It’s all very well to say, “Create a dynamic instead of a static character,” and it’s something that I often say to yet another fantasy novel which has the hero or heroine winning a victory I think they didn’t earn. But what are the nuts and bolts of making a dynamic character?
1) Change the character’s actions.
It’s amazing how often this doesn’t happen. I would think the author would catch it in rewrites, if not earlier, but, perhaps because they’re too in love with their character as-is (see point 5), they don’t seem to see it.
If your heroine starts out the story wary and suspicious of strangers, and she’s going to travel through new lands and meet many, many strangers, you should show her changing. Perhaps all the changes won’t be entirely positive. Perhaps her suspicion will increase for a time before it finally falls away. The point is, she should not still be squinting and muttering at the sorceress who trained and sheltered her and saved her life at the end of the story. If the sorceress is Up To No Good, then the heroine should take stronger actions: confronting her, running away until she’s ready to confront her, tricking her. If the sorceress is really good, the heroine should slowly start trusting and defending her, perhaps completing the heroic quest that the sorceress wants her to complete.
Of course, not a whole lot of heroines start off surly and mistrustful. They often are so wide-eyed and trusting that it’s a wonder they haven’t tripped and broken a leg while trying to talk to Mr. Squirrel yet. So what happens if they do run into that sorceress who is Up To No Good and manage to get away from her? Often, they still trust the next stranger they come across.
No, no, no. Too much of a good thing is still too much. To be proactive and not just reactive- although that’s an important element, too; see point 2- the heroine eventually has to start acting in ways consistent with her experiences in the story, not just consistent with the way she was at the beginning of the story. She especially shouldn’t exhibit blind faith just because the plot demands it. I’m always puzzled by the heroines who are insulted, thrown to the bad guys, maybe even openly wounded, by their heroes, and in the end, if the heroes ask the heroines to trust that they’ll get them away from the bad guys, they still do it. Why, in the name of Buddha? If the heroine is as courageous as the author tells us she is, she should demand an explanation first. If she’s as wounded by the hero’s actions as the writer insists she is, then she should mistrust him, and perhaps even plan a trick to have up her sleeve in case he turns on her again.
The problem here is that while authors are all too willing to cut out traits they think are negative, like mistrust of the hero, they aren’t willing to attack the “good” ones, like wide-eyed innocence. But a heroine who’s a real person doesn’t get to choose the things that happen to her, and she doesn’t get to choose all her reactions. To exhibit some self-will, she has to be able to choose her actions. And if the author crushes the reasonable thing to do and insists that she must still be “innocent,” “pure,” “trusting,” “good-natured,” or whatever, then you’ve got a flat character, however pure she may be.
2) Change the character’s reactions.
These they may not have as much choice about, but it still hurts whenever I see a heroine who’s been beaten-up, mutilated, tortured, maybe even raped, and still smiles dazzlingly at the people who hurt her and “forgives” them.
Show people’s reaction to trauma. It’s cheating if you give them trauma, maybe have the other characters cry a few tears over it, and then have the characters themselves up and walking about with no mental scars from it.
As well as dazzling reactions, “cute” reactions should be crushed and changed over time. Say the heroine is in a bickering relationship with the hero (must you?) Then he saves her life. Most fantasy heroines will still shove him away after that and declare that he was just stupid, they didn’t need help, and so on. Stupid, stupid, stupid. So she felt no fear from her life being in danger? She feels no gratitude at all? Even gratitude that she keeps silent is more human than the same mixture of resentment and sexual tension that she showed towards him before.
The point, as with actions, is that you have to show your characters actually changing. The reader should be able to go back and trace the process out. Telling the reader at the end of the story that the hero and heroine used to bicker but now love each other, when they’re still bickering with the exact same words and in the exact same tone, is static, not dynamic.
3) Change other characters’ reactions to your lead.
Maybe the sorceress who comes to pick up the naive teenager learns, by the end of the story, that she really has gained in depth and experience and may be able to save the world on her own, instead of the sorceress having to hold her hand every step of the way. Maybe her love interest, who wasn’t all that interested back when she still tended to lash out and blame other people for what happened to her, is interested now that she can accept responsibility. Perhaps her enemy is actually afraid of her now, whereas before he could safely laugh at this twelve-year-old vowing vengeance on him.
There are two corollaries here. The first is that, again, you don’t get to cheat. If your heroine is still the same naive, whining, irresponsible, childish person she was at the beginning of the story, it’s a cheat on the reader to insist that she must have changed, just look at the way people think of her now! Those other characters are the author’s puppets, remember. They say whatever she wants them to say. And they’re much less likely to be dynamic characters themselves, if they’re not the lead. Just because the author types that the sorceress says, “My word, Melli, you are so much more grown-up now!” doesn’t mean that Melli is really grown-up.
The second corollary is that the characters who react to the heroine’s changes should be the ones who were on hand to see them. Seems stupid and obvious, I know, but I’ve lost count of the number of books where there’s a bully- it’s usually a bully- onstage for about two chapters, the first one and the last one. When the changed heroine returns from her quest, the bully sneers at her as usual, and she shows off her ohmygod-so-special magic powers and knocks him flat. He’s punished for not thinking of her as someone wonderful.
Well, why should he? He hasn’t seen her, hasn’t seen what she’s gone through, and has no reason to think that she possesses the ohmygod-so-special magic. The author has left him a static character. Punishing him for acting like a static character is the height of stupidity (or issue-mongering. I’m generally suspicious of those bully characters in the first place, since too often they smack of the author chewing the cud of her own childhood and teenage years).
Less common, but still present, is the unrealistically positive reaction, where someone who hasn’t seen the heroine since the start of the book praises her for how wonderful she now is. Point being, how did they know? Unless someone who went with the heroine was secretly sending these people letters all through the book, they have no way of knowing if she actually changed, or how much. Once again, it’s cheating, to try to give your heroine more regard than she’s earned the right to.
4) Show her actually gaining control of her magic/powers/destiny.
The idea of uncontrollable or mysterious or unique powers is an attractive one for many fantasy authors, but the heroine doesn’t get a whole lot of training for them, in the end, even when she’s told that she must go for training. She usually winds up running wildly through the countryside, learning to control them on her own. Just how she does that isn’t revealed. Or she loses control of her magic until the very climax when she defeats the villain with a sudden application of magic that no one ever thought she could muster.
Stop that, please. It’s stinking up the place, and it should have been buried long ago.
Once again, it’s an author cheat if you only tell us that your character is changing in how she controls her powers, and don’t show her spending time with them, making mistakes, coming up with new ideas, wrestling with them, and so on. That lack of showing is precisely why the “Oh gosh, I gained control of my powers at the last minute and can now defeat the villain!” ending feels so deus ex machina. The character just so happens to gain control at that moment in time, does she? Mm-hmm. She didn’t, actually. The author did it for her.
5) Don’t use world-building tools that will lock your character in place.
It’s one reason I distrust character profiles, the little bastards, even though I use them. Too often I’ve seen authors aim for the beginning (the heroine is a trusting, naive girl) and the end (she’s the most powerful and wisest mage in the whole world) without writing the middle. Don’t neglect your middles. Without them, your protagonist will transform from innocent girl to powerful and wise mage only in the confines of your head.
Character profiles are too often treated as the final word on the people they describe. If the character profile says the character ends the story as Queen, then by god, she’s going to be Queen, no matter how flimsy the build-up is. The writer leaves no room for the idea that the character might actually alter in such a way that she doesn’t fit the throne any more, or even that she fits the throne in a different way than the writer previously imagined.
Don’t do this to yourself. If you tend to treat your world-building tools, whether character profiles or anything else, like holy writ, break free of that. It’s no better than plotting your story with a Random Encounters table from a D&D game. Either way, you, the person you are as you’re writing the story, aren’t the one making the choices. Some version of you that wrote the world-building tools months or years ago is. And perhaps you hate that story now, and have new ideas, and want to change the ending, but you feel compelled to be faithful to the original version.
Why, in the name of heaven? Those tools are there to serve the story and you, not the other way around. Many authors know the wonderful moment their characters come alive and change the story. And yet many seem to rein the characters back in after that moment is done and move them along in the original direction, no matter what the characters just revealed about themselves that makes them eminently unsuited to be Queen of the world.
Other than not treating your world-building tools like holy writ, there are other things you can do to lessen their hold. Don’t fill in some spaces on the character profile. Maybe you know one of your character’s strengths and none of the others. Those can blossom as you write. Or leave a scene in your outline that could go one of three ways, depending on how a minor character has altered by the time you get to it. Or write a character profile only for the character as she is at the beginning of the story. This is what I do, because while I know that her parents’ names and where she grew up probably aren’t going to change, the way she acts during the story sure as hell is. I’ve tried to predict the course of my stories from my character profiles. I’ve been wrong every single time.
I think my next post might be on how to make bullies and minor antagonists into convincing characters. Lots of people seem determined to have them. The problem is that they don’t do them right.