What Is a Flat Character in Fiction?

Flat characters keep the action moving along

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What Is a Flat Character?

In fiction, every character should be fully developed -- a real person who grows and changes through the narrative. Right? Wrong. Actually, few fiction writers attempt to develop every character in a story. Not only would it be exhausting and time-consuming, but in many cases, it would actually detract from the main story being told. 

A flat character is a minor character in a work of fiction who does not undergo substantial change or growth in the course of a story.

Also referred to as "two-dimensional characters" or "static characters," flat characters play a supporting role to the main character, who as a rule should be round (multi-dimensional people who change and grow over the course of the story). 

The Role of Flat Characters in Literature and Genre Fiction

Though we don't generally strive to write flat characters, they are often necessary to move a story along. Think, for example, of the characters of Crabbe and Goyle in the Harry Potter series. Telling their back-story, exploring their motivations, and having them change over time would make it almost impossible to follow the story arc. Rather than attempting to flesh out these characters, author J.K. Rowling makes them "two-dimensional" or flat. Crabbe and Goyle are unintelligent, sycophantic followers--necessary to the plot, but otherwise unimportant.

A more classical example is the character of Mr. Collins in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

A flat character who is almost stereotypical in his pomposity, egocentricity, and class consciousness, he serves a vital role in the story. Mr. Collins is at the center of a plot point through which protagonists Elizabeth and Darcy get together, and he provides comic elements to the story. His character, however, stays essentially unchanged; in fact, his lack of responsiveness is part of what makes him funny.

Flat characters are also a staple of genres that require particular personality "types." For example:

  • Readers would be disappointed to discover that Sherlock Holmes had grown to become a warm, caring individual -- or that Watson had, over time, developed top-notch detecting skills.
  • Few readers want to see reliably evil characters grow a conscience, or feel guilt as a result of their actions.
  • Readers of series such as Twilight choose the next book in the series because they want to revisit the characters they know and love. Authors of such series must be careful to avoid changing their characters too radically, as this would undermine their popularity.
  • Stock characters, such as the wise advisor in "quest" fantasies, are intended only to further the plot by providing critically important information to the protagonist. Should such a character change, his or her role in the story would come into question.

Round Versus Flat Characters

Creating flat characters is relatively easy. They can be drawn with simple lines, so long as their motivations and actions move the plot along.

But how do you go about creating round characters rather than flat ones? Creating complex, believable characters takes time and thought, of course, so get started by answering these questions for developing characters.

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