Jason has 20 years of education experience including 14 years of teaching college literature.
Round and Flat Characters Defined
People are quirky. They obsess over little things, fall in love, have strange habits and they're often unpredictable. Round characters in a story, play or novel are simply characters who are most like real people because they have depth. When Shrek says 'Ogres are like onions,' he means that there's more to them than what you see on the surface. Round characters are like onions too; they have layers.
Imagine you're watching an episode of the original Star Trek. A landing party beams to a hostile alien world. There's Captain Kirk - tough guy, loyal friend, skirt chaser. There's Spock - logical, self-sacrificing and sometimes surprisingly human. And then there's the guy in the red shirt. When the aliens show up to fight, you know Red Shirt is going to get it, and you don't care because you hardly know him. There's nothing to know about him! He's a flat character, one who can be fully described in a single sentence because he has no depth. In this case, all you need is two words: cannon fodder.
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The Difference between Round and Flat
Novelist E.M. Forster is credited with coming up with the terms round and flat to describe characters. He went a little deeper than the definition above. He said that round characters have 'the incalculability of life' about them. By that, Forster, who wrote great novels like A Room with a View and A Passage to India, meant that round characters can surprise the reader. When you think you've figured them out, they can do something that catches the reader off guard. In other words, they behave like real people.
Flat characters, on the other hand, never surprise the reader. They're no problem to figure out, which is probably why many blockbuster action flicks are stacked with flat characters. That's why it's easy to understand who you're supposed to cheer for and who you're supposed to boo, leaving the audience free to enjoy the pretty explosions.
Let's take the Harry Potter series. There are some obvious round characters, like Harry Potter himself. You can't sum up Harry in a single sentence. J.K. Rowling needed over 4,000 pages to tell his story! Similarly, Severus Snape also has depth; as the series progresses, readers learn more of Snape's back story and come to understand that he's a man with deep-rooted internal conflicts who makes some surprising life choices.
Mr. Filch, the crabby caretaker of Hogwarts, is a flat character. You can sum him up easily; Mr. Filch is the crabby caretaker of Hogwarts who is obsessed with catching students breaking the rules. That's all there is to him.
Round characters, like real people (and onions), are complex. There's more to know than what's on the surface, and part of the fun of reading a story or novel is getting to know the round characters. Flat characters can be fully summarized in a single sentence or less, something along the lines of 'hates kids' or 'prone to be killed by aliens.'
When you are finished, you should be able to:
- Compare/contrast round and flat characters in literature
- Identify the round and flat characters in a story
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Round & Flat Characters: Definition & Examples
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