Critical Concepts

Classifying plots in terms of characterization


Note:  If you are going to print this off in one of the KSU public computer labs, you will first need to go into the File menu at the top of your browser, choose Page Setup and click on Black Type, to ensure that colored fonts in this document print out.

If we reflect on the distinction between "static" and "dynamic" characterization, it becomes clear that we have to do with two distinct sorts of plot. 

In one, the protagonist undergoes a radical change in his or her self-identification.  In the jargon of literary criticism, this is called dynamic characterization

Whether this change is a good thing, however, is another matter:  this depends on whether the we judge it to represent a "fall" or an "achievement" -- whether it causes the protagonist to be diminished or enhanced, as a person, given the issues that the story puts forward as relevant for deciding these matters.

In the other general form of plot, the reader is coaxed to imagine that the protagonist might change (for good or ill), but eventually it turns out that it does not:  the character ends up not budging, we might say, from being essentially the same kind of person he or she was at the outset.  The lit-crit term for this is static characterization

This second kind of plot also can in turn represent either moral triumph or disappointment, depending on whether we judge the change-that-doesn't-happen to represent a "fall" or "progress":  if the former, refusal to change means "retaining one's integrity"; in the latter, it means "failure of insight," or some other form of not rising to the occasion. 

If we sort these categories out, we end up with four distinct possible situations.

remains constant
("static character").
Character undergoes
important change
("dynamic character").
The change in question qualifies as
a good thing, approvable.

The test is failed:

the character is "stagnant" "hung-up," "prisoner of illusion," etc.


the character rises to insight, achieves requisite courage.

The change in question qualifies as
a bad thing, regrettable.

Trial or temptation withstood:

the character retains clarity or integrity.


the character falls into illusion, descends into delusion, or loses integrity.

A useful agenda of curiosity with any story is to ask whether whether it is built around one of these general forms of plot.  But answering "yes" or "no" will not be the end of the inquiry, unless we are just being pedantic.  What we are interested in using this to bring into focus is the complex of issues around which the change we are to imagine as called-for or to-be-resisted, and the complex of issues in terms of which we are invited to explain why the character fails or meets the test, or changes in some endorsable or regrettable way.

That is:  making ourselves aware of what decisions the writer has made in chosing to structure the narrative around this or that general form of plot is a way of getting ourselves to appreciate how the author is putting on the table the issues he or she cares enough about to be moved to write the story in the first place.

Not every story worth reading will be thematically engaged in these ways.  But with those that are, determining which of these plots the author has chosen is a high road into the story's thematic realm.

At the same time, we should be open to the possibility that a given story might exploit these possibilities in complex and ironic ways.  For instance, there may be more than one relevant framework of evaluation in play.  From one perspective, a character may fall into delusion.  But from another, this may be the only possible way, under the circumstances, for that character to maintain his or her integrity (of some important sort).

And in the case of the "test failed" and "fall" plots in particular we still need to engage the issue of responsibility.  That is:  when we examine what the story invites us to notice about the circumstances in which the character's failings are legitimately to be laid wholly (or at all) to the person himself or herself.  This will require us to ask whether, given the full situation as the story asks us to imagine it, the character in question could be expected to do otherwise.  To oversimplify:  some stories may be designed to get us to imagine how a person might have met a test or achieved a transition that he did not; others may be more interested in persuading us that the kind of situation in which the person found himself is one that we should do our part in bringing to an end; still others may be designed to get us to reconcile ourselves to develop some kind of outlook that reconciles us to injustice or tragedy that we are supposed to regard as unavoidable.

In all of this, of course, we want to keep in mind that we are at liberty to reject the view of things that we detect a story to be inviting us to adopt, or at least consider.  But this we cannot do unless we are interested in discovering what in fact that is, and equipped to arrive at this discovery.  And for this, trying to see what sort of plot the story confronts us with is a highly useful starting point.