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Monday, August 16, 2021

Flat Characters vs. Round Characters (Definitions, Differences, Purposes, and Examples)

Lately, I've been talking a lot about flat-arc (also known as "steadfast") characters, but these are not to be confused with flat characters. A flat character is a simple, two-dimensional character. In contrast, a round character is a complex, three-dimensional character. 

"Flat" and "round" are not technically, strictly tied to character arc--though there are some common combinations. For example, a flat character is more likely to be a flat-arc character. Today, let's define each character type in depth and explain how and when to use which. At the end, I'll relate it to character arcs. 

Flat Characters

Flat characters are straightforward and uncomplicated. What you see is what you get. A flat character may have only a couple of traits or character tags within the story, which makes them appear simple and two-dimensional. They are often rather predictable.

In Harry Potter, Crabbe and Goyle are flat characters. The audience gets an impression of them as soon as they are introduced, and they never really learn more about them. Crabbe and Goyle are unintelligent, but strong, and follow Malfoy's bidding. Through the series, neither ever really stray from that. What we thought of them initially, is pretty much the same as what we think of them at the end.

Likewise, in The Office, Kevin is a flat character. Viewers get an impression of him that never really changes. We don't get some heartfelt, tragic backstory to explain his motivations, and we don't ever see him do something totally contradictory to our early impressions of him. He's perhaps the simplest, most straightforward character in the series. 

Flat characters aren't "bad characters." Pretty much every story needs flat characters. It's not necessarily a matter of "poor character development."

When to Use Flat Characters

Flat characters fit best in minor roles, and can be great at fulfilling a simple function in a story. Crabbe and Goyle are Malfoy's muscle, which makes Malfoy more intimidating and threatening. That's it. Flat characters are often "stock characters." Their characterization may be summed up with their simple role. In Back to the Future, Biff is pretty much summed up by his role as a "bully." There isn't much depth to him. One scene, and the audience pretty much knows who he is. Flat characters can be great when you need to make a quick impression and move the plot forward--they allow the audience to instantly fill in the blanks and keep reading (or watching). 

Not every character that appears in a story needs to be deep and complex. In fact, trying to make every character deep and complex is often a disaster. Imagine the protagonist takes a taxi to a hotel--if we make the taxi driver a round character, it will usually be problematic; she's probably not important enough to be round, and making her round draws attention away from more important things. If we make her a round character, the audience will probably expect her to play a more important role than simply dropping the protagonist off at The Hilton. The less important the character, the more likely he or she should be flat. If he or she is round, then he or she may "steal the show."

However, this is not to say that flat characters can never take on critical roles. In most parables and fables, the characters are flat. This keeps the focus on the plot and moral of the story. Even in longer stories, you may have key characters who are flat, particularly if the story is very plot-driven. Flat characters will keep the focus on the plot, because they, themselves, don't require much attention. Flat characters are also often used in humor. The fact that Kevin in The Office is so flat, is part of what makes him so funny.

Often writers who are writing in "unrealities" or exaggerated realities use flat characters to create such an effect. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, each child is a flat character that highlights a different problematic trait: one is spoiled, another gluttonous, another violent and desensitized, and another too competitive. In Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, nearly all the characters are flat and repeatedly tagged with a few traits--Olaf has a unibrow and shiny eyes,  one of his henchmen has two hooks for hands, Violet always puts her hair in a ribbon when she invents, and Poe is constantly coughing. 

However, if the wrong characters are unintentionally flat, that can be a sign of poor character development. For example, a story that focuses largely on the internal journey needs a round protagonist. Otherwise, it's basically impossible to follow an internal journey. So if the protagonist is flat, it's likely from poor character development. If you aren't writing a parable, fable, comedy, plot-driven, or "unreality" story, and all the key characters are flat, it's probably because the characters aren't properly developed. 

In most stories, the key characters will be round and the minor characters will be flat. If you think about it, this actually mimics real life. To me, I am the protagonist of my own story. Those nearest to me and who have the most impact on me appear round to me, while people who play minor roles, like say the dog groomer, appear flat to me. It's not that the dog groomer is a flat person, it's just that in my story, I don't know her very well. Only a few key traits about her stand out. So of course, no person is actually flat, but within a given story, they appear flat. That's usually the effect we are going for. 

In The Office, the major characters--like Jim, Pam, Michael, and Dwight--are round, while the minor characters are flat--like Kevin, Toby, Phyllis, and Meredith.

Round Characters

Round characters are layered and complex. They are more than what meets the eye. They may struggle with conflicting belief systems or embody a seeming contradiction. They can have complex motivations and are nuanced. All these things make them three-dimensional. They are often less predictable.

In Harry Potter, Hermione is a round character. She usually voices and professes the rules, but in certain situations, she breaks them. Beyond her know-it-all persona, she feels somewhat insecure for being muggleborn--which is what motivates her to try to make up for her ignorance by being a know-it-all. 

In The Office, Michael is a round character. In one of his famous lines, he professes he doesn't need to be liked. But follows up right after by saying he needs to be praised. So he yearns to be liked, loved, and validated, but is often blind or in denial about that yearning. He pretends not to need it. 

If your character has an internal conflict, then she's probably a round character. 

If your character is haunted by a "ghost" or "wound" in his backstory, then he's probably a round character. 

How to Make a Character Round

What makes a character round and complex is dichotomy. It's boundaries. It's layers of identity. I talk about this in my free booklet "Core Principles of Crafting Protagonists." But I'll review briefly.

Complex characters are most easily created when we smash together seeming contradictions. 

- An outlaw who is law-abiding

- A soldier who refuses to hurt anyone

- A vampire who doesn’t like drinking blood

. . . for example. 

Once you’ve smashed together contrasting features within the character, the gray area can be explored to find complexity. Why would an outlaw be law-abiding? How can someone be a vampire and not like blood? (These are more obvious examples, but they prove the point.)

Complexity can also be created by considering the character's personal boundaries--what it takes for him to consider doing something he wouldn't ordinarily do. We all have thresholds when it comes to our values. For example, I may have a character who proclaims that he never lies. But when the pressure gets high, I may show him lying to save the life of a loved one. This will reveal that he cares more about his loved one's life than about always being honest. In other words, he's not as simple as he first appeared. This is essentially what happens with Hermione. She is a rule-stickler . . . except when people are in danger. She ultimately values people more than rules. She even values knowledge and education more than rules. 

Finally, a character can be made complex by differentiating layers of identity. Identity gets down to how someone is defined, and no one is defined the same way from all angles. For example, who the character thinks he is, and who he actually is, will likely be different in some way. Who he believes he is and who society believes he is may be, in fact, opposite concepts. In The Office, Michael often wavers in identity--wanting to be a close friend in one situation, but a respected boss in another. His employees see him as a boss, but he tries to wedge himself into their lives as if he were a family member. He often views himself as a funny, generous, liked employer, but his employees often view him as childish and annoying. 

Round characters are less predictable than flat characters. However, this is not to say we should have round characters randomly start acting out of character. When it comes to great round characters, we generally aren't completely blindsided by their actions--we just aren't totally sure which action they will take. Will Hermione stick to the rules this time? Or does she feel justified to break them? We aren't always sure exactly where her boundaries are. When pitted between needing to be a boss and wanting to be a friend, we aren't always sure in a given situation, which approach Michael will take (though he does usually prefer to be a friend). 

Flat Characters Who Become Round Characters

In most stories, key characters will seem flat when we first meet them, but are made round as the story progresses. Hermione seems like an insufferable know-it-all and a rule-stickler at first, but as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone plays out, we see new sides to her--she's not as much of a rule-stickler as we thought. 

In such cases, the character is still ultimately considered round. 

However in longer works, like say a series, a character who was very much a flat character in the first installments, may be turned into a round character later.

As I mentioned above, this mimics real life. To me, my dog groomer appears to be a flat character, but perhaps next year, we start becoming close friends. As I get to know her, she will appear round. 

In Harry Potter, Malfoy appears rather flat in the first installment, but by the sixth book, Harry is seeing Malfoy cry. The same thing happens with Dumbledore. He seems mostly flat at first, but he's much rounder by the end, as Harry gets to know him better. 

In The Office, characters who start out rather flat--like Angela and Oscar--become rounded as the story develops. Angela has a secret love life with Dwight, and Oscar turns out to be in the closet. Stanley seems almost always flat, but on a few occasions, we are allowed to see deeper. In fact, the reason he appears so flat, is why it's so impactful when he loses his temper with Michael. We are allowed a rare glimpse of what's underneath. 

In a long series, like The Office, often flat characters will become focal characters for a particular episode, which leads to them being rounded out. 

Flat Characters vs. Round Characters . . . It's Really More of a Spectrum

Like most writing things, this is really more of a spectrum than an either-or situation. Harry Potter is rounder than Hermione. And Crabbe and Goyle are flatter than Malfoy. 

In The Office, Kevin is flatter than Creed is, and Creed is flatter than Meredith is, and Meredith is flatter than Oscar is. Jim is rounder than Dwight. Dwight is rounder than Erin. 

Usually the less focal, the flatter. Usually the more focal, the rounder. But not always. 

Within Character Arcs

Flat characters are more likely to be flat-arc characters. This is because a change arc often requires the character to be rounded out. It's pretty difficult to have a flat character complete a change arc--but I wouldn't say it is impossible. There is a type of character called the "everyman"--this is typically a stock character that is a stand in for the audience. The everyman is rather flat, because it's intended the audience members use themselves to fill in the blanks. Technically an everyman may fulfill a change arc (though some may argue that makes him less of an everyman).

While flat characters are more likely to be flat-arc characters, this doesn't necessarily mean that all flat-arc characters are flat characters. A character can remain steadfast and have plenty of depth and complexity. For example, in Harry Potter, Dumbledore is a round character who has a (primarily) flat arc.

But if this makes your head spin, I wouldn't worry about it too much. And remember, too, that it's really more of a spectrum. Because "flat" and "round" aren't necessarily related to character arcs, there's no need to give yourself a headache over it. 

More Resources:

"Round vs. Flat Characters in Fiction" by Masterclass

"What is a Round Character" by Reedsy


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