What is a flat character?
Indiana Jones. Sherlock Holmes. Juliet Capulet. None of these could be accused of being flat.
The dream of every writer is to create a character that is so real – so believable – they take on a life of their own. From a commercial perspective, a great character will drive demand for more stories with that character in them. From a personal perspective, imagine how it would feel to create a fictional character in which people get so emotionally invested that they spawn fan art and fan fiction, and tourists flock to see where they ‘lived.’
Such goals are certainly possible – 221B Baker Street is a museum dedicated to Holmes, and tourists in Verona can visit Juliet’s balcony. All this despite the fact these people never existed.
But is there a fool-proof way to avoid having a flat protagonist lead your story? Frankly, no – otherwise everyone who put pen to paper would be doing it. What makes a fictitious person real in the eyes of the public is as easy to lay bare as quantum physics. There’s a strange interplay between pop culture and public mood, niche demands, and creative rebellion. Probably some pixie dust in there too.
The one thing all ‘famous’ characters have in common, though, is that they’re believable. They have virtues, but they also have flaws – in short, they have depth. In this article, we’ll discuss a few ways you can turn a potentially flat character into a deep personality that sparks intrigue and captures hearts and minds.
Making a Character Rounded
As a simple definition, critics might say a poorly written character is flat, while a well-written one is rounded.
A flat character will only have a few specific features that differentiate them from others. These are usually something trivial like a unique scar or a strong accent, perhaps. A rounded character will have a more detailed personality, packed with more varied traits – even on the purely physical level.
A scar across their arm could be from fighting off a shark, hinting at a background of danger and adventure. Their broad Brooklyn accent may cover a confusing tendency to use distinctly Australian slang, which hoists a great big question mark over their history.
Contrast is important when you want to round out a flat character. Parts of a character’s personality that contradict one another are fascinating to readers – but there’s a balance to be struck. While facets of a rounded character’s behavior and beliefs should contradict, promoting inner conflict, they should rarely be inconsistent.
For example, imagine you’re writing about a burly, rough-and-tumble type of guy. He’s a long distance trucker, tackling the icy roads to Alaska. It’s dangerous work, and he comes across as a dangerous person. But he’s taking on these dangerous jobs to save money for an expensive eye operation for his beloved cat. The cat even comes along on the drives and offers our husky hero a longed-for sense of emotional support and companionship.
And let’s add the fact that on long journeys the trucker enjoys listening to opera, belting out an impressive alto as he steers along treacherous highways.
This collection of personality quirks might be surprising and, given stereotypical expectations, contradictory – but they’re perfectly believable. Endearing, even. On the other hand, should a major personality trait of this character be a crippling, anxiety-fuelled aversion to driving, you’re going to have to conjure a powerful reason to get him behind the wheel of a tractor-trailer!
If that reason isn’t convincing enough, then everything falls to the side of the unbelievable.
Round vs. Flat: Is It Always a Concern?
One thing to keep in mind is that it isn’t possible to add true depth to every character in your novel – nor is it a good idea to try. To make a character rounded, you need to give the reader time to learn details about them – and that takes up space on the page. If you gave this attention and time to every character you introduced, you’d have a hard time managing your pacing. Bogging scenes down with detail that won’t matter just a few pages later isn’t a very good approach.
Because of this, most great books will have a cast of both flat and rounded characters. In fact, minor flat characters can be a bonus, as they amplify the rounded appearance of your main character in comparison. The trick is to find a balance between the two.
Your character will also need a few other features if they’re to reach sufficient depth. Some minor characters will also have a few of these – but not all of them:
- A clear goal – anyone reading your book should be able to explain the goal of your protagonist. It can be a large goal (to save the world from aliens), or smaller in scale (to finish a half marathon). Just make sure you’re explicit about what the goal is, and what’s at stake should they fail.
- Internal development – to add depth to a character, they need to change. Just as with goals, changes can be major – leaving behind a damaging ideology, for example – or minor, like deciding they now enjoy the taste of olives. Whatever you choose, a character must go through emotional and behavioral changes to develop depth.
- Weakness – every human has weaknesses. It might be a sweet tooth, a superiority complex, or an obsession with growing orchids that decimates their social life. Whatever weaknesses your character has, it should put a strain on their relationships. This will drive conflict and drama in your story, even outside of the main plot, and make for a more interesting read.
- Strengths – to balance out their weaknesses, a rounded character will also have things they are really good at. For the biggest emotional impact, the character should discover and grow this strength as the plot unfolds. Make it clear to your readers that the character is growing as a person, showing how this strength adjusts their emotional outlook. Do so, and you’ll make them far more relatable.
- Channel emotions – this last tip is a little different to the others. Instead of inventing personality traits to give your characters added depth, try giving them some of your personal experience. Your character is going to have something in common with you – a moment of sorrow, hope, frustration, anger, or joy. Reflect on moments in your life where you have experienced a similar emotion. Channel those emotions into your writing. This can be quite an intense experience as a writer – especially if the emotion is a sad one – but it can also be incredibly cathartic, and will add extra authenticity to your writing and make your character all the more relevant.
Hopefully, these tips will help you say goodbye to that flat character and welcome a believable, relatable protagonist to your story. As for some kind of perfect equation you can use to create a cultural success that takes on a life of its own like Sherlock Holmes…
We don’t know of any. Suggestions?
How do you flesh out your main characters? Do you have any rules you make yourself follow to ensure you get the most rounded people you can? What would you consider the minimum requirements for a sufficiently deep personality on the page? Let’s chat in the comments below!