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Creating Dynamic Characters Your Readers Will Love

You hear a lot about dynamic characters and the reasons for creating them. For a book to become a bestseller, dynamic characters are a necessity. But what is a dynamic character and how does an author pull that multi-dimensional character from his or her mind and on to a three-dimensional page?

The official definition of a dynamic character is one who undergoes changes throughout the narrative, due to conflicts he encounters on his journey. The unofficial definition is a character who, throughout the story, is starkly and wonderfully human. Let's explore that for a minute or two and determine what traits take a character from static and flat, to dynamic and rounded.

Creating a dynamic character involves the changes that take place throughout the narrative.
Creating a dynamic character involves the changes that take place throughout the narrative. Photo by Ollyy on Shutterstock.

Real people change, but they do it slowly

You've likely heard the adage that people don't change, and perhaps in some ways, this holds true. However, it's not really telling the full story—which is, people can and do change, it's just extremely difficult for that change to occur. And this is the reason a dynamic character (who changes over the course of the narrative) is so difficult to create.

The character arc a dynamic character must demonstrate is one that takes him or her from the familiar or ordinary, into something extraordinary, and it's this adventure that brings about a change. As demonstrated in the hero's journey, the hero must leave the ordinary world, have moments of self-doubt, meet a mentor or teacher, gain allies and enemies, and enter into the dark night of the soul to go through these kinds of changes. It isn't something that happens overnight and it isn't something that occurs without exceptional effort.

Real people make mistakes and are far from perfect

If you go about creating a character who is absolutely perfect in every way, your readers simply won't identify with him or her. The reason? Well, we all know ourselves and we all know that we're far from perfect (although not everyone admits that).

We all are flawed and that's what makes us human, so your protagonist needs flaws, as well. Maybe your protagonist worries too much about what others think, so she goes out of his way to appease someone she shouldn't appease? Or maybe your protagonist hits the bottle too much and gets sloppy on the job while facing a battle with alcoholism? However you do it, ensure that your characters have real flaws that help readers identify with them on some human level.

Real people have a backstory

Sit a group of writers together in a room and you'll have a room full of interesting people. However, let those writers start telling where they came from, how they grew up, who their first love was, their religious background, and the one thing they're most embarrassed about having done—you'll then have a room riveting stories and characters. And that's exactly what needs to happen to the characters you create.

Providing your characters with a backstory gives them added dimension. They become more than a name, a face, a career, and the clothes they wear—they become human. We see them as so much more because in knowing their backstory, or at least the highlight reel of it, we now have a greater understanding about why they act a certain way, what their motivations are, or what makes them tick, and these are all important qualities that a writer must relate to build a strong, dynamic character.

Real people make mistakes

Another unquestionably human trait we all have is that we make mistakes. Those of us who claim otherwise are fooling no one but themselves. This is why it's important to give your character limited access to knowledge of what's going on around them, or even a tendency toward a certain mistake that is a core element of their personality.

Alternately, one of the best ways to have your character make mistakes is to put him or her in a situation that would be out of almost anyone's depth. Doing so adds humanity and gives your reader a sense of empathy for the character, knowing that it would be a tough situation for anyone to face, and thus one that's prone to elicit mistakes. Your reader will immediately recognize the character's limitations (because we've all faced similar ones in situations out of our depth) and in doing so, see the character's humanity, as well.

Real people have quirks

Your character should have traits and quirks that add dimension to him or her. Beyond eye color, ethnicity, job or title, your character needs depth of emotion, physicality, personality and spirituality. Since the best writing is that which aims to show rather than tell, this article on mannerisms that will bring your character to life goes into extensive detail about how to show your character's traits, without resorting to telling your reader outright.

For example, if your character has a tendency to lie or not tell the whole truth, he might pause while speaking a lot, or offer unnecessary details. If your character has social anxiety, she might keep her arms crossed defensively or chain smoke while out in public. Or maybe your character has narcissistic traits, so he takes a lot of selfies, or waits for someone else to do tasks he should be doing himself. These are all ways to add character quirks and traits throughout your writing and add dimension to the character—even if that dimension isn't always positive.

Real people face conflict and it changes them (for better or worse)

Since the definition of a dynamic character is one who changes in the face of conflict, it's important to understand the role that conflict plays in developing such characters. Without doubt, Cormac McCarthy's The Road is a great example of how this is done.

The Road follows the journey of a father and son in a post-apocalyptic landscape as they struggle to survive in the face of a decaying world (man vs. nature) and cannibalistic gangs or "bloodcults" (man vs. man). The father must also deal with his role as protector for his young son in a world that is difficult for anyone to manage and survive, much less someone responsible for the life of a child (man vs. self).

In Chris Gilbert's study, Illuminating Character Identity, Motivation, and Conflict in Cormac McCarthy's The Road, he observes how the character responds to each conflict and changes in the process. Of course—at the core of his observation is how the characters are decidedly and tragically human throughout these obstacles and the resulting changes. He writes:

[The Road] provokes questions about human motivation or, more essentially, human nature. Although other literary works take up this theme as well, The Road is unique in that it depicts the behavior of characters who are no longer informed and controlled by social institutions: there are no schools to learn in, no laws to obey, and no people to govern. In other words, this is a novel that suggests how humans behave when no one else is watching. Human nature is on blatant display, and more often than not, it is exceedingly disturbing.

Chris Gilbert, The English Journal

Gilbert mentions how he is often questioned why he chooses The Road to teach students about characterization, and his response is that these two figures, described as 'each other's world entire,' sustain an intensely uplifting relationship that captivates and transports the reader beyond the charred settings of the novel. In other words, they are a perfect study of how building a dynamic character, even in a devastating setting and plot, can be done. Or as Gilbert puts it, These two characters have provided me with invaluable opportunities to engage students in meaningful character analysis, critical inquiry, and self-reflection.

Real people lose faith

Along the archetypical hero's journey mentioned earlier, the hero faces what is known as the dark night of the soul. It is a moment of atonement, of recognizing the monster within, and coming to terms with what must be done to defeat it. Without this moment, the metamorphosis of self—the change that is needed—cannot occur. You can think of it as the moment when a caterpillar encloses itself in a cocoon to be alone and face the darkness.

The humanity of your characters shines through most when they lose faith and experience the dark night of the soul.
The humanity of your characters shines through most when they lose faith and experience the dark night of the soul. Photo by Edwin Andrade on Unsplash.

In the same sense, when your characters go through this dark night of the soul, it is a moment that is both necessary and important for the character arc to happen. It is a moment of lost faith, of sadness, of mourning for what has gone and trying to find the willpower to move forward. For a character to become dynamic—that is, to change over the course of the conflicts and narrative—he or she must go through this cocooning process and come out on the other side of it victorious. It's at the core of what creates a dynamic character and will inevitably move your character from merely interesting to completely memorable.

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