Writing

Round vs. Flat Characters: Definition, Differences, and Examples of Flat and Round Characters in Fiction

Written by MasterClass

Sep 6, 2019 • 6 min read

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Characters in a novel, short story, play, or film can be either round or flat. A round character is nuanced and well thought-out. They usually play an important role in the story. They are written specifically so audiences can pay attention to them for a specific reason. Flat characters, on the other hand, are more like window dressing. They are two-dimensional and lack nuance. Their purpose in a story is usually perfunctory.

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What Is a Round Character?

A round character is deep and layered character in a story. Round characters are interesting to audiences because they feel like real people; audiences often feel invested in these characters’ goals, successes, failures, strengths, and weaknesses.

  • Round characters are fully realized characters that come into conflict with each other and other characters in believable ways, spurring character development.
  • One literary term often confused with “round character” is “dynamic character,” and while they both go hand in hand, they are different concepts. While a round character is a character with a complex personality, a dynamic character is one that changes throughout the course of a story.
  • Hence, a character can be both round (interesting) and dynamic (changed).

Examples of famous round characters in literature include Elizabeth Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Jay Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

4 Tips for Writing Round Characters

Writing a round character can be tough. It is difficult to build a complex character with layers and depth. Use the following tips and tricks to help get you started:

  1. Motivation is revealed in the choices someone makes. The harder the choices, the more possibilities you have to reveal the character’s deepest nature.
  2. In choosing between good and evil, people will always choose what they perceive to be good. You must know your character’s mind in order to understand their beliefs and how they will justify their actions—even the cruel ones.
  3. Conflict is essential for developing character. If nothing is at stake, then a person’s choices don’t matter very much, and the audience will begin to lose interest.
  4. A round character should evolve. Ideally, your story should increase the conflict for your character, so that their choices and responses evolve throughout.

What Is a Flat Character?

A flat character is a two-dimensional character lacking depth or a real personality. Usually, flat characters have just one or two perfunctory traits. Often considered “stock characters,” flat characters can often be summarized in one word (like “bully” or “love interest”) and never digress from or transcend their role.

  • A good story is never made up of mostly flat characters. A good story needs to have a balance of round and flat characters.
  • Flat characters still need to serve a specific purpose to propel the story forward in some way.
  • Flat characters are often confused with static characters, and while they are related, they are different concepts. Where a flat character is one that is two-dimensional, a static character is one that doesn’t change throughout the course of the story.
  • Most flat (uncomplex) characters are static (unchanged by the end of the story), but not all static characters are flat.

Examples of flat characters in literature include Crabbe and Goyle in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and Elizabeth Proctor in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

What Is the Purpose of Flat Characters?

While unintentionally flat characters can be evidence of weak writing, there are still reasons for good writers to write flat characters:

  • They are useful in plot-heavy narratives. In stories where the plot is the main focus, such as science fiction narratives, deep character backstories can get in the way of plot details. To help guide readers through the story, writers of plot-heavy narratives can opt for flat characters to let the narrative take center stage.
  • As foil characters for round characters. A foil character is a type of character that embodies the opposite traits of another character, thereby strengthening audiences’ opinions of both characters. A flat character interacting with a round character will act as a foil, whose flatness will reinforce to audiences the impressive depth of the round character. Learn more about foil characters here.
  • To communicate a moral or morals. Fairy tales and fables like The Little Red Hen employ flat characters to great effect. These stories are primarily concerned with illustrating a clear moral point, without character details getting in the way.
  • For comedic effect. Flat characters aren’t easy to take seriously, because audiences can’t relate to them—but when they’re written to be funny, audiences can enjoy laughing at a flat character’s one-dimensionality. Flat characters work especially well for quick comedic sketches, where a deep character backstory would only detract from the jokes.

3 Tips for Writing Flat Characters

If you find yourself in a situation where you’d like to write a flat character, keep these tips in mind:

  1. Make a list of possible traits. Even if you’re writing a character who is intentionally flat, it’s good to explore the personality options. Flat characters can still be quirky if you choose an interesting personality trait—for instance, you could pick a gravedigger who’s always solemn, but a slightly more interesting choice is a gravedigger who’s happy because he loves his work.
  2. Determine what will have the most impact. If you’re writing a flat character as a foil for a round character, consider giving the flat character traits that mirror the round character’s. If you’re writing a flat character for a plot-heavy narrative, consider giving the flat character traits that will be relevant in moving the plot forward.
  3. Don’t take it too seriously. If an audience feels as if they’re supposed to take your flat character very seriously, they may have a hard time relating to the character and might feel unimpressed with your writing skills—even if the plot is great. With flat characters, try to relax and let the audience know that the character is meant to be flat.

What Is the Difference Between Round and Flat Characters?

The biggest difference between round and flat characters is the character’s complexity: round characters have layers, while flat characters do not.

These layers cause the round characters to be more interesting, meaning audiences can more easily sympathize with round characters than with flat ones. While making a truly round character requires more than a single sentence of character description, consider the following examples of flat and slightly-more-round characters:

  • Flat: A man who is a funeral-home director. Round: A man who became a funeral-home director because his wife’s funeral was ruined, so he wants to make sure others have a better experience.
  • Flat: A young girl who loves her teddy bear. Round: A young girl who takes her teddy bear with her everywhere because it was a gift from her recently-deceased older brother.
  • Flat: A high school student who doesn’t know how to swim. Round: A high school student who doesn’t know how to swim because she saw a shark in the ocean when she was young, and now refuses to touch the water.

Want to Become a Better Writer?

Whether you’re creating a story as an artistic exercise or trying to get the attention of publishing houses, learning how to craft good characters is essential to good writing. Award-winning author Judy Blume has spent decades honing her craft. In Judy Blume’s MasterClass on writing, she provides insight into how to invent vivid characters, write realistic dialogue, and turn your experiences into stories people will treasure.

Want to become a better writer? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons on plot, character development, creating suspense, and more, all taught by literary masters, including Judy Blume, Neil Gaiman, Dan Brown, Margaret Atwood, David Baldacci, and more.

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