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So I decide to go on more about writing characters and how to develop them and make great characters.

We have the characters that change: the characters that have character arcs, backstory, development. They are often seen in stories and are highly regarded as good.

But then there are static characters. And I wonder, what are the use of static characters? Why would a character stay static? I don't think having a static character is automatically bad, but I'm asking if there's a reason for a character to stay static and why it's better to keep that character static.

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    I think it's mostly that it's impractical (and boring) to develop every recurring minor character.
    – towr
    May 16 at 8:01
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    There are several "tiers" of characters - protagonists/main characters, supporting characters, minor characters/bit players. Is your question about static protagonists (because as others have mentioned we can't have story arcs for all minor characters)?
    – Alexander
    May 16 at 18:16

3 Answers 3

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In most cases, changing only the main character will suffice, if not even make the story better.

The reason for this is that you need the other characters to provide a context for your main character as opposition and help.

If your main character follows a positive change arc (goes from believing in a lie to believing in a truth) you need one set of characters that believe in the lie and will pull the main character back and another set that believes in the truth and will push them forward.

If any of these characters also change, the antagonistic and protagonistic forces will lose definition and power and this, in turn, could make the whole story lose focus and become weaker.

It works the same way for main characters that follow negative arcs.

However, this is turned on its head in the case of a character following a testing/flat arc. The main character does not change, but everyone around them does, and the other characters could follow both positive and negative arcs, but the main character believes in a truth and the essence of the story is that they will continue to do so to the very end. Even if it's a bad one...

It is possible to have other characters change, for instance as a mirror to the main character and to highlight your theme, message, and truth-lie-conflict more, but it complicates the story.

Having antagonists following negative arcs could work, but in most cases, it will detract from the power of the story when the antagonist is defeated not because the hero defeated them but because they imploded by themselves. It can be done but is hard to do.

You can also do mini-change-arcs. In "Bridge of Spies" there's one character that goes through a kind of change. A woman on a bus. In the beginning, she's scowling at the main character and in the end, she's smiling. We get that there's been a change, but no more. If I remember correctly, the main character in "Bridge of Spies" follows a flat arc and the woman represents society's changing view of him.

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Yes, there is a purpose to "static" characters; in plays and movies we call them walk-ons or extras.

Static characters are not statues; they are just people that, for the story, do not change. They are who they are, from first appearance to last.

In many cases a static character provides some conflict or humor. The cabdriver that can't stop talking about what species of butterflies he has photographed and where. Or the customs clerk that won't let you into a country.

Other times, they are just there for realism; if you are going to a modern airport, you don't just jump on a plane, it takes an hour and navigating a crowd the size of a small village. Standing in lines. You will probably have to converse with some of these people. If a character visits a doctor, the entire staff is likely static, doing their job for the day.

So they are not only static, but one-dimensional; barely an outline of a person revealing nothing of their inner life or any hint of why they are where they are at this point in their life -- she's just a doctor, 45, fit, in a white coat.

Depending on your story, parents, siblings,teachers, coworkers and other recurring characters can be static, they are who they are, you just need them there for the realism.

And finally, there is practicality: There is limited space in a book, film or play, even limited scope in a TV series. There just isn't enough room to give all characters a story arc, growth or decline. There is even limited space in the audience; give them too many story arcs to keep track of and they cannot; the story becomes jumbled and confusing, they lose track of who's who and stop caring.

Stories are about journeys of change, for one person or in the relationships of a small group. Family, coworkers, business partners, etc. Even in popular TV series, we seldom expand that "group of change" beyond about a dozen. There, we have the time (literally speaking) to accommodate this; a good TV series can have the collective viewing time of over a dozen feature-length films and thus that many more character story arcs.

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    I believe there are many static protagonists in TV shows. You would not want to change f.e. Al Bundy or Micky mouse over the course of multiple episodes, because that would destroy their character. So ultimately this would affekt even characters like Goku, who get new attack moves and maybe a new outfit, but at the end of the day they are just Goku who casts Ka-Me-Ha-Me-Ha
    – clockw0rk
    May 16 at 17:04
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    @clockw0rk: See also Ms. Frizzle from The Magic School Bus. The story is not about her growing and changing, it's about the students (and the audience) learning from the experience.
    – Kevin
    May 17 at 0:51
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    @Kevin Sure. Like Mary Poppins; even though she is the Title Characters she doesn't change, she is a benevolent force of nature, and everybody around her changes.
    – Amadeus
    May 17 at 11:31
  • So, Gus is a main character, while Lyle is a static one? :p
    – CGCampbell
    May 17 at 14:54
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Role-Playing Games

In Role-Playing Game (RPG) storytelling, both tabletop and electronic, there exists a critical distinction between Player Characters (PC's) and Non-Player Characters (NPC's).

The PC's are the characters who drive the story. The story exists to tell the story of these characters. The NPC's define and flesh out the world in which the PC's exist. They may represent background influences, support structures, motivators, or obstacles to overcome by the PC's. The PC's change as a result of their interaction with NPC's and the wider world, and the NPC's typically stay the same or change very little.

As a practical example, consider a stereotypical RPG scenario. A guard (NPC) is guarding a castle that the PC's need to breach. Will the PC's challenge him in open combat? Will they attempt to sneak up and assassinate him? Will they try a bribe? Will they use psychological techniques to charm or intimidate him? Will they forge identification documents that are likely to fool him enough to let them in? Will they try to build a glider to fly over him? The choice builds the development of the PC's and where they are going as characters (e.g. down the path of handling everything with violence, learning social engineering, or becoming aviation engineers). After the encounter, the NPC no longer matters. If he is dead, it will never be mentioned who (if anyone) arrives to pick up his body. If he is alive, nobody will bother to tell the story of what happens to him when he gets home from work, because he no longer matters. He is a static character.

Note above that a "static" NPC character can change, for example by being killed, transformed into a newt, or being sent to supermax lockdown for the rest of his life. The critical difference is that this change doesn't matter. The story might mention it and then promptly never mention it again.

These principles apply to your story too. Tell the story of your main characters, and use static characters to explain the what, why, and how of that story.

Let's apply this logic to Star Wars. When major characters die, they almost always die in a dramatic manner and leave major issues behind for the surviving characters to deal with. When background soldiers get shot or background pilots crash, that's it. They exist in the story in order to fire a few shots and then get killed. They are also there because a war being fought by literally only five people is silly and unrealistic.

Now, consider Captain Antilles in the first act of the original Star Wars film. He is a background character. He exists solely for Vader to have someone to interrogate and kill to show his ruthlessness. The main characters in this act are the droids, Vader, and the princess. Everyone else is a background character. Even when one of the prequels shows a small amount of Antilles's back-story, we learn essentially nothing about him, because he is just a vehicle to deliver the droids to the next part of their story.

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