I love nothing better than a good character-driven story, but I haven’t always been the best at writing them. The first novel I ever penned, I wrote a heroine so perfect, she was entirely unrelatable. Thankfully, I had an early reader who was kind enough to tell me so. After all, nobody likes perfection. Not only is it unrealistic, but the worse sin for a story is that it’s boring. So, much as I loved her, I chucked her and started from scratch.
That’s when I began to discover, with the help of my incredible editor, how to write dynamic characters.
When it comes to introducing characters to readers, my editor gave me this piece of advice, so beautiful in its simplicity, I never could forget it. Imagine you’re sitting down for coffee with a new acquaintance. You don’t take a deep dive into the traumatic back story right from the jump. It’s almost certainly a torpedo move because it looks like you’re trying too hard to be liked and, let’s face it, maybe you are. Instead, you keep it inconsequential. Soon enough it might be evident why it’s important you’ve met. This brings me to my first point about dynamic characters.
1. They Are Catalysts
I can think of no time in my life when I’ve met someone who I was drawn to for being unremarkable or passive. In so many ways, it’s the same with characters. If you meet them and soon after they are standing up, taking charge, leaning head-long into that critical inciting incident that sets the story in motion—like Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games when she volunteers to take her sister’s place in a life-threatening contest—well, then you’re more likely to evoke and then sustain a reader’s interest.
Dynamic characters drive the story. They have agency whenever and however they can. This is a particular challenge for me, as I write women in historical fiction. Too often they find themselves in positions where they have little responsibility for their lives. Still, there are many ways to create opportunities to act. While drawing up character backstories, there are two questions I always ask myself first that do more than anything to generate those opportunities to act: What does she WANT more than anything? What does she FEAR more than anything? Wants and fears are golden drivers. If you know those, you can build tension, which drives stories and readers.
Once I ask those questions, I move onto my next, which are: Who is she? And, Who does she believe herself to be? These can be distinct and are another important way for me to introduce tension. An opportunity, too, to create those characters who are so familiar. These bring me to my next two points about dynamic characters.
2. They Have Rich Histories
I LOVE to write backstories. Sometimes they are so intricate, there are backstories for my main characters’ parents who themselves could have a prequel. Or backstories for bit characters who end up turning into bigger characters. When I first started writing, I poured it all out onto the page, eager to prove my work, and another early reader said with a chuckle, “You’ve told me absolutely everything, and now there’s no reason to turn the page.” I still laugh when I think of it!
Still, backstories are important, even if no one but you sees them if, for only one reason, you establish your character’s WOUND. This is another golden driver because wounds introduce reasons for actions that may only make sense in the fullness of the story. As you slow your pace and drop your crumbs, it’s here that you add depth.
3. They Have Realistic Flaws
Dynamic characters have interesting flaws. In particular, ones that may inadvertently disrupt what your character desires. For instance, my character in an upcoming novel needs to keep some vital secrets to save her life. But one of her primary flaws is that she cannot seem to hold her tongue. I love this flaw, one because it’s so familiar to me—I have no filter—and two, it makes for interesting moments of tension.
Also—and this gets back to who a character believes herself to be—if your character must ultimately confront her idea of herself and a reality, which is different, it brings more interest. Because as I learned early on, the best characters are far from perfect. This brings me to my next point about dynamic characters.
4. They Make Questionable Choices
I’m not going to lie to you, this is a difficult needle to thread, especially for beginning writers. Of course, we want our readers to like our characters. But dynamic characters are real, even if you’re writing fantasy, even if you’re writing a character so far removed from modern-day, they and their world might seem fantastical. Real people make questionable choices, and so do the best characters.
The good news is if you’ve done your job, if you’ve introduced them in a compelling way and made them primary agents in their own lives, if you’ve woven an interesting history, given them a wound, and given them relatable flaws, by the time they make questionable choices, hopefully, your reader is already invested. And if they’re eager passengers on the journey, hopefully, they can understand, even forgive. Which brings me to my final point about dynamic characters.
5. They Take Responsibility
If you’ve introduced a character who has agency, history, flaws, and bad choices, then a final important part in writing a character is responsibility.
Dynamic characters progress through their arcs through revelation and growth. They must confront those flaws and bad choices and take responsibility for their actions. This, of course, brings more opportunities for interesting storytelling. Sometimes your characters are the victims of good intentions in bad situations. Other times, they may be more villain than a victim. But confronting consequences and taking responsibility brings shades of gray to your characters that make them more three dimensional, and, ultimately, provide a satisfying way to end a character arc.
I don’t always get it right on all of these points. Some characters, some stories are better than others. But this is what’s swimming around in my head as I’m writing. How do you write dynamic characters? I’d love to hear what works for you!
About The Author
Catherine C. Heywood is an Amazon bestselling author of romantic historical fiction novellas, and a former political communications consultant and speech writer.
Raised in Red Wing, Minnesota, she studied international politics at the University of Edinburgh and has degrees in politics, writing, and communications from the University of St. Thomas and Boston College.
She explored the law and improv before settling on storytelling. Her worst job was scraping year-old tobacco spit off a shoe factory wall. Her best is doing this.
She lives in Western Wisconsin with her husband and sons, and her interests include architecture and design, fashion and food.