Being a Better Writer: The Static Character

Sorry for the lateness of today’s post, readers. It wasn’t because I had work, or because I was indisposed by some sudden surprise event or something. No it was simply because I was tired and decided to catch up on sleep. And catch up I did. I slept … crud, I’m not even sure, but it was more than eight hours by a long shot. I’ll probably do the same tomorrow.

Anyway, we’re actually venturing off the list this week with today’s post. For two reasons. The first is that there’s only one topic left on Topic List XI. The second is that this post was inspired by a book I read last week that left a strong impression on me for the exact problem we’ll be talking about today (which means I also won’t be naming the book, since it’s otherwise fairly good, and that’s my usual approach as to not turn readers off from it).

So then what is this problem? Well, you’ve seen the title. So what am I talking about when I say “The Static Character?”

Well, really quickly, let’s get out of the way what it isn’t, at least how we’re speaking of it today. Because a “static character” description can be used as a catch-all phrase for a character that doesn’t do much or doesn’t contribute, and this can include speaking of the events of the story. Different reviewers will use the phrase interchangeably for similar concepts all the time, but that’s usually what it boils down to: A character that does little and doesn’t move.

But there’s another aspect that the term can refer to, and that’s the one that I want to talk about today. The character that does stuff, is involved in the story … but never changes or shifts as a character.

This was the issue in the book I read that prompted this post. In this title, the audience was given protagonist very skilled (to ridiculous levels, actually, which kind of ties in) with a set view of the world. They reacted in certain ways, they did things in a certain way, etc etc etc.

None of this was bad. In actuality, at the beginning of the story they were a fairly three-dimensional character, if a little simplistic in their goals, objectives, and ideas. Not deep, but developed enough that they were a character in their own right.

So then what was the issue? Well … they never changed. They were always that character. Sure, things happened externally, even to them. They went through experiences, made choices, did stuff. It wasn’t like the book didn’t have a lot going on.But through it all … the character never changed in their outlook, objective, goals … none of it. In fact, the book actually pulls the rug out from under the reader on this one. Minor spoilers (not that you know what book it is), but the character has some real personality flaws that end up catching them and leading to the mid-book crash after the climax. They’re rescued, the rescuers explain the flaws and start to coach the character on overcoming them, the second half of the book happens with the character right back in “wins all the time” status (I did say they were a bit OP; a light Gary-Stu really) all the way to the end. Then the moment comes at the end when they’re given a choice between acknowledging what made them successful and sticking with it (and maybe changing a little as a character) and staying the way they are (coincidentally stabbing every ally in the back) they … stay the way they are.

Honestly? It really took me out of the story a bit because it just seemed … unbelievable, almost. They were too static. They never changed, not through the whole book. They were ridiculous levels of competent (at several points they bring up a several hundred question test supposed to be nigh impossible that they casually claim one shy of a perfect score on) and there was plenty going on.

But the character never learned from it. There was no personal growth. Oh sure, they learned new tricks of combat. They bulked up. There was change. But all of it was external, and none of it changed anything about who the character was.

All right, now I get that there are characters that are stubborn and self-assured (which the protagonist of this most assuredly was). But there’s a line between that and being completely unchanging in any form.

Which is where the book went wrong for me, at least where the character was concerned. No change. No difference. They were exactly the same character that they were at the beginning as they were at the end. They were static: Unchanging. And that’s just not realistic.

I’m not saying, mind, that all characters have to undergo some deep realization of an important truth, or have a life-altering moment in their story. But they cannot, should not, stay unnaffected by the goings-on of your story. Not without perhaps a very specific reason, such as being a sociopath.

For instance, the characters in Colony or Shadow of an Empire, if you’ve read those, aren’t supremely different by the end. But they all change in small ways as the events of the story shape them. All three protagonists in Colony go from thoroughly independent to trusting and working with one another and respecting each other, for example. Sali and Meelo each find new angles of threat and danger to look out for, as well as a newfound appreciation for their own homes.

None of these are big, sweeping changes. But they’re little changes. Small things. And as I’ve said before, sometimes the little details matter. A character that at the end of their journey has changed just a small amount is completely relatable and realistic. Which in turn means that your audience has a higher chance of relating with them and seeing them as the living characters you want them to be.

Now, again, I’m not saying that this means your characters need to all have epiphanies at the end of every book or story. Some characters can be fairly “set in their ways” and still be a fun character. But they can’t stay the same. No one who goes through an experience, be it saving the galaxy from ancient aliens, founding a rebellion against a corrupt government, escaping a serial killer who runs through the woods on all fours, or even just something fairly mundane like a break-up or getting a new job, walks away unchanged. Sapient beings are not carved from stone. We are constantly changing, adapting, reacting to things around us.

And if you’re characters don’t do that, then what sort of characters are they? For all their other attributes, they will still effectively be a stone carved in an image of a character. Crud, even the Doomslayer from DOOM has a personality and shows some changes in the personality, or at least new aspects of it that throw everything else into light, over the course of the game. And he’s about as rudimentary a character as you can get.

That’s really all there is to it. Don’t make static characters that never let things change them. Even if they don’t want to change in reaction to something, odds are they will, even a tiny bit, change without meaning to.

No one is a static individual. Your characters shouldn’t be either. So don’t write them as such. Let them change. Let things change them. Let them learn, grow, make mistakes, and all that fun stuff.

Good, bad, whatever. Just don’t make them unchanging. Don’t let them be static.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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