We hear the term “dynamic characters” frequently in literary circles, but what does it mean, and how do you know if your characters are dynamic? Here’s a checklist of common attributes of successful protagonists and other primary characters.
Dynamic characters are flawed
No one is without flaws in real life, and the same is true in fiction. Even your protagonist needs personality traits that present struggles and create or exacerbate conflict. Perhaps Frank is a fixer, and inserts himself into other people’s problems too easily, or maybe Mary is loyal to a fault. Keep in mind that a good flaw will be apparent in more than one aspect of a character’s life. Maybe Frank’s fix-it attitude gets him too involved in his cases as a social worker, and it might also mean he’s having difficulties with his aging mother when he’s off the job, too.
Dynamic characters have preferences
The best characters have desires and goals that readers understand. Once your audience can identify what a character wants, it is in a better position to empathize with obstacles in the pursuit of those goals. Good characters also have favorite places, people, meals, music, etc. that tell readers more about them. If Mary’s best friend is a congressional representative, we make some assumptions about Mary that would be different if her best friend were a hairdresser.
Dynamic characters have histories
Much of your character’s history may seem irrelevant to your story, but it’s worth taking a few moments to write about anyway. You’ll learn more about your character as you create back story, and there may be great places to weave the pieces into your work. You want to avoid the impression that your character was created just to fulfill his or her role in your story. Your reader should feel as though they are peeking in on a period of time within the long life of a character.
Dynamic characters have enemies
You should be able to identify your character’s adversary. Maybe it’s another character, or natural elements (the sea or wilderness), or perhaps it’s less concrete, like a character who struggles against memory or mental illness. Good adversaries create room for conflict, and conflict is how your character grows.
Dynamic characters change
Character change is the essential component of fiction. Protagonists must be different at the end of the story than they were at the beginning, and the change must be an outcome of the plot. If you’re struggling with identifying change in your characters, you may want to look at the conflict you’re creating for them. If you escalate the conflict, watching the character grow should follow naturally as the conflict is resolved.
Dynamic characters are surprising
No one wants to spend a whole novel with a boring character. Be careful not to rely on archetypes and stereotypes for your main characters, and when you feel yourself headed in that direction, create something entirely unexpected to add depth.
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It’s worth dedicating some time to writing detailed character sketches for your main characters, so that you can know them well as you introduce them to your readers. Not all of the character development will make it into your final draft, but the strong foundation will be evident in each bit of dialogue and moment of action.