I’ll say it straight out, with no shame: some of my favorite characters are undeveloped.
A problem that’s going around is the use of the term “developed” as a synonym for “well-rounded” or “fleshed-out” or “realistic” when applied to a character. The term “character development,” when used properly, indicates that a character changes over the course of the story, for the better or for the worse. It’s part of the character’s story, not the author’s abilities to write a good character. So when people say a character is “well-developed,” they probably mean something else.
Why am I nitpicking? Because I think that, similarly, the term “static character” has negative connotations. “Static” does not mean “shallow,” “simple,” “stock,” or “boring.” A static character is merely a character who does not change over the course of the story. This lack of growth (or corruption, or redemption) can be part of the character’s appeal. A lack of change in the character can be compensated for by revealing aspects of the character’s personality as the story goes along, as if the audience is getting to know the character the way they would a person.
Take, for example, Bob Cratchett. Bob is a static character. There is very good reason for this—he is already a decent person, and is not the man in need of character development. He is an unfortunate and very sympathetic character. He doesn’t need to change because we still see him shift through many emotions. After Ebenezer Scrooge gets his character development, we are overjoyed to see Bob Cratchett getting what he is due (a raise, a merry Christmas, medical attention for his baby boy, etc.). We identify with him as a struggling, working-class father and husband. The fact that he doesn’t change is a good thing, because he is a character who is, in the beginning, in stark contrast with Scrooge and the yardstick (or meterstick, for the sensible metric-system-using peeps) against which we can measure Scrooge’s development.
We can learn from examples like the one above that static characters are necessary for most works of fiction. So complaining that a character “doesn’t change or learn anything” isn’t necessarily a valid complaint. Sometimes a character’s lack of ability to change can speak against them as a character (especially if the character is a villain), but it can also speak for them (if the character is able to resist corruption, although presumably if one is tempted and resists, they have grown stronger from it and are therefore dynamic).
I’m gonna take an example from an opera, because I can. In Don Giovanni, the title character is resolutely static, given multiple chances to repent and refusing every time. His valet, arguably, is the only dynamic character in the opera, growing from a gleeful accomplice to a horrified, repenting man who generally must be forced to obey. It’s a rare example of the protagonist being a static character, even if Don Giovanni is a villain as well as a protagonist, and his unwillingness to change is the entire point of the opera.
Other really good static characters:
-Faramir and Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings (the book, not the movie)
-Adrian Monk (for most of the series)
-Captain Jack Sparrow in the first movie only—the one that made him popular—after which he got some GORGEOUS character development
-A great deal of popular JRPG characters (such as Sigurd, Jessie, and arguably Citan from Xenogears, Ayla of Chrono Trigger, and half the cast of Final Fantasy VIII)
-Nearly EVERYONE in the Quest for Glory series except for Katrina
-Michelangelo from many incarnations of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (though he’s more dynamic in the comics and the 2003 animated series). Also Splinter.
In short, a static character is not necessarily a “flat” or “bad” character (though there’s a place for flat characters as well), just one who happens to come out of the story with the same traits they had going in.