Catalytic, Not Catatonic: 5 Steps to Writing Dynamic Characters

Dynamism, by its very definition, is about forceful movement. In writing dynamic characters, you are writing characters who drive events. They are causes that create effects. In short, they are catalysts. What they are not is catatonic. They are not passive rag dolls, tossed around by random antagonistic forces.

The best news for you is that these catalytic characters are a blast to write. Consider five immediately applicable ways you can take your character from victim to overcomer.

1. MAKE YOUR CHARACTER KNOCK DOWN THE FIRST DOMINO

It’s true your antagonist controls the overall conflict (which is why it’s often best to begin your plotting by examining the antagonist’s goals, rather than the protagonist’s). This means your antagonist gets to make the first move on the chessboard. This does not mean, however, that the antagonist’s first move victimizes the protagonist.

Even if the antagonist’s move immediately affects the protagonist in an undesirable way, the protagonist must still actively make a choice that engages him in the rest of the plot. The antagonist may have knocked over the first overall domino. But the protagonist must knock over the first domino in his personal involvement in the conflict.

This usually happens at the Inciting Event, the turning point halfway through the First Act at the 12% mark. This is the Call to Adventure, where the protagonist first brushes the main conflict. Usually, he will start out by rejecting it in some way. He doesn’t want to engage with the conflict. Often, this very avoidance of his destiny puts him on the road to meeting it anyway. He makes a choice, for which he is responsible and which puts him on an inevitable collision course with the antagonist force.

FOR EXAMPLE:

In Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen chooses to take her sister’s place in the Reaping. Consider how vastly more interesting a story we have thanks to her having to choose to take part in the Hunger Games—instead of being randomly reaped herself.

Katniss is a dynamic character, because she is not a passive victim of her circumstances. She actively chooses to take part in the Hunger Games, in order to prevent her younger sister Primrose from being “reaped.”

2. KNOCK YOUR CHARACTER DOWN, THEN MAKE HIM CHOOSE AGAIN

Although your character’s initial choice to engage with the conflict will ultimately be the cause for everything that follows, you can’t stop there. Many authors will set up their character’s involvement with the antagonistic force by hitting the character as hard as they can, knocking her to her knees—and then leaving her there. Scene after scene occurs in which the character is buffeted by trial after trial. And she just takes it.

The patience of Job is not what we’re looking for in a protagonist. When your character gets knocked down, she can’t just stay down. She must make an active choice.

Even if that choice ends with her getting knocked down again (and, frankly, I hope it does—especially in the first half of the book), she must continue to move proactively through the story, choice after choice after choice. Her choices are what cause the next round of getting knocked down—until eventually, she starts learning how to make better choices and stops getting beat up so often.

FOR EXAMPLE:

In Diana Wynne Jones’s  Howl’s Moving Castle, Sophie chooses (however reluctantly) to lie to the king about Howl, in an effort to get him excused from employment. The scene goes entirely sideways when she inadvertently shows her true beliefs about Howl’s goodness and capability. But the result of both her presence before the king and her inability to hide her growing love for Howl are both the result of her own choices.

In Howl’s Moving Castle, Sophie reluctantly talks to the king on Howl’s behalf. However, despite her reluctance, she remains a dynamic character because her action is still entirely her own choice and the results are the consequences of her own actions.

3. MAKE YOUR CHARACTER CULPABLE

When your character gets himself stuck in a horrible situation despite having done only the right thing with the best of intentions, it can sometimes be hard to paint him as anything but a victim.

But what if he’s not so innocent after all? What if his own culpability for a downright wrong decision, either early in the book or somewhere in his past, means he actually deserves some of the horror he’s being hit with?

In their desire to make characters as likable and “good” as possible, authors often fail to explore this possibility. But nine times out of ten, dashing a little gray into your character’s choice will make both him and his conflict vastly more complex and interesting.

Consequences are the most interesting thing in fiction. The more deserved those consequences, the more interesting they become.

FOR EXAMPLE:

Erstwhile assassin Jason Bourne is a tremendously likable character. He’s obviously a good man, just as he has obviously been the victim of tremendous desecration to his body, mind, and soul. In many ways, he is not truly responsible for the murders he was brainwashed into performing. And yet… he made the choice to “commit himself to the program.” Even though he can no longer fully remember it, he knowingly chose to allow himself to become a lethal tool in the hands of men with (at the best) dubious ethics and motives. At the end of the day, it’s all his fault. He knows it. We know it. And his suffering is all the more poignant for it.

Even though Jason Bourne is undeniably a victim in some ways, he remains a powerful and dynamic character in large part because he is ultimately responsible for having chosen to be turned into an assassin.

4. LET YOUR CHARACTER MAKE BOTH GOOD AND BAD CHOICES

As your story progresses and your character makes choice after choice that knocks over domino after domino in your story’s plot, you will want to vary the types of choices she makes.

Just because she’s the smart, brave, righteous good guy doesn’t mean she should always make the right choice. Mix things up. Let her make some righteous decisions. Let her make some morally problematic decisions. Let her make some smart decisions, but also let her make some poorly informed decisions. As Geoff Johns says,

The characters that have greys are the more interesting characters. The hero who sometimes crosses the line and the villain who sometimes doesn’t are just much more interesting.

You need a balance of both in order to keep readers believing in your character’s goodness and intelligence—while still allowing them to explore the fascinating ramifications of her fallibility.

FOR EXAMPLE:

In Sergey and Marina Dyachenko’s fantasy fable The Scar, hubristic young nobleman Egert Soll makes bad decision after bad decision, starting with two ill-fated duels, one of which ends with his killing an innocent student and the other of which ends with his being scarred and cursed in recompense for his heedless cruelty to others.

In The Scar, protagonist Egert Soll brings a wretched fate down on his own head thanks to his own misguided choices and decisions.

5. ALLOW YOUR CHARACTER TO TAKE RESPONSIBILITY AS PART OF HIS JOURNEY

Even though your character will be at least partially culpable for everything that happens to him, he won’t necessarily recognize this. In fact, he may very well rage against the heavens, declare himself a victim, and insist he doesn’t deserve anything that’s happening to him.

Although I would caution against laying on the self-pity too thick, you do want to let your character experience a progression of revelations, leading him to the ultimate choice of taking responsibility for his life in the Third Act.

Ultimately, all character arcs come down to this central Truth—we’re all responsible for our own lives—no matter what specific Lie your character is struggling with. As such, his ability to take responsibility for the consequences of his own actions needs to be an evolution.

FOR EXAMPLE:

In Jane Austen’s Emma, Emma Woodhouse comes to the Third Act revelation that her actions have been selfish and misguided—and have very likely cost her the love of the noble Mr. Knightley. This revelation is the central revelation of both the plot and her character arc. In its aftermath, she chooses to take responsibility for her actions, both proactively and retroactively.

Jane Austen’s Emma Woodhouse only gradually comes to realize how her choices have affected others—and herself—over the course of the story and her own personal evolution.

Themes of responsibility and consequences are inherent in all stories. The more adamantly you claim them and force your character to face them, the stronger your story will become. Even better, you’ll learn how to begin writing dynamic characters who electrify readers.

AN EXCERPT FROM : HELPINGWRITERSBECOMEAUTHORS