Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Static Characters

I thought I’d get myself back in gear by doing a non-Nano post. So today, I’d like to talk about static characters. By simple definition, a static character is one who does not change. In How To Write a Damn Good Novel, James Frey writes,

A character can be fully-rounded yet be too passive, too mamby-pampy. Characters who can’t act in the face of their dilemmas, who run away from conflict, who retreat and suffer without struggling, are not useful to you. They are static, and most of them should meet an untimely death before they ever appear on the pages of your novel.

How can you have a well-rounded, yet static character? Is that even possible? Backpedal for a second, here, and remember that well-rounded characters are complete characters. They have motives, inner/outer conflicts, backstorys, quirks, passions. They are full. They arc. They’ve been Done Right. So…what?

WikiWizards states that, 

A static character does not undergo significant change. A static character is a literary character that remains basically unchanged throughout a work. Whether round or flat, their personalities remain essentially stable throughout the course of the story. This is commonly done with secondary characters in order to let them serve as thematic or plot elements.

Here we get closer to the real problem. A static character may have an arc – they may learn things, grow some – but it’s never a significant change. It never impacts their main personality. Now here’s something else: a static character does not change their inner person, because they do not want or feel the need. Maybe they should – but they don’t.

Right now I’m at the climax of my WIP, and I can’t write it. I want to. Just can’t. My main character, Rueben, is as static as a balloon. He’s the poster boy for static characters. He has motives, but no motivation, huge conflicts, but no passion.  He is unaffected and tortured, withdrawing in wounded silence. He fears conflict. Even when something does force him to act, he somehow turns around, and ignores it.

Understand I did everything “right” with this guy. I followed all the books and all the rules (except when I was supposed to break them.) Rueben is deep. He’s almost too deep; too perfect; too much of a tortured soul. Somehow, he’s too well rounded.

How to characters get static?

Either the author wasn’t paying attention and they have a flat, static character that just needs fleshing out – which is great because then the fix is simple – or there’s something they aren’t letting go of, something they keep avoiding; this stonewalls a character into passivity.

Whenever faced with a tense moment, Rueben always acts one of two ways. Calm and cool, or bitter and silent. All along I kept asking myself, “who is he?” I never realized that Rueben couldn’t become a person, because he was always an idea. He was Mr. Tall Dark and Tortured. It was the only way I allowed him to act.

How do you fix a static character?

Here’s the worst piece of advice ever – it all depends. There’s no formula because it changes every time. You have to realize it’s a problem, identify the crux of the problem, figure out what is creating the problem, and then you still have to fix the problem. But it is your problem.

So, start at the beginning: If your character A) is passive, B) won’t change as a person, C) runs from conflict, D) suffers in silence, or E) any of the above, he’s static. If he is so well rounded that he can’t go anywhere, he’s static. If he’s stonewalled – he’s static.

Okay. But why. Does he lack passion? Motive? Conflict? The ability to change? The realization that he needs changing? Does he adhere to some stiff idea that keeps him immobile? Which combination of things is making him static?

Then, where is this coming from? What’s the source? Look at times when you were writing and the problem cropped up. What happened in those moments? Your characters has motives, you’ve raised his stakes, and then – what? Why does he refuse to get passionate, or to struggle, or whatever his particular issue is? What’s making this happen?

All right. You have the problem, you have the source, and hopefully you understand how it’s happening. So within the requirements of your story, how can you fix it? What would break the character from his mold? What limitations can you lift?


I think at some point, cutting may be easier than trying to fix the unfixable. Have you guys ever struggled with static characters before? Could you fix them? I love Rueben, a lot, but he’s not my only static character. I think all my main characters are static. And that many problems often need to be scrapped.  

-Creative A


Thinking out of the Block

Neglecting your Antagonist

A Thought on Cycles

Characters and Backstory 

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