Static characters — characters that remain the same throughout a narrative — usually get a bad rep. They’re sometimes confused with lazy writing. But if you ask your favorite book publishers and authors alike, they’ll actually agree that, contrary to popular belief, static characters serve a great purpose in literature. In fact, when done right, static characters can be a fantastic way to elevate your writing and make it more versatile.
Knowing the purpose of static characters and adding them to your story with intention can, ironically, make your writing more dynamic. In this article, I’ve listed 5 reasons why you should consider adding them to your writing repertoire.
At first glance, including static characters into your writing may seem like terrible advice. Surely dynamic characters, who go through a process of development and growth, are much more interesting to read about than static characters, whose personalities, beliefs, and characterization all stay the same throughout? If you’ve consumed any online writing advice, you’ve probably read that static characters are a sign of poor writing.
Well, not quite. You might be confusing static characters with flat characters — characters that are one-dimensional and stereotypical.
It’s true that static characters see very little, if any internal change throughout a narrative, but it’s also true that they can be just as complex and multilayered as dynamic characters. A static character doesn’t have to be straightforward or flat; they can have gripping backstories and possess contradictory traits that make for just as compelling and fascinating characters who readers can connect to just as well as any other well-written character out there.
I’m sure you wouldn’t say that James Bond is a boring character, for instance, but does he ever really change? Or how about Captain Hook in Peter Pan? Depending on what version you’re reading or watching, he’s pretty much straight-out evil, but he’s also a character with fears (his own blood, and the crocodile that haunts him) and a tragic backstory which helps you understand him a little bit better and adds depth to his personality.
It’s pretty common to make antagonists and side characters static, in order to draw attention to and accentuate the growth of a protagonist. These are sometimes also referred to as foil characters, and their role is to highlight particular traits in the main character, either by acting as a contrast, or by providing context.
Not all of your characters can be the star of the show — there simply isn’t enough space in a conventional narrative! Someone (or a select few someones) needs to take center stage, and other characters are in charge of shining that spotlight on them — existing in relation to the main character(s), and demonstrating something about them.
Foil characters are a great way of helping us get to know our leads, and it all comes down to classic but effective show-don’t-tell techniques that book publishers love to see; instead of telling your readers that your MC is trusting and cheerful, a cynical and misanthropic foil character can help you show them through some trusty juxtaposition. And the same goes for demonstrating that a main character has grown, if you make that side character static.
Think about how Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice is neurotic, marriage-obsessed, and a bit of a drama queen. That never really changes, and her behavior serves to frame Elizabeth Bennet’s character as someone with her head (relatively) screwed on, who we’re supposed to root for. Despite being a static character, Mrs. Bennet is pretty good at inciting emotions in the reader — annoyance at her, and sympathy towards Elizabeth, for example — making the story come to life and other characters stand out in contrast.
Like I said, not every character gets to have a full character arc— and that’s fine; the fact that a static character never changes can help showcase when other characters do. In Mrs. Bennet’s case, her unyielding personality flaws and lack of growth serve as an excellent point of contrast to highlight both Elizabeth’s and Darcy’s development, as they both learn to overcome their pride and prejudice — and everyone’s happier for it!
Sometimes, a static character can even be the root cause of another character’s change, making them central to plot development. Often, this type of static character is an antagonist, while the dynamic character is the protagonist — though I should add a caveat that not all antagonists are static, and not all protagonists are dynamic.
Antagonists are meant to stand in conflict with the protagonist, which often means that they prevent them from achieving their goals. In order to overcome the challenge this forms, the protagonist is forced to go through an arc of change; when they start out, they won’t have what it takes to beat the villain — but as they grow, they develop the ability they’ve been lacking. In the end, the static antagonist who has stayed the same is defeated by a new and improved protagonist.
A good example of one such antagonist is President Snow in The Hunger Games. His greed and disregard for human life is what forces Katniss to enter into the competition, where she embarks on a journey of growth and ultimately learns how to challenge the powers that be — all while they attempt, fruitlessly, to maintain the status quo.
Dynamic characters and character development are as good as may be, but sometimes you just need to fall back on a character that readers will instantly recognize. There’s a definite role in literature for characters who remain the same throughout the story, so that the author (and the reader) can focus on the plot instead. A static (but well-developed) character — whether they’re the MC or a side character — can ensure that readers get enough information to be invested in the story without drawing them away from the main intrigue.
A good example of this can be found in the classic children’s movie 101 Dalmatians (1996) in which Cruella de Vil is an evil fashionista who kidnaps dalmatians to make a coat from their fur. To save their precious puppies, Pongo and Anita (the dalmatian protagonists) enlist the help of the animal kingdom. All characters, both heroes and villains, remain more or less the same as the plot unfolds and viewers can sit back to enjoy the hijinks of cute puppies defeating evil.
And static characters aren’t just found in children’s literature; more examples of static characters can also be found in a lot of sophisticated classic crime novels. Take, for instance, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Neither go through any significant changes throughout the suite of stories, allowing the mysteries themselves to take center stage. The reader understands early on what each character’s role is, and their contrasting attributes complement each other as they attempt to find leads and solve the crime at hand. Indeed, if Sherlock or Dr. Watson started to change all of a sudden, it could potentially threaten the great chemistry that exists between them and that readers enjoy so much.
Lastly, static characters can be a great way for you to really drill into your main theme. Ask yourself what point you want readers to take away from your story or what your central argument is, and enlist your change-resistant helpers to make it come to life. Let’s go back to President Snow (a static antagonist) from earlier to explore this idea a bit further.
As someone in power, Snow is concerned with everything remaining the same, since he benefits from the status quo. As the antagonist, he represents the wealth and corruption of the Capitol, as well as the problems that exist within the socio-political system in Panem. When Katniss, who has gone through her developmental arc, defeats Snow and the Capitol, the author is making a case against Snow’s qualities (and a case for the qualities that Katniss symbolizes). If you really want to get meta, you could even say that the author is making a case for change in and of itself. Here, it’s clear that the rigidity of Snow’s principles are his downfall.
But a static character can also represent a positive argument, by becoming an instructive constant — someone who holds firm to their beliefs and principles even when the odds are stacked against them. Take Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Far from a flat character, he displays complex yet static characteristics, and his firm convictions serve to guide Scout and the reader towards the novel’s conclusions about right and wrong, good and evil. Just imagine what a terribly sad message Harper Lee would have sent if Atticus Finch had all of a sudden had a change of heart, giving up on everything he stood for!
I hope this article has given you a better idea of why authors shouldn’t fear including static characters in their writing. They really can add a lot to a story, can be as simple or complex as you want them to be, and can add contrast and highlights in the right places — making for dynamic writing overall!