Spare Change?

Discussions of characterization tend to develop along what can appear to be either/or – almost binary – lines: Hero or villain? Protagonist or antagonist? Flat or round? Static or dynamic? Cardboard or realistic?


From “How to Write a Cardboard Character,” by Lynda R. Young

With the exception of cardboard, such options (taken individually, in and of themselves) are not necessarily mutually exclusive, good or bad, better or worse. A flat character can be well-enough developed to serve as an effective foil for another character. From the villain’s perspective, the hero is the bad guy. A protagonist whose source of conflict is Man versus Self is his own antagonist.

We end up writing crummy characterizations when these options are not appropriately employed. A character who is flat and static won’t be received well as either a hero or a villain, and is likely to be labeled as cardboard. Likewise, a rounded character who is static may be too boring to deserve top billing, and may be rejected as too unrealistic to be a secondary character, too. There had better be an awful lot of interesting changes going on around such a character.

A static antagonist can exist, in such conflicts as Man versus Fate and Man versus Nature, because the protagonist is likely to be dynamic in his struggle to overcome, even if the outcome is ultimately tragic. But a static protagonist beating himself against such monolithic obstacles qualifies for Einstein’s definition of insanity, and readers won’t put up with much of that, unless perhaps it’s an extremely well-written comedy.

So, it seems that the most important characterization is to be dynamic – in other words, that important characters must undergo some manner of change. In this respect, it might be assumed that if some is good, more is better, but it seems that changes in personality and/or motivation are sufficient.

Irish Firebrands was still in the works the first time I decided to check up on how much my four most important characters had changed. To do this, I used a Punnett Box (capital letters signify a changed state).


Is a large amount of change – a capital P plus a capital M – more heroic? Is the hero the one who undergoes the most change? Maybe … or maybe not. It probably depends on the story. I was surprised to find out which Irish Firebrands character had changed the most.

So, as far as readers are concerned, change is good, and in most stories, change is inevitable: By the time you’re only 50 pages into your book, the characters you started out writing about are already likely to have become slightly different people, and one or more may be almost unrecognizable by the end.

Thus, if you’re stuck in “writer’s block;” or your characters just seem to be engaging in one pointless circular argument after another; or your Alpha or Beta readers are coming back to you with complaints of boring, unrealistic or cardboard characters, then maybe you’ve been hoarding your “change.”



Filed under Fiction, Novels, Uncategorized

2 responses to “Spare Change?

  1. A good point! Will definitely be taking a deeper look at characters in the future. I’m not too bad writing villains, they tend to be quite alive in my writing. It’s the heroes that can be a bit cardboard 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! I think my problem is with the bad guys. I didn’t have a villain, per se, in the first novel. In the new book, I have to contend with several, and it’s revolting to write about them, so the temptation is to tar them all with the same brush, just to get it over with. I need to differentiate, showing how one is evil, one is mean, one is wicked, one is bad, and one is nasty. Ugh.


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