles.
In other stories, similar characters may: a) survive by learning how to kill, or b) refuse to kill and die. But in Katniss’s case, she manages to “break the system” and win the game while also saving the life of her friend.
To some, this may seem like a cop-out: she doesn’t have to resolve any conflict. But, in fact, she does. Her basic worldview and principles remain unchanged, but that in and of itself was the struggle: she was put through an external conflict that tried to compel her otherwise. Where protagonists elsewhere must work hard to change, she has had to work just as hard NOT to change.
So long as your character’s behaviours remains true to their desires, flaws and strengths, any outcome to their story will be equally valid—regardless of whether they’ve changed in an outwardly notable way.
Is your character’s evolution the most interesting and believable option?
The next time you find yourself reviewing your protagonist’s arc, take a moment to consider what you already know about their personality. Given the conflict they find themselves in, which would be a more interesting outcome: if they changed their ways, or if they stuck to their guns? And which outcome rings more true to character?
If the answer isn’t the same for both questions, that’s certainly something to look at before you start your next draft.
How do you write protagonists who don’t change? Let us know in the comments.
Take fifteen minutes to write a scene that takes place at the climax of a character’s story: faced with immense pressure to change their worldview or amend their character flaws, your protagonist refuses.
For extra points, “show don’t tell”: don’t directly reveal what you character is thinking. Find another way to demonstrate their internal struggle.
When you’re done, share your scene in the comments. Don’t forget to leave feedback for your fellow writers!