Q & A: “What is the difference between a ’round character’ and a ‘dynamic character’?”

Q: “What is the difference between a ’round character’ and a ‘dynamic character’?”

A: The terms “round character” and “flat character,” first coined by British novelist E.M. Forster in his lecture, Aspects of the Novel (1927), refer to characters with multiple, often contradictory personality traits and those with a single character trait. Forster points out that both types of characters are essential to any narrative, and I tend to agree with him — if all literature consisted of only round characters, then every novel would read like War and Peace. The main characters of narratives are generally round — Dickens’s Pip springs readily to mind — though this is by no means a prerequisite. Flat characters may have single personality traits, but they needn’t be uninteresting: take, for instance, Romeo and Juliet‘s Mercutio — a character remembered only for his bawdy commentary on life — who is entirely absorbing, but entirely flat in terms of characterization.

The terms “dynamic character” and “static character” apparently predate Forster, and they refer to altogether different types of personages. The former refers to characters who change in some way over the course of a narrative, while the latter refers to characters who remain the same. Shakespeare seems to have created the dynamic character, for as Harold Bloom notes in his introduction to his Major Literary Characters series:

Remarkable as the Bible and Homer are at representing personages, their characters are relatively unchanging. They age within their stories, but their habitual modes of being do not develop. Jacob and Achilles unfold before us, but without metamorphoses. Lear and Macbeth, Hamlet and Othello severely modify themselves not only by their actions, but by their utterances, and most of all through overhearing themselves, whether they speak to themselves or to others.

Think about the Christians’ Christ, for example, and you will be hard-pressed to argue that he changes in any way over the course of his narrative: he is a peacenik preacher as a child, and he is still a peacenik preacher even while being crucified. Telemachus, Odysseus’s son, ostensibly changes as a result of his father returning home — we hear people say often enough that it’s time for him to man up — but he’s still making careless mistakes, and he stills needs to be saved by his father at the end of the epic. Even Shakespeare’s august predecessors, Dante and Chaucer, could not conceive of characters who change throughout their stories: by the end of Paradiso, we get the sense that Dante is still hopelessly infatuated with Beatrice; and many of Chaucer’s personages — think the Wife of Bath — would scoff at any notion that they would even need to change. Thus, all of these characters remain static. With Shakespeare, however, we start to see characters who not only artfully present themselves, but who also “modify themselves,” to borrow Professor Bloom’s language. Think of Juliet, who becomes rapidly mature and cognitively potent, but then just as rapidly unravels into impulsiveness; think of Beatrice and Benedick, who learn to trust the opposite sex in order to find happiness in each other; and think of Prospero, who learns to let go of his vengeance and pardon his enemies. All of these characters are dynamic, for they look inward and outward en route to metamorphoses.

Note that there is a difference between round characters and dynamic characters and between flat characters and static characters. Most protagonists tend to be round and dynamic, though even the best pre-Shakespearean literature proves that protagonists can be round and static. I would like to see a writer convincingly portray a flat dynamic character, for in theory it can be done; how it can be done, however, is far beyond this English teacher’s realm of thought.

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