When you’re writing fiction, developing your characters is a crucial point in the writing process. You might have the most compelling plot in the world, full of romance and action and intrigue – but if your characters feel more like paper dolls than people, chances are your book isn’t ready yet. It’s important to be able to tell the difference between round and flat characters, and to know when it’s okay to let a character stay two-dimensional or when they really need that extra axis of development. So let’s dig in!
Characters In Fiction
Let’s define something out of the gate: what do we mean when we talk about ‘character development?’
Basically, character development is the process by which a character (particularly in fiction) is brought ‘to life’ by giving them motivations, personalities, wants and desires – making them feel vivid and real, essentially. It can also refer to the ways your characters may change over the course of the novel, their literal development on the page thanks to the plot.
For the purposes of this article, we’ll be talking about two – well, three, but we’ll get to that – kinds of characters: flat ones and round ones.
What Is A Round Character And How Do I Write One?
A ‘round’ character has layers. They’re nuanced and vivid, the kinds of characters you read about and wish they were your friends or to whom you feel an emotional connection. Essentially, the round characters are the story. These characters are your complex protagonists and antagonists, and your key supporting roles. They serve as the plot drivers because they make the decisions on where the story goes.
A fully-formed, well fleshed out character doesn’t happen overnight. Much like meeting someone at a party, it takes time to get to know them. They all start two-dimensional and then you add layers to them – it’s like growing little onion-people! (Sorry for that strange insight into my brain.)
A reader wants to care about your rounded characters, will want to be surprised by them, and will want to follow them on their journeys. The more we explain why someone is the way they are or acts the way they do, the more complex they become, and that’s the beauty of a rounded character. A good tip is to spend time getting to know the characters that you need to be rounded, and this can be super beneficial before you start writing because that knowledge can influence and better shape your writing.
Here are some tips on how to create them:
Outline Their Goals And Motivations
A reader cares more when they understand our characters, and the key here is to ensure our reader knows what motivations are driving our character’s decisions throughout the story. These motivations can be based on good reasons or bad, and will apply to both the protagonist and the antagonist. It seems that the appetite for understanding motivations has increased in storytelling, and so it’s worth looking at two beloved characters who’ve recently had their motivations brought to the big screen:
Over decades, we’ve seen a host of Bond films where he’s more or less the same character: a charmer and a killer. This had a certain appeal, to be sure, but it also made him rather two-dimensional. When producers decided to adapt the 1953 novel Casino Royale in 2006, we were suddenly shown insight into how Bond became a killer (that brilliant black-and-white opening sequence) and what motivated his callous charm (falling in love, discovering her deception, watching her drown). Now we understood why he behaved the way that he did, which made him far more human than he’d been before.
Part of the Joker’s appeal in every Batman appearance prior to Todd Phillips’ 2019 film Joker was that he was a madman. He represented anarchy to Batman’s order – very archetypal, comic book stuff. But Joaquin Phoenix’s award-winning performance revealed a failed clown whose inner turmoil gave rise to the chaotic villain we’ve all come to know.
Bring Conflict Into Your Character’s Life
Conflict is not only a tool to drive the plot forward, but also shows a reader how your character will respond to a given circumstance. That in turn is interesting to a reader because it will show up traits in a character like their moral standing, etc. We can use another character to demonstrate conflict, or use an internal conflict, or even both. Take Woody from Toy Story as an example of both. He was Andy’s most cherished toy until Buzz Lightyear came and took pride of place on Andy’s bed (and heart). Note that introducing Buzz into the story – who posed no threat to Woody physically because they didn’t have any historical conflict – had a knock-on effect to the internal conflict within Woody. Woody’s insecurities and fear of being replaced meant his ‘good guy’ persona was rattled.
Let Your Character Evolve
A rounded character will learn something throughout the story, and they’ll be different by the end than they were at the start. Using Woody in Toy Story as an example again, his acceptance of Buzz by the end of the film – and his willingness to understand what it means to share Andy’s attention — leaves him in a far different place from where he was at the beginning of the movie. You are a different person from who you were when you started your journey; shouldn’t your characters be, too?
What Is A Flat Character?
A flat character is two-dimensional and uncomplicated. They are often minor characters (though not always) and their role in the story is usually a perfunctory one. It’s rare for a flat character to undergo any kind of development over the course of the story – usually because their development isn’t the point of the story. But that’s not to say that flat characters are a bad thing, or even something to avoid!
They can be used for enhancing rounded characters and interaction between the two can reinforce the rounded character’s strengths, traits and values. Think about The Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz: she’s simply evil and not given any backstory, but she makes Dorothy look like a saint with awesome morals via the ways in which she provokes conflict. Your flat characters might also be supporting roles like Miss Stephanie Crawford, the town gossip in To Kill a Mockingbird: someone who can help deliver the novel’s message and who can help spur the revelations of the rounded characters, but whose story doesn’t need to be filled out for the reader’s enjoyment.
Let’s get into some tips on writing your flat characters:
Flat Characters Get Flat Names
I tend to give my flat characters forgettable, common names, or even no name at all – sometimes a job reference will even do, eg. ‘the waiter’ if they’re just in one scene and delivering a cup of tea.
Flat Doesn’t Mean Boring
Your flat characters can have quirks that will delight a reader but won’t distract them. For example, you can have a clown who’s not funny, or a dentist with bad teeth. Tom Bombadil is one of Tolkien’s most memorable inventions, but he serves a purpose in The Hobbit, not a distraction – or think about Dame Judi Dench’s performance in Shakespeare in Love, which won her an Oscar and she was on-screen for eight minutes!
Enjoy Them But Don’t Spend Lots Of Energy On Them
If you feel confused about whether a flat character needs more to them, the likelihood is that the reader will also feel confused about their role. Don’t let that compelling quirky weirdo who shows up in one scene take over the rest of your book (unless, you know, you want them to) – again, you don’t want your flat characters to be a distraction. That’s why they’re flat! Determine their relevance to the scene and then focus on that before getting on with your day.
The Difference Between Flat And Round Characters
If you’re not sure if you need a round or flat character in any given scene, ask yourself a simple question – do I need the reader to care about them here, or in the story as a whole? If the answer is yes, you need to give them some complexity. If not, they’re the flat ones.
Consider a classic battle scene in The Return of the King: The Ride of the Rohirrim, a last ditch attempt against all odds to save Middle Earth (no pressure). The sequence has both flat and rounded characters within it. We care about the collective force because they are representing the microcosm of the entire trilogy – good vs evil – in a spectacular and emotive way, but do we care about each and every one of the six thousand riders? Nope. We care about Theoden, Eowyn, and Merry – because those are the characters that have been given layers. We’ve spent time with them, seen their lives upended, witnessed their doubts and insecurities, seen their moral and emotional growth, and have agonised alongside them.
And while we’re talking about speculative fiction, let’s use a role-playing game example: your well-rounded characters are, well, the characters you’re playing – while your flat characters are your NPCs, your non-player-characters. They’re the ones your main characters interact with along the way.
What Is A Static Character?
A note: some main characters, including some quite famous ones, are decidedly static characters – by which we mean that they don’t change, even as they’re quite memorable and even by many respects ‘well-rounded’ characters. Remember what we were saying about the Joker earlier? Remove that 2019 film from your brain and think about the character again: we often don’t know his name, his motivations are unclear, and he serves mostly as a foil to our protagonist. Another, more literary, example would be Bertie Wooster (and Jeeves, for that matter!) from P. G. Woodhouse’s Jeeves and Wooster stories. The relationship between Bertie and Jeeves will always be the same, those two men themselves will always be the same, and that’s really part of the joy of reading those stories: that those characters do not change.
Without Character You Have No Story
Your characters are the beating heart of your novel or story, and it’s crucial to make sure that you’ve invested them with the time and attention they deserve. Some of them might be well-rounded characters and some of them might be flat – but hopefully these tips and tricks will help you determine which should be which!
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