When you read a novel or story, the best characters feel so real that it’s as if you know them in real life. That’s the power of creating characters with depth and dimension.
However, even the less-developed characters have a role to play in a story. They can serve supporting roles and help to advance the story without not taking attention from the main characters.
Differences Between Flat vs. Round Characters
A round character refers to one that is developed in depth. They typically have clear quirks and motivations, and they’re the ones that get into conflict with one another. Because these characters are more three-dimensional than others, it makes them more believable.
In contrast, a flat character is one that is not as fully developed. This usually refers to characters that only have a quick or fleeting role, or even someone who is there all throughout the book, but does not serve any role that seriously affects the plot or the main character.
How to Make Round Characters
The main characters almost always need to be round in order for readers to relate to them. Some ways of ensuring you have round characters are:
1. Give them strong motivations.
A character’s motivation for wanting or doing something is often more important than the act itself. Readers want to know why the character would act that way, and these internal dialogues are what help readers relate to them.
2. Develop a detailed backstory for them.
A character’s backstory is part of what gives them depth. This means that you can make a character “round”-er by giving your reader a look into their past experiences. On the other hand, characters that you choose to leave “flat” don’t get that privilege. Work on developing your character’s past by completing a character profile.
3. Consider the gray areas.
Another way of examining how “round” a character is is by checking how many facets they have in their personality. Remember that in real life, a person may have different inclinations toward good or bad choices. No one is totally good or totally evil.
In the first Star Wars movie, the good guys were portrayed wearing white, having blond hair and blue eyes, while the bad guys were dressed in black. The good guys were always predictably good, dependable, and making good choices. The bad guys were also always predictably evil.
Although that’s not in any way a smear on the quality of the movie or the storyline, this does make for some pretty flat characters.
Are Flat Characters Even Necessary?
Now, it may be easy to think that flat characters should have no place in your writing. After all, isn’t our first goal in writing to create believable characters that readers would miss like a real friend once they’re done reading?
In reality, flat characters can serve important roles in your story. Of course, if all characters are left flat, that may be an indication of poor writing. But when intentionally done, here are some of their key purposes:
Flat characters can help plot-heavy narratives.
When a story is intentionally plot-driven, having characters that are not developed as intensively allows the reader to focus on the events unfolding in the story.
An example would be in science fiction stories: readers need to pay attention when the plot details are complicated, so making the characters also complicated may not be the best choice.
They can serve as a contrast to round characters.
In writing, characters that are used to contrast other characters are called foil characters. They strengthen the readers’ opinions of the opposing characters. So when a flat character interacts with a round character, the reader will see the depth of the round character more clearly.
Flat characters help drive morals home more clearly.
In stories whose main goal is to give a moral lesson, such as fables and fairy tales, the characters don’t need to be developed as fully. Instead, the story focuses on the lesson.
They can provide comic relief.
If you want to inject humor into your story, making a flat character the brunt of the jokes is a good option. This is especially true when you want a quick comedic detour, but without a deep backstory to distract your readers.
Examples of Round Characters in Literature
The following characters are remembered by readers for their complex, often complicated personas that challenge our perceptions.
Example #1. Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind
An example of a very well-developed character is the headstrong Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind. From the very start, she’s a spoiled teenager who is used to getting what she wants. She’s not the most likable at this stage.
However, throughout the novel, we see her motivations and her priorities evolve. We see how she gravitates between wanting to be the good lady her mother brought her up to be and who she really wants to be. This makes her relatable, interesting, and more sympathetic.
Example #2. Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock Holmes
In his mystery novels, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle successfully writes detective Sherlock Holmes in a way that makes him feel like a real person.
Even from the first scene where Dr. Watson meets him, Sherlock already has his quirks of making quick deductions, setting a strong stage for his work as an investigator.
Example #3. Hank Morgan in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
As the main character and the narrator in this humorous time travel novel, Hank Morgan is developed in a very deep way because we see his actions and hear his thoughts, motivations, and fears as he tells the story.
Examples of Flat Characters in Literature
These characters are not very developed, but nonetheless help the story progress and highlight stronger qualities in the round characters.
Example #1. Nelly Oleson in On the Banks of Plum Creek
In this book in the Little House series, Laura and Mary encounter Nelly Oleson, a girl who sticks her nose up at them because they’re “country girls.”
Example #2. Diana Barry in Anne of Green Gables
As Anne Shirley’s best friend, Diana Barry pales in comparison to the detailed character development of the protagonist of the series. But it makes perfect sense, as her flatness highlights Anne’s vibrancy and highly complicated emotional and mental processes.
Example #3. Clover in What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge
In the first book of the series, Susan Coolidge effectively creates Katy’s character, but leaves her siblings relatively flat. Although she develops them more fully in later books, their “flatness” in the first book helps Katy shine forth and endear readers to her.
Flat and Round vs Dynamic and Static Characters
To clarify, whether a character is flat or round is not related two other common descriptions of characters, which are dynamic and static.
A dynamic character refers to a character that undergoes significant change throughout the novel or story, while a static character is one that remains the same from the beginning to the end of the story.
This means that a round character, or someone who is well-developed in a book, can be either dynamic (changed) or static (unchanged). A flat character, or someone serving a more fleeting role, may also be either changed or unchanged.
Writing Flat vs Round Characters
When you start to write your story or novel, decide which characters need to be developed in depth, and which ones can flitter by relatively flat. This way, you can focus your attention on your round characters and not worry too much about those you have decided to keep one-dimensional.
Knowing how to decide which characters to develop and which to leave simple may take some time and practice. Read more books, especially the best written ones, to learn how to contrast different characters, and don’t be afraid to experiment! That’s part of the fun of growing as a writer.
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If you enjoyed this post, then you might also like:
- Character Motivation: How to Craft Compelling Characters with Drive
- Characterization: How It Connects Readers to Your Story
- The Problem with Wish-Fulfillment Characters: The Secret Origins of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl
- 12 Female Literary Characters Who Are More Than Damsels in Distress
Yen Cabag is the Blog Writer of TCK Publishing. She is also a homeschooling mom, family coach, and speaker for the Charlotte Mason method, an educational philosophy that places great emphasis on classic literature and the masterpieces in art and music. She has also written several books, both fiction and nonfiction. Her passion is to see the next generation of children become lovers of reading and learning in the midst of short attention spans.