Static characters can become household names

In writing a story, an author has a choice of many different types of characters: flat, round, stock, static, dynamic, and probably others I’m missing. It’s a good idea to choose what kind of a character your protagonist (and antagonist) are going to be before you start plotting your story, because the kind of character you choose will affect everything.

Sherlock Holmes, BBC(Benedict Cumberbatch)
Sherlock Holmes, BBC(Benedict Cumberbatch)

A static character doesn’t change at all during the course of a story. A static character stays the same from beginning to end. Some people hold that you can’t write an engaging story with a static character, and for a long time I agreed. I changed my mind when I got to know a fascinating gentleman named Sherlock Holmes.

No matter which incarnation you’re talking about, Sherlock Holmes is a static character. He doesn’t change. Ever. Why would he need to change? He’s always right. (He may have just the tiniest bit of Elitist in his personality profile too.)

He’s sharp. He’s witty. He’s antisocial. He is, quite honestly, a high-functioning sociopath, as the new BBC version claims, and he always has been, from A Study in Scarlet to His Last Vow. Whether you prefer Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, Robert Downey Jr., or Benedict Cumberbatch, Sherlock Holmes has “the mind of a scientist or a philosopher, yet he elects to be a detective.”

Cumberbatch, Downey, Brett, Rathbone
Cumberbatch, Downey, Brett, Rathbone

People read stories where the main character changes in some way throughout the course of the book, because that’s the engaging part of the story. But in the case of Sherlock Holmes, the interesting part is how he doesn’t change, even though the plot gives him every opportunity to do so. Sherlock Holmes wouldn’t be Sherlock Holmes if he acted like John Watson.

Indiana Jones, Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981 (Harrison Ford)
Indiana Jones, Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981 (Harrison Ford)
Rick O'Connell, The Mummy (Brendan Frasier)
Rick O’Connell, The Mummy (Brendan Frasier)


Other examples?

Oh, far too many. Indiana Jones is a static character too, if you think about it. And, honestly, so is Jack Bauer. John McLane. A lot of those action heroes are static. Yes, some of their aspects change, bits of their personalities might mellow, but at the core they remain the same character at the end of the story that they were at the beginning.

Not like Bilbo Baggins or Frodo Baggins from The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. Not like Rick O’Connell from the Mummy movies. Or Darth Vader. Or Harry Potter. Those are all dynamic characters—characters who change throughout the course of a story.

So what is the key to writing a great story with a static character?

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

For the best examples, let’s go back to the master: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. What did he do? How did he make a static, unchanging character like Sherlock Holmes into one of the most fascinating characters in literary history?

First of all, Sherlock Holmes has John Watson, who is equally as static. But where Sherlock Holmes is cold, calculating, distant, and sharp, John Watson is passionate, impulsive, warm, and kind. He’s a doctor, for crying out loud. Of course, he cares about people. There’s nothing Sherlock can do that will make John change his mind about who he is, and the interaction between them is both hilarious and touching. Really, the most intriguing part of the Sherlock Holmes stories is the relationship between these two unlikely best friends.

Sherlock and Watson, BBC (Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman)
Sherlock and Watson, BBC (Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman)

Secondly, the cases Holmes and Watson tackle are complex and constantly changing. When you know your character isn’t going to change, you need to compensate for readers’ attention span with a plot that doesn’t stop moving. If Sherlock is never challenged, if Sherlock never fails, if Sherlock never meets anyone who is better than he is, there’s no story. So Doyle fashioned unbelievable tales for Sherlock to debunk.

So Sherlock faces challenges to his intellect from Moriarty and his ilk, but he also faces challenges to his heart from John Watson. Yet, Sherlock never changes.

That’s how you make a static character a household name. You present him (or her) as a human being who has simply made a choice to be themselves no matter what life throws at them. And then, you’ve got to make sure that life throws a lot at them.

So have you got a static character? Awesome. Don’t listen to naysayers who tell you your character is boring. If he is boring, craft an intricate, fast-paced plot and/or create an equal but opposite supporting character. Both will serve to challenge your static main character and bring out the parts of him your readers will learn to love.

A.C. Williams

Amy Williams left a lucrative career in marketing to write novels about space cowboys, clumsy church secretaries, American samurai, and alternate dimensions. Along the way, she also discovered a passion for teaching other creative professionals how to use technology to make life easier. Through video instruction or one-on-one coaching, she teaches software, blogging, basic graphic design, and many other useful skills that help creative entrepreneurs get stuff done minus the frustration.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. I’d add that through the narrative it is, however, important for the static character to have some sort of semblance of an evolution. They don’t have to change in any meaningful way throughout the story, however. That’s a big part of why the BBC Sherlock has been so successful; there appears to be a sort of push-and-pull with the titular character and his humanity. We, the viewers, are told that Sherlock is a dynamic character (“Oh look, he’s being emotional with John”). Even in the Indy movies, the ones that work, were treated with some semblance of evolution (through Indy and Marion or Indy and his Father). If a character is static, it seems to me that it’s important to create some appearance of change; it, to me, seems like more than just throwing them through plot.

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