Bad Advice: Static Protagonists

Everyone knows that your characters need to go through arcs. They need to change, or grow, or learn a lesson, or discover something about themselves before the story’s over.

Don’t believe it. Plenty of great stories are led by static characters. Most writing guides will insist that every character you create needs to be dynamic and grow over time, but in fact this is a choice (like everything in writing), one you can forego under some circumstances.

There are many different kinds of characters–many varieties of protagonist–and some of them don’t benefit from deep, character driven stories.

Let’s look at a couple kind of characters that benefit from not being so three dimensional:

Aspirational characters don’t–and shouldn’t–develop over the course of a story. These are characters who are held up as paragons of a certain desirable quality. Kind, noble, smarter than the rest of us. Sherlock Holmes never changed, in the original stories. Modern attempts to recreate the character focus on giving him substance abuse problems or neurological impairments. They never improve on the original. Every time they try to make Superman more human, or flawed, the story falls apart. Why? Because Superman isn’t supposed to be human. He’s a symbol of something nobler and more pure, something we aspire to. He has weaknesses, sure, but no movie ends with him accepting that he is helpless before kryptonite, or understanding that he and Lois Lane are never going to be happy together and moving on.

Tragic characters, as well, lack arcs. They start out with a flaw and we watch as that flaw tears them apart. The only lesson they learn is that fate can’t be avoided. In fact the whole point of the story is to show that people can’t change, that they are locked into preordained paths. Think of Oedipus, bound by prophecy–his story is not improved by him learning to love himself. Jay Gatsby, who is defined by his attempts to redefine himself, ends up dead in a swimming pool, because he found that there was something in his heart he couldn’t reinvent.

Badass characters start as their best selves and end there, too. Action movie stars don’t have arcs. Oh, they may discover that they care about the orphan child being hunted by the cartel. But that soft spot in their hearts was always there–it’s never developed beyond one touching moment of recognition. I have a friend who despises the movie 300, because he feels Leonidas starts out as the ultimate warrior… and then simply lives up to his reputation. From the perspective of character-driven drama, sure, 300 is a failure… but does anyone really think it would be made better by giving Leonidas a lengthy subplot where he has to discover the Spartan within?

Static protagonists do not have self-realizations; they simply end the story better informed than they were before. They don’t grow and mature, because we are told from the beginning they’re already at their wisest and best. They may not stop at every station on the Hero’s Journey, but sometimes we don’t need them to.

It’s up to you to decide how much your character needs to develop in the course of your plot. In fact, you will often have to choose between having a more complicated external plot and telling the story of a character’s more human side.

It’s not my position here to suggest that character-driven stories are bad in any way. Simply that they are not the only way of telling a story. Of course, you can have a story about a superhero who fails, and has to learn to live with the fact they aren’t the hero they thought they were. You can have a story about a tragic character who rises above their suffering, and accomplishes something noble even as they watch their doom approach. Sure! Those can be great stories, too! The point I’m trying to make is that arcs, like everything in writing, are choices and you don’t always need them. You can write a book that’s one long character sketch or a series of farcical events with no real plot. Some of the great works of literature don’t go anywhere. There are lots of really terrible books with exquisitely engineered character arcs. As always, it’s up to the writer to choose which rules they want to follow, and which they want to ignore for the sake of the story.