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Round & Flat Characters: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 Round & Flat…
  • 1:07 The Difference Between…
  • 1:56 Examples
  • 2:41 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason Lineberger

Jason has 20 years of education experience including 14 years of teaching college literature.

Two main categories of characters in literature are round and flat. In this lesson, you'll learn the difference between the two, and you can test your understanding with a quiz.

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.

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.

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