I will always remember my eighth grade English teacher, who first taught me the difference between protagonists and antagonists in literature, as well as (and more importantly) static versus dynamic characters.
It’s a simple distinction that I’m sure you know:
- STATIC CHARACTERS do not change over the course of the story or novel
- DYNAMIC CHARACTERS do change in some way.
Something I find interesting, as an author, is considering the different ways a character can change. Being a “dynamic” character isn’t a one-size-fits-all kind of thing; there all kinds of different changes human beings can undergo, for all kinds of different reasons (that will be the subject of my next post: temptation and opportunity.)
Characters can undergo just one kind of major change, or various types as the story develops. Characters can also undergo change to a greater or lesser degree: sometimes what’s important is not so much the change in itself, but the extent of it. Is it whole-hearted? Is it a positive change but, as a result of not being as complete as it could, does it feel bittersweet or even disappointing?
It’s especially enlightening to see the interaction between characters who have paired or even contrasting kinds of changes going on, and what that can do for a novel: such as Jean Valjean repenting of his crimes and changing his life while Javert, when confronted with a similar opportunity, is too proud and spiritually weak to take it in “Les Miserables.” (I wrote a post on that some time ago.)
For now, let’s just consider SOME of these changes.
- CORRUPTION: characters who fall from grace: this is a spiritual change, the subject of classic tragedy. It is a standard theme that is important because it speaks to the human weaknesses we all share. Depending on your story, corruption may or may not end up with a character sowing what he or she reaps. Sometimes, ending on a subtle note of disaster to come–and having that realization dawn on a character–can be powerful.
- REDEMPTION: another classic standard, and one I always, always love. (I mean, “Les Miserables” is my favorite book ever written!)
- RECOGNIZING WEAKNESSES: Growth and development come in stages, and meeting one is no guarantee a person (or character) will go further. It takes a lot of inner strength to recognize our flaws and failures, and to take responsibility for them. Depending who your character is, or how/where you end your story, this might just be the first stop on the road to redemption. Or it might be an end point all its own.
- STARTING TO CHANGE, THEN RECOGNIZING THAT ISN’T WHO YOU ARE: This can be so many things…. A corrupt politician trying to go straight, and then deciding he just doesn’t have the strength. It could also be a person falling into bad company, and then fixing the bad choices made and the damage done before true disaster strikes.
- OVERCOMING A WEAKNESS OR OBSTACLE: This in no way has to be related to a heavy-handed redemption theme. It can be someone shy standing up for herself, or someone who tends to be selfish making a sacrifice for a stranger. It can be a new professional coming into his own.
- ECONOMIC CHANGES: A change in economic status, for better or worse, isn’t JUST something that can affect a character’s morality and her ethical choices. It signifies changes in the basic structure of a character’s life that, even if they don’t change her as a person, will affect the tone and mood of the story and what a reader takes away from a book.
- CHANGE IN RELATIONSHIP STATUS: “Economic status” notes apply here.
- CHANGE IN CAREER PATH: promotions, demotions, changing your career entirely, or starting out for the first time in a career…. This can be a huge spur toward some of the changes in character mentioned above. (I know “Legally Blonde” isn’t Oscar caliber, but the growth of Elle Woods as a result of attending law school and meeting someone there who takes the time to mentor and to challenge her are what make that movie fun for me.)
So, how important is character “change” (growth, development) to you? Do you like things well-rounded and proven, or do you like subtle implications that a change has occurred? Are you a fan of the “moment” or “one act” that acts as a symbol of an important change and more similar moments to come? Or do you find that cheap and sentimental?