Critical Concepts

"Static" and "Dynamic" Characterization

Curiosity about the possibility and conditions of "change in identity" has been remarkably intense, in fiction and in psychology, during the last century.  In talk about literature, this has led to the development of a crude but useful terminological distinction of two sorts of characterization:  "static" and "dynamic."  A static character, in this vocabulary, is one that does not undergo important change in the course of the story, remaining essentially the same at the end as he or she was at the beginning.  A dynamic character, in contrast, is one that does undergo an important change in the course of the story.  More specifically, the changes that we are referring to as being "undergone" here are not changes in circumstances, but changes in some sense within the character in question -- changes in insight or understanding (of circumstances, for instance), or changes in commitment, in values.  The change (or lack of change) at stake in this distinction is a change "in" the character (nature) of the character (fictional figure).

If a character inherits a million dollars from a rich aunt in the course of a story, this may or may not result in the sort of change in his personality or values or in his general outlook on life that would make him count as an instance of dynamic character in this special sense.  (The same goes if his impressive stock portfolio goes up in the smoke in a bear market.)  He might remain the same cheerful, humble, easy-going, out-going fellow he was before this fortunate turn of events.  Or he might remain the same bitter, cynical, resentful, suspicious, selfish person he had always been.  Or he might continue to be the same smug, arrogant snob he's already exhibited himself to be.  In any of these cases, we'd have an instance of static character.  Of course such a drastic change in one's circumstances (whether good fortune or bad) might motivate a change in one's outlook on life.  And if -- but only if -- it results in this sort of change, we are confronted with a dynamic character.  

This means that, while we certainly do want to take account of what the story implies as the motivation of this "change in character," we don't want to include these causal or conditional factors as part of our description of what the change in character consists in.  (A "factor" is not an "element.")  We'll want to avoid the temptation to substitute externals (which are often explicit and obvious) for internals (which are often implicit, and take some work to get a clear grasp of).  It is surely true that Ivan Ilych, in Tolstoy's novella The Death of Ivan Ilych is greatly changed in the course of his dying.  But we will not do ourselves justice if we are content with merely recalling the details of his worsening physical condition, and never get round to reflecting on just what are the exact changes in assumptions and feelings he undergoes between his awareness that he is not (physically) well and the moment of his death.  Among other things, we'll miss the central paradox of the story, that while he was "doing well," he was spiritually gravely ill, and that in gradually taking stock of this and in facing up to some newly emerging concerns, he eventually achieves a soundness of spirit more profound than that which he left behind with his childhood.  (Even the formulation just given is too general to do justice to what we should take stock of, on the level of particulars, in the change of character Tolstoy wants to acquaint us with.)

Note, by the way, that what is going on "inside the body" counts as "external circumstance" from the point of view we are adopting here.  It is not a "change internal to the character" in the sense in which we are using the terms "internal" and "character" at the moment!

Some tips on using these concepts in a clear and tactful way

First off, we don't want to confuse the distinction between static and dynamic characterization with the distinction between flat and round characterization.

Secondly, there are some important other senses of the phrase "dynamic character" in common use that have nothing to do with the term dynamic character in the particular sense with which we are concerned here.  They are perfectly good in their place, but we have to take care not to confuse them with what we've been talking about.

If we say of someone we have met that "she is a dynamic character," we may be using this to mean that she "has a dynamic personality."  We want to say that she is "full of energy," perhaps, and that she has "an appetite for action," for "getting things done."  Alternatively, we might mean that she is a "great motivator," able to inspire others to action.  (We might of course mean both.  But they are distinct:  a person could be quite full of energy, and burning to get things done, but a real put-off as an organizer, a miserable motivator of others.)  

Of course, we may meet with such a character in a literary work, but when we do we would be well advised to employ the term "dynamic personality" or "dynamic person," rather than "dynamic character," because the latter is already "pre-empted" in talking about literature.  (If we were talking computer talk, we'd say that inside this program that term is "reserved.")  In talk about literature, the term "dynamic character" means simply a character who undergoes some important change in the course of the story.

Thus a character who is portrayed as a "mover and shaker," and is that way throughout the story, is a static character, in the literary-critical sense of the term.  A fictional character with an "inspiring personality"  would qualify as a dynamic character, in the literary-critical sense of the term, only if she became that way -- or ceased being that way! -- in the course of the story.

Moreover, within literary critical discourse, these terms are meant to be purely descriptive, not evaluative.  That is, "dynamic" characters are not necessarily better, in narrative art, than "static" ones.  

The question, from the aesthetic standpoint, is whether a portrayal is what is called for in light of the work as a whole, and whether it is done skillfully or ineptly, interestingly or boringly.  (Indeed, even a persistent bore can be portrayed in an interesting -- for example, quite comic -- fashion.)  Even in works intensely interested in the way in which personality can reformulate itself, subordinate characters are likely to be "static," if for no other reason than that to do otherwise would be to distract the reader from what the story is designed to get us to notice.  In this special literary-critical use of the terms, "static" is not, for example, synonymous with "sterile" or "hung-up" or "stultified."  (When an author "develops a character" as "static," that does not mean, at least not necessarily, that we are faced with a case of "arrested development.")  Similarly, "dynamic" in this usage says nothing about whether a character is what is popularly referred to as a "dynamic personality" -- i.e., an individual with a power of impressing others, energizing them to action or compelling their admiration.  (Such a person appearing in a fictional work, in fact, might well provide an instance of a "static" character in the sense in which we are using the term here.)

And from the ethical standpoint, as well, it is important not to suppose that "dynamic" characters are superior to "static" ones.  Whether any change -- in personality or character, just as in society, or medical condition -- is good or bad, depends on two distinct kinds of factors:  the framework of values within which we assess states of affairs, and what happens to be the initial state of affairs.  This means that a change in personality may be for the better -- but it just as well may be for the worse.  And the same goes for a refusal to change:  this may signify an intellectual or moral failure, but it may be just what is called for.  After all, if we are confronted with a temptation, the hope is that we can muster the resources of insight and resolve to resist giving into it.  If a fictional character does this, he or she is a "static" character, and this "stasis" of character in the face of circumstance is a virtue.

In fact, it is precisely because change in identity can be good or bad, depending on circumstances and on the framework of evaluation, that it is often useful to classify plot in terms of characterization.

The point of the distinction

Noticing which pole it may be towards which an author has decided to steer in characterizing a given character is useful -- but only if we are prepared to use what we notice as a starting point for these new curiosities.

(1) What, exactly, is the change we are to take stock of as having occurred?

(2) How is it that the author's decision to treat this character as he or she has an appropriate one, given what is called for from the standpoint of the focus and purpose of the story as a whole?

(3) Or, put the other way around:  supposing the author decided appropriately, what can we infer the overall focus of the story must be?  What are the issues it is crafted to raise, and why are these worth our attention (if they are)?

(4) If we feel, provisionally, that the author's decision is not effective, then it must be we sense the story is "torn between" alternative directions in which a more "clearly conceived" story might go. 

Related discussions.

   Character and Characterization

   "Flat" and "Round" Characterization

  Return to the Index to the Glossary of Critical Concepts.

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      Contents copyright 2000 by Lyman A. Baker

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  This page last updated 07 March 2001 .