You probably remember learning about round versus flat characters way back in English class (er … maybe it wasn’t so far back for you. Lucky, lucky you). If you’ve filed that lesson away with all the other seemingly useless info you were forced to regurgitate in high school, it’s time to pull it back out.
Believe it or not, many of the things you learned in English, or language arts or whatever your education system called it, related to writing more than you realized at the time.
Characters who are “flat” are just as important to your stories as round ones. We’ll show you how—but first, let’s travel back to the basics for a second.
What Are Flat and Round Characters?
In a story, round characters are the ones that undergo significant development from the beginning of a story to the end. Your main character, for example, is usually changed somehow by events that occur or by reflecting on past events through narrative.
Flat characters, by contrast, do not change. That’s why we think of them as two-dimensional. We can also think of them as catalysts, if you’re more of a science-y thinker: while they still contribute to a story’s plotline, they aren’t changed by it. They stay the same from start to finish—someone who is cranky at the beginning of a story because of bad weather will still be just as cranky at the end.
Why Do Stories Need Both?
Think about real life. You come in contact with random people every day—sitting next to strangers on the train or subway, passing people on the street, buying coffee from a barista you only ever meet once. Not every single person you encounter in your lifetime is going to make a significant impact on the course of your future.
The same goes for stories. Main characters, whom the story focuses on, go through changes because that’s part of the story being told. The flat characters they come in contact with matter, but especially if they meet in passing, their changes occur off the page and outside the storyline. We just don’t see them. That doesn’t mean those characters aren’t still important.
We’ll go into more detail in the next section.
How Do We Create Flat Characters?
Flat characters interact with round characters in big and small ways, sometimes maybe not even directly. As we mentioned above, though, it’s just like real life. They need to exist. One way to emphasize their importance is to introduce them, leave them in the back of your readers’ minds for a while, then bring them back. Here’s an example.
Let’s go back to our cranky-about-the-weather example. We’ll call him Greg (another ancient inside joke—if you remember this one you’ve been following this blog far too long for your own good). Greg hates rain. He gripes at anyone passing by about how he hopes they have a terrible day as he wades through puddles.
Enter our MC, Larry. Larry is a very unhappy, lonely guy. When he passes Greg on his way to work, and Greg tells him to have a terrible day, Larry spins around and gets into an argument with him. Then as the story progresses, Larry becomes significantly happier and less lonely. He remembers how it feels to be sad and alone even though he isn’t anymore. So at the end of the story, he passes Greg on the street again. This time when Greg tells him to have a terrible day, he tells Greg he hopes he has an extraordinary day, and walks away. The end.
This might mean a lot to Greg. He might go on to change his attitude, too. But we don’t need to see that. Because we don’t, that makes Greg our flat character. The reason Greg is important is because, through these two interactions, we see the effects of the significant changes Larry has undergone from the beginning of the story to the end. That’s important. Without Greg, this point becomes far less significant.
This is just one way to do it. You could end up writing in a flat character that also happens to be your MC’s best friend, who is there throughout most of the book. No two stories are a like: there is no right, wrong, better or worse way to construct a flat character. It’s not the character that matters as much as their interaction with the round characters in the story.
Round and flat characters need each other. You’ve probably constructed both types in your own stories before, maybe without realizing that’s what you were doing. Now you know: the strategy makes your character development symbolize more than just an attitude adjustment. It shows your readers, without telling them, that everything your MC has gone through matters. Even passing a cranky weather-hater on the street.
Image courtesy of Novelty Revisions.