Embrace the Static

Every author creates a character they one day look at and say, “Who the hell are you?” It’s such an annoying thing to become aware of, but it’s often not as bad as the writer may think. Too many people become obsessed with following some perceived construction of new rules they must abide by if they wish to get published or become famous. The numbers, of course, show a different truth, but that’s for another time…and another writer.

We’re talking about static characters here, characters who do not develop throughout the story, so let’s start out with the concerns that I will pull randomly from no place in particular:

All characters need to be fully fleshed out to be interesting—False. In fact, it’s oftentimes the characters I know the least about that give me the best laughs and insights to a story. Let’s shift to flat characters for a second. These are the characters who play limited roles, oftentimes to exemplify something (see Miss Maudie in To Kill a Mockingbird). Give the character a voice, but just drop a hint at who he or she is, and that’s all I need. In Disney’s Aladdin, I have no idea who the shopkeeper is, but he makes me laugh and gives the story a place to start. A purpose and a voice, but by no means fleshed out. How did he come to own the lamp? Does he know royalty? Is he a thief? Who cares.

The greats always use dynamic characters—False. I know you have a favorite book, and hopefully you’re aware of which characters aren’t too developed, but let’s look at some classics. How about starting with a story where the main character is static? Consider Sherlock Holmes. He’s smart, witty, and has everything necessary to solve cases. That’s all he is as a character (more so in some works than others), and readers are very much okay with that. Or how about Shakespeare’s Falstaff, a reoccurring character in the plays about Henry V? He’s a drunkard, provides a breath of fresh air through comic relief, and sometimes brings great insight to Henry V. That’s all I need: a purpose and a voice.

If you subscribe to the rule of three, the previous list serves only to disappoint. Moving on.

So the trick then becomes providing purpose and voice to the character. Perhaps there are some simple ways to do so, but the struggle is making everything fit. What’s appropriate and what’s superfluous or garbage?

Developing Purpose—This can be something as simple as explaining the goal a more rotund character (round character…it’s a joke…get it…oh, you did…) may strive for, or it might be a foil character of sorts, someone to point out flaws and strengths in their opposite (see Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet). Even a flat character yelling something from inside a crowd develops mood and provides insight to the scene. Not to get all Existentialistic here, but characters aren’t born with a purpose, they have to find one or the author needs to give them one.

Developing Voice—As a writer, I find this to be the most enjoyable aspect of the craft. A voice should imply back story. The random person yelling in the crowd can simply say, “Disappointing,” and I’m thinking about his nature and expectations. Another character might say, “Off with ‘is head,” and I see them as vividly as I do the main character in the scene. Of course, the vivid picture varies from reader to reader, but this generally shouldn’t be the writer’s concern unless they feel it necessary the reader sees the character in a certain light.

I know that many of you understand what a static character is along with their ability to give strength to a novel, but there needs to be a voice from time to time to combat the silliness that is the cry of the contemporary author. Embrace your static and flat characters, hell, write a novel consisting only of static characters. It’s been done, and quite well. What do you think the premise is for horror and disaster movies, that a character learns the struggles of life and grapples with ideas of mortality due to the masked demon on the loose? After you succeed, why not challenge yourself further with a story using only flat characters.

I look forward to reading your masterpiece.

–Kyle Jacobson