Book Writing AdviceBook, Writing, Advice
ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated

How to Write a Dynamic Character Arc

Christina Crampe

Published on
Last Modified on

Have you ever read a story with a character that seems stuck in their own way? What about a character who refuses to acknowledge a flaw or fault, blaming everyone around them and refusing to look at themselves? These are static characters, and they are boring (and annoying!). The best stories are the ones with protagonists who come to terms with their own flaws and, instead of ignoring them, actively transform for the better. Even better, they will have some kind of journey riddled with conflicts both external and internal where they come out victorious. These are dynamic characters, and they are realistic and relatable.

What is a dynamic character? 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.

Dynamic character must-haves

man holding his head in his hands
A dynamic character needs to start out with some kind of weakness making them worthy of change. Photo by thebigland45.

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). Although your character isn't going to be perfect, there are some ways to write your characters that will make them perfect candidates for a dynamic arc. Here are some dynamic character must-haves:

  • Worthy of change: This may sound difficult, because you might think, what makes anyone worthy of anything? This is a deep question, but let's simplify it. Everyone is worthy of change because nobody is perfect. Even the best people have their faults and can improve. You should make your protagonist worthy of change. For this to be true, you must make your character's flaw or internal conflict evident and essential to the plot of your story.
  • Be active, not passive: For your dynamic character act to work well, your protagonist needs to be active, not passive. A passive character is going to let things happen to them or around them without feeling a need to interfere. This sets the groundwork for a static character because they are too lazy to look inwards and recognize their own faults and work to fix them. There is no opportunity for growth. On the other hand, an active character is more likely to undergo change because they are involved in the plot. Being involved in the plot means they are being directly affected and influenced by other characters and events. Outward stimuli cause them to reflect on themselves and the role they play. There is abundant opportunity for growth.
  • Human qualities: You may be thinking, duh, if your protagonist is a human, then they're going to have human qualities. This isn't quite what we mean. In some cases, you may get swept up in the journey of writing a dynamic character. This can lead to your character having a flawless transition from, say, shy to confident or cowardly to brave. The transition is never so smooth. 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? Make sure your characters have real flaws that help readers identify with them.
  • Make mistakes: Since your protagonist is flawed, they are going to make mistakes. To create intentional mistakes that add to the protagonist's journey, you should 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.

Create an arc

masked woman looking at a mask
Dynamic characters will reach a point in their journey where they must evaluate themselves. Photo by Cristina Conti.

To set yourself up for writing a successful dynamic character, you're going to want to create an arc. This is like a map for you to follow as you write, ensuring your character has a real change. This may seem simple, but it can actually be quite difficult to make a change that matters. Here are three steps to follow as you map out your character's journey:

  1. Introduce the fault: 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. This will also establish what your protagonist's fault is and how it came to develop. In turn, we will get an idea of how difficult it will be fore that character to change throughout the story.
  2. Craft a journey: 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. Your character began the story with some kind of flaw worthy of change, so what is going to incite this change? Is there going to be a particular event or person that sparks the protagonist's journey? For example, if your protagonist is a massive liar that does not care about the consequences of their lies, you want to craft conflict that makes it impossible for them to lie. Maybe there are dire, unavoidable consequences to their lies, and they have to realize they cannot lie to save themselves at the expense of others. Whatever the fault of your character, there needs to be a journey. Without a journey, your story lacks substance and direction.
  3. Look inward: Along any journey, the protagonist is going to reach a moment where they can no longer rely on external forces to solve their problems. Instead, the protagonist must look at themselves and deduce how they are creating a problem or impeding change. This is a moment of realization, 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. It is a moment that is both necessary and important for the character arc to happen. They may impede their own progress by resisting this step, but it will inevitably happen. 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.
  4. Show the change: That's right, show, don't tell. By the end of your story, your protagonist should be a changed individual. This doesn't mean your character needs to have undergone some life-changing transition, but a change that focuses on their central fault should be recognized. Use your protagonist's actions to physically express how they have changed internally and mentally. If your story ends with your protagonist still being the same little liar they were at the beginning, then your journey failed and so did your dynamic character arc.

Involve others in the process

boys offering a beer to another boy
The people surrounding your protagonist will influence the protagonist's morals and beliefs. Photo by motortion.

This may seem strange, since we consider personal change and growth to be, well, personal. This isn't completely true. We very rarely, if ever, change on our own. Oftentimes, it is other people that influence the way we act or see certain things. Have you ever heard that friends become like each other, over time? We start acting and talking like the people we spend the most time with, so don't be surprised if you find yourself picking up your best friend's most-used catchphrases or believing in the same things they believe in.

This can be good or bad, but we cannot deny the impact relationships have on our lives. Dynamic characters may be a particular way because of the people they surround themselves with, so a change could be sparked by a separation or breakdown of some of these relationships. Characters do not usually change from one small thing. Instead, a collection of things sparks a character to feel the need for change, and their relationships with supplementary characters may be one of them. Here are some thoughts to consider as you write:

  • What are your character's friends like? Like we mentioned, we often mimic the behavior of our friends, even if we do not realize it. This can have a big impact on how we think about certain things, and this is reflected in our behavior and language. If your character has morally good characters, then your character may also be morally good. If your character has some problematic characters with negative qualities, this can make your character more likely to have negative characteristics. This may be good, though, as it gives you an opportunity to change your character over time.
  • What is your character's family like? Have you ever heard the saying, "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree"? We certainly have (and we're a bit embarrassed to say there's some truth in it…). Just as your character is impacted by friendships, your character is likely impacted by family relationships, as well. You should consider what your character's parents are like (if they have any), what their siblings are like, and what kind of dynamics exist within the family. Your character's emotional state and inner thoughts and feelings are likely to be highly influenced by their familial relationships.
  • Are there new people in your character's life? The introduction of a new character in your protagonist's life is one of the easiest ways to spark that internal change within your protagonist. This character may be a good or bad character that helps your protagonist see their own inner faults.
  • Include passive characters: Wait a minute, didn't we say not to write passive characters? Yes, well, kind of. We don't want the protagonist to be passive, but supplementary characters can be passive. In fact, including passive characters is a great way to provide contrast to your dynamic protagonist. If your protagonist's friends all remain the same throughout the story, your protagonist's journey of reflection and self-discovery will be even more evident and triumphant because they were able to defeat their own worst enemy: themselves. So, use passive characters when necessary to create effective juxtaposition.

Do not rush

When we rush around, we often forget about certain things. For example, when you're rushing to leave your house for a birthday party, you may grab your keys and race to the car without realizing you've left the birthday present behind on your kitchen counter. Don't leave the birthday present behind. That's just disappointing (and no fun).

The same can be said when you write a dynamic character. Part of the arc is the pacing of your story. Change is possible, but it can (and usually is!) difficult because we are often resistant to introspection. Nobody wants to look deeply into themselves just to realize they have faults. It's easier to pretend those faults don't exist.

Therefore, your protagonist should not change overnight. It would be unrealistic and just plain annoying if your character goes from one personality to another or one belief to another. Your protagonist doesn't have to undergo something as serious as the hero's journey, but there does have to be a journey. Journeys take time because they are riddled with obstacles. A dynamic character will face many obstacles because they have both external and internal battles.

For example, if your character is incredibly selfish, it would make no sense for them to wake up one day and decide to be generous and giving. Where did that shift come from? It takes time and effort to change and develop your thoughts, so make sure this is reflected in your characters.

Reflect on everything

Now that you've got a detailed list of characteristics for your protagonist, we think you're ready to start writing your dynamic character. However, you should never just stop at the character. Instead, split your focus between the protagonist and the plot. Everything you write should be dynamic, including your conflicts and roadblocks. As your protagonist evolves, so should the plot of the story. This will give your story a dynamic arc with a shining lead example of a dynamic character.

Get in-depth guidance delivered right to your inbox.