In the grand tapestry of storytelling, characters are the threads that give it color, texture, and pattern. Among these, round characters are the vibrant, multi-hued threads, intricately woven and full of depth. But what exactly makes a character “round,” and how do they compare to their “flat” counterparts? Let’s dive into the world of character creation, armed with examples from literature and tips to bring your characters to life.

The Essence of Round Characters

Imagine meeting someone at a party who captivates you with their complexity, their unpredictable nature, and the sense that you could peel back layer after layer and always find something new. This person could very well be a round character if they lived within the pages of a book. Round characters are those who feel real, who have depth in personality, and who undergo significant growth or changes throughout the story. They are the protagonists, the antagonists, and sometimes the supporting characters who leave a lasting impression.

Round vs. Flat: A Tale of Two Characters

While round characters are full of surprises, flat characters are predictably straightforward. Think of flat characters as the acquaintances you might forget soon after the party, not because they’re unlikable, but because they serve a specific purpose—like delivering a single, crucial message—and then they fade into the background. They don’t change much, if at all, and they’re often based on stereotypes or single traits.

Literary Examples That Walk Off the Page

  1. Elizabeth Bennet in “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen: Elizabeth is the epitome of a round character. She’s witty, she’s prejudiced, she learns, and she grows. When she quips about Mr. Darcy’s pride, we see her sharp tongue, but as she learns more about him, her understanding and feelings evolve, showcasing her depth and the changes she undergoes.”I could easily forgive his pride, if he had not mortified mine.”
  2. Jay Gatsby in “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald: Gatsby is as round as they come, draped in layers of mystery, charm, and tragedy. His lavish lifestyle and unyielding love for Daisy Buchanan reveal his complexity and the profound changes he undergoes, driven by obsession and the pursuit of an unattainable dream.”He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it.”

On the other side of the coin, we have flat characters like Mr. Collins from “Pride and Prejudice,” who is consistently obsequious and pompous, serving as a comedic foil without undergoing significant change or revealing hidden depths.

Breathing Life Into Your Characters

Creating round characters is akin to playing god, but instead of creating worlds, you’re crafting lives. Here are some tips to infuse your characters with the breath of life:

  1. Give Them Flaws: Perfect characters are not only unrealistic, but they’re also unrelatable. Give your characters flaws that challenge them and sometimes even hinder their progress. It’s their imperfections that often make readers love them more.
  2. Let Them Grow: Character development is the heart of creating a round character. Allow your characters to learn from their experiences, to change their opinions, and to grow emotionally. This evolution makes them feel alive.
  3. Dive Into Their Backstory: Everyone has a history that shapes who they are. Dive into your character’s past to understand their motivations, fears, and desires. This backstory doesn’t always need to make it onto the page, but it will inform how you write them.
  4. Embrace Complexity: Human beings are bundles of contradictions, and so should your characters be. Let them be brave in one moment and scared in the next. Allow them to be kind, yet capable of cruelty. It’s in these contradictions that true depth is found.
  5. Dialogue and Interaction: How characters speak and interact with others can reveal a lot about them. Use dialogue not just to advance the plot, but to peel back layers of the character, showing different facets of their personality in different situations.

The Round Table of Your Imagination

Creating round characters is one of the most rewarding aspects of writing. These characters become your friends, your foes, and sometimes, a part of you. Remember, the difference between a round character and a flat one is the difference between a person you think about long after the party’s over and one you forget the moment you turn away. So, invite your characters to the round table of your imagination, give them depth, let them grow, and watch as they walk off the page and into the hearts of your readers.

Is this the same as static and dynamic characters?

Let’s clarify the difference between “round vs. flat” and “dynamic vs. static” characters before delving into the weaknesses of flat characters.

  • Round vs. Flat: This distinction revolves around complexity and depth. Round characters are multi-dimensional, with complex personalities, backgrounds, and motivations. Flat characters, on the other hand, are simpler, often built around a single trait or idea, and lack depth.
  • Dynamic vs. Static: This categorization focuses on change. Dynamic characters undergo significant growth or changes in their beliefs, personality, or circumstances throughout the story. Static characters remain largely the same from beginning to end, without substantial internal development.

So, while a character can be round without being dynamic (if they are complex from the start but don’t change much), and a character can be dynamic without being round (if they change in some way but are otherwise not deeply developed), the richest characters often combine elements of both—they are round and dynamic.

Writing Weaknesses of Flat Characters

  1. Lack of Engagement: Flat characters can sometimes fail to engage readers fully. Because they lack depth and complexity, readers might find it hard to care about them or become invested in their journey, which can make the story feel less compelling.
  2. Predictability: Flat characters often follow predictable paths, making it easier for readers to guess their actions or reactions. This predictability can sap the tension and suspense from the narrative, as readers feel they already know how these characters will respond to challenges or conflicts.
  3. Missed Opportunities for Relatability: One of the strengths of round characters is their ability to mirror the complexity of real human beings, making them more relatable to readers. Flat characters, by being more one-dimensional, might miss opportunities to connect with readers on a deeper emotional level.
  4. Over-reliance on Stereotypes: Flat characters often verge into stereotype territory because they’re defined by a limited set of traits. While stereotypes can be useful for quickly communicating certain information about a character, they can also lead to cliched writing and might even offend readers if handled insensitively.
  5. Diluting Themes and Messages: In stories where themes and messages are critical, flat characters can dilute the narrative’s impact. Complex themes often require characters with enough depth to explore these themes from multiple angles. Flat characters may not provide the necessary breadth to fully engage with the story’s deeper meanings.

Strengthening Flat Characters

  • Add Depth Gradually: You don’t need to reveal everything about a character upfront. Gradually revealing a flat character’s backstory, fears, desires, or contradictions can add depth and interest.
  • Give Them Unique Voices: Distinguishing your characters through unique patterns of speech, vocabulary, or mannerisms can make even flat characters more memorable and engaging.
  • Introduce Conflict: Putting flat characters in challenging, unexpected, or morally complex situations can reveal new facets of their personality, making them more rounded and dynamic.
  • Focus on Relationships: The way characters interact with others can highlight aspects of their personality that weren’t initially apparent. Even flat characters can show depth in how they relate to the people around them.

While flat characters have their place—serving specific roles or functions within a story without overwhelming the narrative with too many complex figures—there’s always an opportunity to add layers, making them more engaging and enhancing the overall richness of the story.

What writing feedback really means…

A lot of new authors get feedback on two main things: overwriting and flat or empty characters. Sometimes they’ll say, these characters aren’t fleshed out, or they’re puppets or caricatures. They don’t feel like *real* people.

They might call this a “Mary Sue” – where basically the author just adds a perfectly awesome character who kicks butt and is a wish-fulfillment fantasy so authors can find pleasure in their writing adventures. Or it can be a cliche or cardboard cutout. The biggest and easiest way to do this is when you have a “crowd” of people, and they all gasp, laugh and cry at the same time; they aren’t real people.

Or they might be typically cliches, like the “goons” or bad guys that are just so stereotypical they are forgettable and boring. If they change emotions too easily and too often; if they react dramatically to everything like it’s the most stunning thing ever; if they are just dumb cutouts that your hero can bounce bullets and witty repartee off of, they might be flat.

Here’s a characterization breakdown of Ellie from Last of Us.

and a huge breakdown of character traits, with a prompt generator.