Whether it is in terms of reading, writing, or viewing, characterization is one of the key elements to a successful story. Today, the discussion will be focused on dynamic and static characters and how I view the value of each in all different areas of literature. The examples used will not go into great detail on either the story or the character apart from what pertains directly to the analysis of their growth or lack thereof.
1. a literary or dramatic character who undergoes an important innerchange, as a change in personality or attitude
Dynamic characters are the most common that I have encountered in my readings. Betterment of one’s self is a popular theme that spans throughout the centuries, from The Bible to the Harry Potter series. The reason they are popular is most likely due to the fact that it is pleasing to the audience and the creator. People read to experience what they cannot in real life – a budding romance, great adventures, the mystery of a murder at a dinner party, amazing personal growth, etc. – so the appeal of dynamic characters is palpable for obvious reasons. A reader goes on a journey with the main characters, so for the story to end in some great realization or transformation is what is expected because it is what is most wanted, in general. For the sake of familiarity, Emma Woodhouse from Jane Austen’s Emma and Beatrice Prior (Tris) from the Divergent series will be the examples on which I focus for the discussion on dynamic characters.
“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and a happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.”
Emma opens with the marriage of her friend and governess, Miss Taylor, to a man whom Emma had thought suitable for her. For those unfamiliar with the story, Emma takes it upon herself to be a matchmaker for those around her. In the beginning, she believes that she is doing right by all, though possibly not herself: “… there was some satisfaction in considering with what self-denying, generous friendship she had always wished and promoted the match” (Austen 1). Austen writes that Emma was “self-denying” and “generous” because she would be releasing her close friend from her position at Hartfield to become a wife. Emma truly believed that the matches that she made were what was best for others, though she got satisfaction from it by proclaiming her own selflessness to herself. On top of sacrificing her friends to marriages that she sets up, Emma also visits those who are beneath her in social and financial standing. (She may feel good about doing this, but it is done out of the goodness of her heart, as well – not merely for the satisfaction of doing good unto others.)
Emma does undergo many changes throughout the novel, but the most prominent in my eyes is her understanding that she can be selfish and even inconsiderate.
When Emma makes a snide remark toward Miss Bates, she does so without thinking of the repercussions of her words. She is used to being viewed as witty and clever, so she sees nothing wrong in the moment with being so while poking fun at a woman who has so much less and has been nothing but kind to Emma. It isn’t until her fault is pointed out by the romantic figure and her close friend, Mr. Knightley, that she begins to understand her position and her responsibilities. This is one of the major turning points for Emma that demonstrates her character’s growth.
Harriet Smith, a new friend to Emma, is the victim most harmed by Emma’s belief in her matchmaking abilities. Allow me to sum up the matchmaking accounts with Harriet: Emma advised her to decline a marriage proposal that she received from a man that she would have otherwise accepted; Emma pushed Harriet toward a man who ended up declaring his love for Emma and bashing Harriet; Emma mistakenly believed that Harriet had fallen for Frank Churchill, so she supported her, not knowing that Harriet had supposed herself fallen for Mr. Knightley; Emma and Mr. Knightley declared their love for each other, leaving Harriet “a little distressed” (Austen 912); Harriet ended up going back to the first man whom she had originally loved, though Emma disapproved at the beginning. In conclusion, Emma’s meddlesome personality was what led her friend to be put through so much hardship. In the end, however, things were quite different: Emma showed that she had grown as a person and as a friend, demonstrating dynamic characterization.
“… Emma had instantly removed every fear of that nature, by meeting her with the most unqualified congratulations.–Harriet was most happy to give every particular of the evening at Astley’s, and the dinner the next day; she could dwell on it all with the utmost delight. But what did such particulars explain?–The fact was, as Emma could now acknowledge, that Harriet had always liked Robert Martin; and that his continuing to love her had been irresistible.–Beyond this, it must ever be unintelligible to Emma” (Austen 912). Though Emma was able to see outside of herself and her own desires to create perfect matches for her own satisfaction by the end of the novel, I believe that Austen left room for Emma to continue growing after the end. There were still things that she didn’t understand, just like any other person in existence, and that was another layer of the characterization that makes Emma relatable. She was not the perfect character at the beginning, and she wasn’t the perfect character at the end. She’d grown, though, and that was what made her better.
“I am selfish. I am brave.”
In the beginning of Divergent
, Tris lives in Abnegation (the faction for the selfless and caring) with her family. She has a choice to leave or choose to stay in Abnegation for the rest of her life; she chooses to become a part of Dauntless (the faction for the brave and strong). The faction descriptions provided are very short and missing the meat of what each stands for. Those who are unfamiliar but want to know more, click here
. Her choice that she made, in her own eyes, proves to herself that she is brave – an ideal that she fights to maintain throughout her time in training and Veronica Roth’s three novels (Divergent, Insurgent,
Though Tris joins Dauntless and begins training as the weakest of the lot, she focuses on training to officially become a part of Dauntless. At first, the bravery that she possesses is just that – bravery. However, as Tris continues with her training, she not only becomes stronger, but most compassionate – a trait of the faction that she was raised in. While one of the other initiates is put on the spot, she inadvertently volunteers to take his place to prove her own bravery and to spare him because she noticed his fear. Having one knife thrown at her without her flinching, the first-person narrative illustrates her fear, but when asked if she was done standing in for the other initiate, she refuses to move. “I remember Al’s wide eyes and his quiet sobs at night and shake my head. ‘No'”(Divergent 163). Although Tris joined Dauntless partially because she believed herself to be selfish, meaning she would not fit in with the others in Abnegation, she is selfless without realizing it. Though it is said in the novel that bravery does not equal kindness, in Tris’ case, one of the strongest elements of her bravery is her deeply rooted kindness and selflessness from being raised in Abnegation that comes out only after she is removed from that environment to be surrounded by people who are not labeled as such. She single-handedly becomes the epitome of the words in the Dauntless manifesto: “I believe in ordinary acts of bravery, in the courage that drives one person to stand up for another” (Divergent 207). Tris was brave enough to be selfless in that moment.
Along with her character’s development of compassion after leaving Abnegation, Tris also learns that in order to survive Dauntless, she must grow physically. Physical growth, from weak to strong or from ugly to beautiful or anything of that sort, is a very straightforward and obvious form of dynamic development because it is something that is both told to the reader and perceived by other characters. In order to fit into Dauntless, Tris leaves behind the modest appearance that she’d always worn to transform into something more suitable:
“My shoulder still burns. Christina persuaded me to join her in getting a tattoo of the Dauntless seal. It is a circle with a flame inside it. My mother didn’t even react to the one on my collarbone, so I don’t have as many reservations about getting tattoos. They are a part of life here, just as integral to my initiation as learning to fight.
Christina also persuaded me to purchase a shirt that exposes my shoulders and collarbone, and to line my eyes with black pencil again. I don’t bother objecting to her makeover attempts anymore. Especially since I find myself enjoying them” (Divergent 246).
The physical transformation is obvious to others, as shown in the following pages when she encounters an intoxicated Four who comments on her change in appearance. Not only does she accept the changes because they signify her growth and wanting to be a part of Dauntless, but she welcomes them and realizes that they are necessary for her current lifestyle. Of course, her training also changes her body physically; she becomes stronger, leaner, and more sure of her movements when fighting. Although she had always been near the bottom of the ranking board during training, she found her strengths and was able to face her fears in the simulations (although she was aware during them), leading her to finally rank first (Divergent 266).
Now, step back from the specific details and examples of her growth and look at Tris from afar throughout the span of the books. She’d come to despise her brother, Caleb, after he’d betrayed her and their former faction, but at the end of Allegiant, Tris grows into the type of person she was never able to be before – entirely brave for someone else.
“There are so many ways to be brave in this world. Sometimes bravery involves laying down your life for something bigger than yourself, or for someone else. Sometimes it involves giving up everything you have ever known, or everyone you have ever loved, for the sake of something greater” (Allegiant 509).
Tris had reasoned with herself at the beginning of Divergent when she chose Dauntless that it was because she was selfish and brave. Throughout the series, she learns that she is both and that they are sometimes the same thing. This was Tris’ greatest form of dynamic growth in the series – not physical, but mental and emotional.
1. a literary or dramatic character who undergoes little or no innerchange; a character who does not grow or develop.
While readers love to read about characters who grow, giving them hope of their own growth or allowing them to live vicariously through the ink on pages, static characters are also important in literature for very different reasons. It seems that there is an ongoing debate concerning the purpose of static characters and what exactly they are. Some sources claim that static characters are minor characters that go unchanged with the purpose of supporting the protagonist or serving as the antagonist. However, I will combat that opinion with examples of static protagonists in literature. The characters discussed serve to show that not everyone changes – some people stay untouched despite the changing world around them. Not every person, whether in reality or fiction, grows because of the events that occur; some people will always be the same because they are simply who they are. Is that a bad thing? Is a fully-developed character [note: a static character is not to be confused with an underdeveloped or flat character] who remains unchanged by the story leaving the reader lacking something? To illustrate that static characters are just as effective in a story as dynamic characters (though in different ways), I will discuss Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet.
Rip Van Winkle
“The great error in Rip’s composition was an insuperable aversion to all kinds of profitable labor.”
Washington Irving’s short story “Rip Van Winkle” depicts the life of a lazy man gone by without his knowing. It starts by showing some of his characteristics – obedience and the popularity with others that it brought him. However, when it came to his own duties, laziness was his downfall. “In a word Rip was ready to attend to anybody’s business but his own; but as to doing family duty, and keeping his farm in order, he found it impossible” (Irving). Because of this laziness, his family suffered. His son seemed fatherless because he didn’t have him as a role model and their land was “the worst conditioned farm in the neighborhood.” It was said that he was content with his life how it was and saw no need to change anything, though, so he let it go on the same, despite scoldings from his own wife on the matter.
Rip Van Winkle leaves his home one night and helps a stranger who lets him drink until he is drunk and asleep away from home. When he awakes, his first thought after realizing that he stayed out all night is: “‘Oh! that flagon! that wicked flagon!’ thought Rip – ‘what excuse shall I make to Dame Van Winkle!'” His words show that he does not want to tell the truth and take responsibility for his actions of putting the needs of others (and the drink) before his own family and home. When he returns home, everything has changed. Upon entering the village, he notices the changes to it immediately:
“A troop of strange children ran at his heels, hooting after him, and pointing at his gray beard. The dogs, too, not one of which he recognized for an old acquaintance, barked at him as he passed. The very village was altered; it was larger and more populous. There were rows of houses which he had never seen before, and those which had been his familiar haunts had disappeared. Strange names were over the doors – strange faces at the windows – every thing was strange.”
His dog – his main companion – has forgotten him and his home was abandoned without any sign of his family. He is shunned by the villagers at first for his political loyalties when he first speaks to them, and soon realizes upon questioning that nearly all of the people that he had once helped were dead or gone. His child does not recognize him and his wife is deceased, which seems not to bother him. Even after living among the others for some time, he does not let go of his old ways to accept the changes that have occurred since he had left some twenty years before. He remains the same – stagnant.
Rip’s lack of accepting the changes that occur in the old/new town show that he is the type of person that, even if present for the changes in the town, would not have gone along with them. He is unwilling to change after returning; this gives insight to the type of person that he is. Even though everything around him is different, it didn’t matter to him. He felt comfortable how his was, politics and all. Though “Rip Van Winkle” is an extreme case of a static character because the drastic changes around him happen within one night for Rip (assuming that the twenty years were not a drunken craze as some villagers supposed), it still demonstrates the concept of ideal static characterization, though in very unusual circumstances.
“Holmes was certainly not a difficult man to live with. He was quiet in his ways, and his habits were regular.”
[Note: It can be argued that Sherlock Holmes is not the main character of A Study in Scarlet but more a supporting character for John Watson because it is written through Watson’s point-of-view. However, I stick to the idea that Holmes is the protagonist because he is the one that the story is about; Watson gives insight to Holmes’ life and practices through observing and recording what goes on around Holmes.]
From the beginning of A Study in Scarlet, Watson describes Holmes’ character to be one of interest. “… I eagerly hailed the little mystery which hung around my companion, and spent much of my time in endeavouring to unravel it” (Conan Doyle 9). There isn’t much to describe, except instances that illustrate the type of character that Holmes is (which most people are familiar with, anyway).
Sherlock Holmes is one of the best examples of static characters who are interesting because he is so fully-developed. There are layers to him that seem simple because they are easily viewed, but by no means simple. It is easy to see what type of character he is, as Watson comes to learn, but that doesn’t mean that what the reader sees of him isn’t complicated. He is a person with many facets to him, just like any other person. The characteristics that made him up, though complex, are unchanging. What happens around him does not alter what type of person he is.
The beautiful thing about reading Holmes’ character through Watson’s point-of-view is that it creates faux character development for Holmes. As Watson learns more about his companion, the reader learns more about his companion; this mimics character development. However, what is actually changing is Watson’s understanding of him and not Sherlock Holmes himself. Holmes is a static character that does not need to grow in order to create a satisfying story because the plot does not require change.
[Note: Unlike “Rip Van Winkle,” dynamic or static characterization plays no role in the Sherlock Holmes stories. Whereas Rip’s lack of growth in an ever-changing world was the focus of the short story, A Study in Scarlet and other Sherlock Holmes novels focus on the development of the plot, as a mystery tends to do.]
noun (definition via my own opinion)
1. a literary or dramatic character whose development is debatable
This is a completely unofficial term that I hadn’t planned on writing about. However, after re-reading the last several chapters of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews to show that Greg was a static character, I realized that his development is questionable. This will not be a long analysis, but it’s something that I now think is important to include for all of the characters that a reader encounters whom may or may not have changed over the course of the story.
“We left. I knew I wouldn’t see Rachel again. I just felt kind of empty and exhausted. Mom got me some Kahlua ice cream with habaneros and bee pollen in it. It tasted OK. That’s when I knew I was going to make it.”
Greg Gaines is a character that I cannot figure out. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a straightforward novel from Greg’s point-of-view, so all of his thoughts are what are written on the pages. This should help with understanding either his character’s growth or lack thereof. However, I now firmly believe that he fits neither into the dynamic or static character categories.
Throughout the novel, Greg does change how he sees things, but it seems as though he is simply going along with the flow of his life. He follows Earl in many ways, so the ideas aren’t exactly original. Both he and Earl make a compilation video in honor of Rachel – a Jewish girl whom he’d known from school – because she was dying of cancer. After it’s shown at the school, something that was not his choice and was planned without his knowledge, he has the realization that it wasn’t the right thing to do. “I was thinking, also, that we had made a film about a thing, death, that we knew nothing about… Plus we had made a film about a girl who we really hadn’t gotten to know… We were so ridiculously arrogant to try to make a film about her” (Andrews 277). Greg realizes that it was the wrong thing to do and that he hadn’t done it for the right reasons, disregarding what was best for Rachel. It seems like this is personal growth. He understands his mistake.
However, the last sentences of the novel lead the reader to question whether or not Greg actually grew: “Maybe I should try to put her in my next film. I don’t know. Honestly? I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about” (Andrews 295). Greg Gaines experienced a lot after her death, but nothing that really led him to understand it. The most that can be said for Greg is that he finally understood that he understood nothing. Is that realization really character growth? There is a realization, which usually suggests dynamic characterization, but there’s also the fact that he remains fairly unaffected by the things that happened to him, which suggests static characterization. For this reason, I’m calling his characterization, and all others’ like his, ambiguous. [Note: If someone knows an official term for this, please comment.]
For further reading on the different types of characterization, click here