Dynamic characters. Character arcs. Internal conflict. Coming-of-age stories. Epiphanies. What do all these storytelling building-blocks have in common? They all require or assume internal character change. That revolution might take many forms: skills increased, philosophies changed, or neuroses overcome.
We hear the message that change is necessary for interesting characters shouted from rooftops: “Don’t write flat characters!” The last stage of the vaunted hero’s journey implies reflection on a changed worldview. Such reflection requires dynamic characters.
Is change always, in all cases, a requirement for interesting characters? Is it necessary for an entertaining book? We’ll look at that more deeply with an over-analysis of Dirk Crier in Crier’s Knife.
At this point, I usually include a spoiler warning on these reflection articles, but I can honestly say that after reviewing the final product, nothing substantial will be spoiled by reading on. If discussing trends in literature is your thing, you may enjoy our series Twists on Tropes.
First, some terms: an archetype is an iconic and familiar character motif that recurs in stories the world over. For a character to be fundamentally archetypal, they must remain true to their defining principles and characteristics from first to last.
In the first chapter of Crier’s Knife, our protagonist Dirk is a hardened, serious warrior with a goal-oriented outlook and an eye for detail. It is these skills that make him uniquely equipped to recover his missing kin with no clues and increasingly dangerous roadblocks. In the end, Dirk is the same person we met on page 1 throughout his adventure. He must be. His challenges would overwhelm him were he anything less.
Is this steadfastness necessarily a detriment to the novel? I argue that it is not. I never once found myself wishing the heart-pounding sword-and-sorcery action would stop for a minute so Dirk could examine the ways his childhood shaped his personality. Every story has a heartbeat. Crier’s Knife‘s, pulse is twofold: action and mystery. We turn the pages to see Dirk survive the next harrowing attack, and learn the increasingly horrible truth about the missing Teller’s fate.
Those twin pistons of action and mystery are, I think, no coincidence. Nowhere are archetypal heroes more common than in action and mystery tales, particularly serialized franchises.
I struggled to limit myself to just four iconic mystery/action/both characters for the collage above. You’re probably sitting there right now, reader, wondering why I skipped your favorite hero. Clearly, these types of characters can be incredibly engaging and popular. What keeps us coming back to their stories even when, if we stop to think about it, these are generally flat, unchanging characters?
Engaging stories entice readers to turn the page. These reasons fall into two buckets: conflict and questions. Questions are intuitive. What should the reader want to know by the end of your book? Have you posed those questions in a way that demands answers? Put another way, what would you be angry if left unanswered if you read your own book? Conflict is more complicated, but is even more essential. Without conflict, a “story” is nothing more than a series of events. What does your protagonist want? What prevents them from getting it? Why is their goal so important that they cannot turn back? The answer to these questions is your conflict.
All of that to say – Crier’s Knife is an excellent example of a plot-driven novel. Although unchanging, Dirk is sufficiently well-rounded to feel like an engaging, living character. The narrative leans into its strengths – a multi-layered mystery and a steady dose of action – and emerges a stronger tale for it.
Indulge me for a paragraph: I am reminded of the words of virtually every San Antonio Spurs player from 1999 – 2019. To summarize, the Spurs are an American NBA team with an record-tying run of 22 straight years making the playoffs, including 4 years after hall-of-famer Tim Duncan retired. Repeatedly, players discarded by other teams blossomed in San Antonio. To a man, they attributed this change to one difference: rather than trying to force their players into a particular mold like other franchises, San Antonio asked what players did well, and had them lean into that strength to find their role on the team. You can’t argue with the results.
What about your current project? Is there some element to it that you believe falls flat? Be encouraged – it may not be as flat as you think. What are its strengths? How might you lean into those strengths to make your novel the best example of what it is that it can possibly be?
One dude with a blog to a faceless internet audience, maybe you think I’m full of it. Let me know in the comments. Thank you for reading, and, if it applies to you, happy writing.
Get Mornings with Murray in your inbox whenever there’s a new post.