I learned some terms this week that I hadn't learned during my time as a lit major in college.
Flat Characters: Those who are typically not given any depth in character development, reduced to foils and/or stereotypes as a sort of shorthand for moving the plot along.
Round Characters: Those whose stories, lives, and character are developed in depth so as to make them feel more real in the eyes of readers, typically reserved for main antagonists and protagonists.
So, as any good student, I think we should talk about it. I gathered the gang together and posed the questions around the table.
What benefits have you seen in your work for using flat characters?
Gordon Dymowski: One of the benefits of "flat characters" is that they can serve as placeholders, "red herrings" or other devices to move the story forward. Although I try to give as much background to any character (even peripheral ones), using "flat" characters provides immediate shortcuts and can help reflect the main characters' actions.
Chris Norton: Flat characters can be fun to write, sometimes you need some keystone cops action; also you just don't always have the time/space in a novel, and especially in a novella or short story, to fill out every character, unless it's a serial or has a limited number of characters.
I always feel pulled out of a story when an author takes the time to tell us all about a person whose only action is something like ringing up someone's groceries.
The benefits of rounded characters are obvious: empathy with the characters, pulling in the readers, etc.
Bobby Nash: I’ve never heard the term before your question, but I have in the past had henchmen who were basically there to e beat up or shot at while the hero worked his or her way up to the villain. These guys are just there to get their ass kicked so I didn’t really flesh them out.
Adrian G. Delgado: Flat characters are great as archetypes. Technically, even a god, especially one tied to a specific pantheon, can be flat as a pancake. "I'm a god of war and I make war. What else is there to know?" The Alchemist in Cohelo's "The Alchemist" is somewhat the same way, in so much that he is there to be used by the author to tell the shepherd's story. Come to think of it, characters can go flat and round out many times. Take Planet Hulk for example. The rest of the Marvel Heroes get reduced to Safety First goody-goods who send bad old hulk to a planet in the first few panels. Crack open any other comic though, suddenly Banner himself is a flat strongman.
Rus Wornom: I LOVE THESE TERMS. My flat characters help the main characters either develop as real people, or they move the action along...or they develop the character of the setting, which can be just as important as a character. For instance, I use flat characters in Ghostflowers to make a party in the woods seem real. They interact with the main characters as they progress to a certain point, not only in the woods but in the story.
John L. Taylor:
In my writing, I get good use out of flat characters. As a horror writer, the important thing is to make the reader care about the character's fate. That doesn't mean extensive backstories or long conversations between them, just that the reader bonds with them and it isn't obvious who's going to die/suffer.
Flats for me make perfect foils. I like to tease their backstories but then never deliver, so that they feel more important than they are actually. That way, particularly in a mystery story, they can serve as a kind of next-level red herring. They also make great hench-people for villains for pulp heroes, and hangers-on for the A-level cast in just about any genre.
What line divides the need to make a character flat or round in your stories?
Kellie Austin: I honestly don't think of characters in those projections. Flat or round-based characters start out for me as all being "Round". I'm very detailed oriented when I write and am constantly world-building. When I'm done with my book or story, I always go back and omit much information regarding some of the characters used, whether they are primary or supporting. Then I place the once rounded characters into the "flat" position until I can re-insert the back story in future stories. Some characters stay in the rounded section as they are the main hero(s). I find creating a character to move the plot along is worthwhile, and I can always use them again later when I need them. If I write a short story, then my characters are most usually always to be flat based as I have problems writing under restraint of words. So, I usually write more action, knowing that as my stories continue, I can begin transforming them into fully rounded characters to accompany the story I began with.
Adrian G. Delgado: If I have no reason to believe that either the reader or the MC or the character holding the point of view needs to see all the nuance of a character's life, they stay flat. If, however, this humanity needs to be discovered in the course of the story, I'll pump the air pump to it.
I like to give my characters some kind of identity. Even the henchmen and the like I write these days, I try to at least give them a name or something so they aren’t just a henchman.
Austin S. Camacho: Mysteries often have large casts - drivers, servants, people you get one important bit of info from, etc. Flat characters are a short-hand for readers: "the cab driver is not important to the plot - not a suspect." the better developed a character is, the more the reader expects them to have an important role.
Bill Craig: I agree with Austin. As you know, I love writing ensemble casts, so I try to develop the flat characters as well, just to make them important to the main characters. In the way I build characters, even the less important ones, I want them to be someone that the readers can relate to.
Jonathan Sweet: Like some others have said, my flat characters are usually shortcuts. I figure that if a nameless henchman is going to be offed by the hero, why give him a back story? On the other hand, I do like to give backstories even to minor characters. For example, in Enter the Jackal, I have Ole Karlsson, a cemetery caretaker that finds the first victim of a killer. Adding details about his feelings about the job, the fact that he's hungover from the night before, that he has a dog -- they help round out the character and maybe make us care a little bit about him.
John L. Taylor: In that respect, ALL characters are somewhat flat, including the POV character, based on archetypes with one or two quirks who the reader can empathize with. That distance between the reader and characters helps elevate the horror because the element of the unknown extends to the characters. None is so developed that they couldn't be a secret part of the threat to the protagonist. We don't know them that well to rule them out. We can't guarantee they won't survive. It's the archetype that needs to be compelling, and the plot that subverts that expectation.
Part of what I do for "rounded" characters is giving them more of a background and provide some motivation as to the "why" of their actions. Many writers create extensive biographies for their main characters; I usually think more of informal "backstories" that stay in my head when I'm writing them. (It also provides authenticity for character actions - having someone who has a history of stealing look longingly at a diamond, for example, makes more sense than having someone who is just "background", so to speak).
I always feel that even giving a character with a brief appearance some quirk to set them off adds depth to a story. It may be like describing a brick wall in the background as red and ivied, but for me it's part of the whole.
Rus Wornom: There is no line between flat characters and round characters. Writers don't write while distinguishing characters in that fashion. We develop spear carriers as much as is needed for the story...and sometimes those minor spear carriers become more important than we initially believe.
Sean Taylor: Quite often, a flat will make the jump to a round in my work, as I need to develop a background character because suddenly the story feels like it needs that character. It's more a "vibe and feel" thing though, rather than any kind of rule, at least for me.
Show us an example of your characters, both flat and round, that you consider successful and effective -- and why you wrote them that way.
Bobby Nash: Abraham Snow is a rounded character. The unnamed guard Domino Lady knocks out when breaking into a bad guy’s stronghold is flat.
Chris Norton: Flat characters I've written, who first comes to mind are Uther Pendragon's knights in the 2nd season of Young Merlin. Comedy relief, so they could be dispatcjed without hurting the audience, and to make the heroes look better,
Rounded characters, I'd like to think that most of them are, but probably the American Pride Superheroes, 3rd Generation of Militant Mechanical Men, The Demon detectives, and the heroes of Young Merlin all slowly get fleshed out, while the title characters of Hell's Angel and Sword (The Armorer Duke) in Hell Horror are the most fleshed out, but they also started out very two dimensional when I was writing their bios for personal use (HA about 12pp, Sword about 8pp) but even then, just following their adventures (or the ones I'd plotted out before writing them) gave them depth and personality.
Here's a passage from one of my books, Twilight Patrol #5, where one of my characters wrestles with the problem of whether to be flat or round, which in some sense all of do, in life:
Wootin had been brought here by yet another summons from Cassiopeia, the Queen of Cassiopeia. He was getting used to this business. It was getting to be a routine, almost mundane, though her perennial protestations of urgency and impending doom never proved to be unfounded. And yet there was something different in the way she spoke to him this time. For once, she phrased her requirements as a request, rather than a command, and she prefaced her entreaty with concern that he might have competing priorities. There was a subdued undercurrent of feminine hysteria in her voice, a hint of weakness he’d never heard before, and an uncharacteristic acknowledgement that obedience on his part was not taken for granted. Maybe she really believed she was dying, as Congrieve had reported, dying, along with the rest of her old world order. Perhaps her new affectation was part of the way she was coming to terms with these developments.
“Consider the nature of our foes,” she said. “Consider what has happened before. This is so much the worse than the horrors we’ve already seen.”
Wootin wondered what could shake the unshakable Queen. His curiosity had been piqued. He marveled at her masterful self-negating offer of a choice, and yet it gave him pause. He had the nagging sense that he’d been somehow tricked, and pressed into the service of some folkloric pattern. He questioned what enchantment or post hypnotic suggestion had so unmanned his free-will and condemned him to the role of a mere character, ruled by the laws of fairytales. He felt that way more often than he cared to admit, as if he were an unreal person in an unreal setting. There were other occasions, albeit far more rare, when he felt the opposite way, wholly alive and authentic. These rare occasions might happen during moments of intense concentration—in the midst of composing poetry or mortal aerial combat—and he would lose his individuality altogether, merging himself into a vast design of being that manifested itself through himself, somehow miraculously producing results that were far superior to that which he’d otherwise be capable. Wootin wondered whether these phenomena, though seemingly distinct and contrary in nature, might be inseparable aspects of one another. There was little doubt in his mind that his friend Hollister Congrieve played a role in these patterns and conventions. He knew Congrieve had already been conscripted into this new mission." I try to take a holistic approach to my writing, that character development, plot, theme, and philosophy, or world view are not separate elements, but all flow from one another, and all have to be integrated and balanced.
Sean Taylor: One of my favorite flats is Broomstick from the Rick Ruby stories. He started out as little more than the guy behind the bar who had a shotgun at the ready if he was needed. But over the course of several stories, he can getting more and more real, until the point when I wanted to write a story honoring the late Derrick Ferguson, I needed Broomstick to be more round and real for his own funeral. His death made him more round, as people honored his life.
Some "rounded" characters I've written include Joe Magarac in Pro Se's TALL PULP - taking a mythic/folklore character and giving him dimension was not easy. Much of it involved both researching Magarac's "mythos" and integrating my own family background (my great-grandparents came to this country from Eastern Europe in the early 20th century) into the character. What could have easily been a one-dimensional strongman turned into a more nuanced character. (I also took a similar approach to writing the main character in "A Town Called Malice" for THE MASKED RIDER VOL 3. The original Masked Rider pulps hinted that his "civilian identity" of Wayne Morgan was also a ruse; I simply had the character make slightly ambiguous and off-handed remarks that suggested a possible origin...but just left it there for the reader to conclude).
One example of a "flat character" would be the antagonist of "In the Frame" in Pro Se's HOLLYWOOD PULP. Without spoiling, it takes a well-worn cliche and gives a greater context for *why* that person would do what they did. (I must admit that I take pride in making both Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton pulp heroes in their own right in this story).
Adrian G. Delgado: For me, I have made flat victims, mooks, villains, you name it. I let my characters discover the roundness of their fellow man naturally: a pancake flat crime victim naturally gets pretty round as the detective learns more about her.