Round vs. Flat Character
Stories have various elements that help tell a narrative. One of the more important ones is character. A character is a being in a story who must deal with the conflict in the narrative. Round and flat characters are the different types of characters that an author uses to create a more complex narrative. Writer E. M Forster first defined the use of flat and round characters in his 1927 book Aspects of Writing.
Forster believed that a good novel should have both flat and round characters. Flat characters serve as tools to help move a story along but generally aren't very memorable, while round characters become the focus of the narrative and can experience change and make complex choices. Both, he felt, were necessary since not every character could be fully fleshed out and, in fact, they should not be.
What is a Round Character in a Story?
A round character is a character that is multifaceted and complex. They cannot be summarized in a single sentence and often come into conflict with others in grounded and believable ways. A round character is one that can serve as a surrogate for the reader since they have fully realized lives and backgrounds. A round character may have a favorite meal, drink, or style. Their motivations go beyond surface needs and wants and may stem from deep emotional trauma or triumph.
A round character has a personality that, like a real person, changes depending on the situation. The main protagonist in a story will almost always be a round character because that is who readers will connect with and want to understand, and although many supporting characters are flat, some of them can be round as well.
An example of a round character is Indiana Jones, from the popular film series. He is a devoted archaeologist and adventurer while also working as a university professor. Throughout each film, he solves his problems practically and often violently, at one point threatening to blow up the Ark of the Covenant with a rocket to keep it from falling into the hands of the Nazis. However, he also has a life-long fear of snakes, a seemingly contradictory character trait given his unusual bravery. He also shows a willingness to believe in the supernatural and an increasing embrace of faith as he encounters evidence for the existence of various gods. His personality is impacted by his environment and objectives, just like a real person.
What is a Flat Character in a Story?
A flat character is the opposite of a round character. A flat character can be fully described in a single sentence. Their motivations are not complex, and they may even be what is known as a stock character. A stock character is generally an archetype such as "bully," "nerd," or even "love interest." They serve no deep purpose in the story other than to move the narrative along and facilitate the goals of the protagonist, or round characters.
Flat characters typically do not change. While a round character may grow throughout a story, a flat character rarely changes. This is not to say, however, that a flat character must always remain a flat character. Characters introduced as flat characters can often grow and change as a story progresses, and their growth from stock characters could in fact be an important plot point.
For example, in the television series The Blacklist, the character of Dembe is originally a flat character with very little development. He serves as a bodyguard, rarely speaks, and it is implied that he had been a child soldier. His entire character can best be described as "Intimidating strong guy." This characterization remains for much of the early seasons, but as the show progresses, Dembe receives more speaking lines, a full name, and quirks that reveal a complex backstory. Dembe, it turns out, was a victim of child trafficking until he was rescued, and decided to pay his debt by working as a bodyguard. Despite this early trauma, he even manages to forgive the man who sold him into slavery many decades later, showing that despite his ruthlessness, he also has incredible empathy and compassion. He received a formal education after being rescued, knows multiple languages, and even enjoys bowling, and puzzles, and in later seasons reveals he is a grandfather.
Flat and Round Character Examples
Various popular works provide examples of flat and round characters.
- Harry Potter: Most of the protagonists like Harry, Ron, and Hermione are round characters. They have complex backstories, likes, and quirks which make them dynamic and interesting. All three throughout the series become different people by the end of the final book. On the other hand, Draco Malfoy and his goons, Crabbe and Goyle, are flat characters. They can best be described as filling the stock "bully" archetype. The same applies to Argus Filch, who likewise serves as a bully to the young students. While Crabbe, Goyle, and Filch never grow beyond this simple characterization, Draco does end up growing and developing into a more rounded character several books into the series. His emotionally abusive home life is slowly revealed and, when tasked with killing Dumbledore, shows genuine remorse and vulnerability.
- Star Trek: Captain James T. Kirk, captain of the Enterprise, is both a tough but incredibly knowledgeable officer. He shows a knowledge of both military tactics as well as history and even religion. As Captain, he shows guile and an unorthodox leadership style that saves the Enterprise various times. Despite being perfectly willing to fight, he often looks for a non-violent solution. On one occasion, he bluffed the leader of a heavily superior force, telling them that destroying his ship would cause a reaction that would destroy the attackers themselves. As he once said himself, conflict isn't a game of chess so much as it is a game of poker. The character of Uhura, however, despite appearing in every episode and being the ship's communications officer, had virtually no characterization throughout the original show's run. She was a flat character who relayed information from her station but never even had a full name revealed until decades later.
- Law and Order: The decades-long franchise has had a cast of dozens. The main detectives have backgrounds and personalities that are revealed throughout the episodes and seasons. One of the most popular, Detective Lennie Briscoe, is a snarky and sarcastic cop, but also an excellent investigator. Various episodes hint at his past alcoholism and recovery. Briscoe's family life, including his strained relationship with his daughter, informs his extreme protectiveness of children and his disgust with parents who abuse or otherwise hurt children. On the other hand, many of the witnesses throughout every episode are flat characters. They often serve to provide information and can be summed up as "deli owner," "nosy neighbor," or "college student." They may have a name, but they are often just stock characters.
Characters drive a story forward and contend with conflict. A round character can surprise the reader and act like a real person. They have quirks, likes, and depth. A flat character can be fully described in a single sentence and lacks the depth that round characters provide. E. M. Forster argued that a good story needs a combination of flat and round characters to both quickly move the story along and provide complexity when needed. For example, Argus Filch in the Harry Potter series is little more than a bully and authoritarian figure to get in the way of the protagonists. Harry, Ron, and Hermione, on the other hand, are fully fleshed-out characters with histories and personalities.
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What makes someone a round character?
A round character should be more than just a stock personality. They should have motivations and history, complex relationships with those around them, and typically grow throughout a story.
What are five traits of a round character?
A round character has personality, likes, quirks, and surprises the reader. They also act like real people and can serve to bring the audience into a work.
What is an example of a flat character?
Argus Filch in the Harry Potter series is a flat character. Like Crabbe and Goyle, he serves only to provide an obstacle for the protagonists and has nothing in the way of depth.
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