Dynamic vs. Static

A character running in place is primarily a plot issue. If a villain, for instance, issues yet another hissing threat to his captive, but doesn’t act upon it, the reader experiences two emotions: (1) annoyance because the plot line isn’t building and (2) boredom because of repetition.

More difficult to define is the power a lead character exerts over the course of a novel. She will be involved in a lot of plot events, no matter what. If she forces the issue on a number of those occasions, she is dynamic, right? The answer to that question balances on the fulcrum of plot versus character. If she entered the book a kung fu whiz and she leaves the book having chopped down worthy adversaries, she is the same person, unchanged by her journey. A reader hopes there will be a series, so she can do more of her kung fu magic.

The more enduring feat is changing the character’s outlook toward life. A prime example is one of my favorite characters: Bilbo Baggins. Here is a middle-class burgher, set in his ways, who ends up slaying a dragon. All along the way he is pinching himself: did I do that? This unathletic little shrimp ends up revered by his stern dwarf companions.

I choose this low-brow example to make the point that, even in an action-oriented genre, what this character does is not as important as how he changes inside. That’s why he is loved by readers, for his persistent bumbling his way through. Because Tolkien includes his internal changes, Bilbo rises above the crowd of deering-do meisters.

This difference can be used in any type of novel that has strong plotting. If a femme fatale only gloats after each hapless male has fallen to her wiles, she will remain slight. Okay, lure in #4 (yawn). If she starts to feel bad about what she’s doing as time goes on, however, now she would become interesting, particularly if there is one lover who makes her feel that way. She is not merely the puppet master; the tide of events she has set in motion pulls her off kilter as well.

An enactor with a single-minded purpose is easier to write. Wind him up and point him at a target. More difficult is thinking through the qualities inside that prevent him from marching straight. When you take that extra step, when doubt comes into play, you’re writing about conflicts we all wrestle with.

Exercise: Review the manuscript and write down the plot events in a list. Now write down how your chosen character affects those events. Is she doing the same thing every time? That tells you that the characterization is too thin. Step back and consider how she could be designed so that she’s having real problems with how things are going later on.

“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths.”
—Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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