Writing is a balancing act of complements and contrast. When you’re strategic in your placement of flat and round characters, you can create a focused, textured story that feels grounded in reality no matter how many dragons crawl through its pages. Let’s begin with looking at what flat and round characters are.
A flat character is defined by being:
- Shallow (as in the reader only sees the surface)
J.K. Rowling’s Crabbe and Goyle are good examples of flat characters. They are built to be Malfoy’s lackeys and they never are or become more than the dumb, mean-spirited boys that we meet in the Sorcerer’s Stone.
A round character is defined by being:
- Dynamic / Changing
- “Capable of surprising in a convincing way” -E.M. Forster
To carry on with the Harry Potter example, Malfoy is a round character because he is built around more than a single idea or feature. There is nuance to his motivations and personality and, above all, he changes throughout the series. The change doesn’t have to be radical to make a character round, but once you stray from a character’s whole identity being tied to a single trait or concept, they are no longer flat.
What Place do Flat and Round Characters have in a Story?
Writing only round characters is the equivalent of pulling your reader into a crowded party where everyone is talking loudly and vying for the reader’s attention. No one can get a cohesive thought across and everyone ends up exhausted. A story comprised of only flat characters, however, is just boring. Sometimes it can be used well to get a point across, but it hasn’t been a well-received mode of narrative since the genesis of the novel in the 1700s.
When working on your story, the Dunbar number can be used as a good guide for ratios of round : flat
- 1-5 best friends (read, main/prominent round characters)
- 5-15 supporting friends (round but not terribly in-depth)
- 15-50 casual friends (flat)
What’s the Point of Flat Characters?
I haven’t seen anyone touting the virtues of flat characters anytime recently, so I’m going to forgo listing the value of round characters for now and skip straight to how flat characters can be used to created needed elements in your writing.
1. Tools of action
These characters are always utilitarian– the cogs of the story.
2. Reflection or foils to main characters
Surrounding a round character by flat ones calls attention to the shades and textures of their personality and actions either by reinforcement or by contrast.
3. Keep the perspective realistically limited
Not everyone can be the star of the show and, unless your character is God, they do not know the hopes, failures, and schemes of everyone they pass by.
4. Shift the reader’s focus to something
e.g. an idea, theme, pattern or narrative voice.
5. Keep the story focused
Hey, maybe the innkeeper has an amazing backstory, but unless his past is going to provide vital information for the hero’s quest, it’s going to get cut– either by you or your editor.
How to Write a Flat Character
Begin with how you would describe an acquaintance. Chances are that you would think of one or two identifiers that embody who you perceive that acquaintance to be (i.e. she loves the outdoors or he’s into boardgames).
Do the same with your flat characters. Without that single trait, they would vaporize. But remember, do this with purpose. Crabbe and Goyle were foils of Hermoine and Ron as well as of Malfoy. Through staying their same, dumb selves, they accentuated the intelligence, loyalty, and growth of Hermoine and Ron. And through the same means, Malfoy’s cleverness and drive were highlighted as well as his cowardice.
To practice this yourself, scroll through your Facebook feed and write down the phrase or sentence that encapsulates each person. Soon enough you’ll get a good feeling for it and build up a good well of characters.
How to Write a Round Character
That’s the question, isn’t it? I’ve compiled a few SP articles to kickstart your journey into deep characters and with that, I wish you happy reading and excellent writing!
Abigail signing off, possibly to diagram all the characters from Harry Potter…