A flat character is a simple way of describing a character that has little to no depth.
Flat characters are very common in works of fiction and are often created on purpose as a means to develop the plot or advance the story.
The term flat is used by writers to describe a character that has few or no unique characteristics outside of their immediate role in the story.
The name comes from the fact that these characters are somewhat flatter than those that do have more complex personalities, motivations and emotions.
What Is a flat character?
Flat characters are those that do not change throughout the course of a novel.
Flat characters never develop or grow. They remain one-dimensional and serve as nothing more than a means to move the plot forward.
Flat characters are useful, but they’re somewhat limited. By giving your protagonist flat traits, you’re taking away the opportunity for them to grow and learn throughout the course of your book.
Even though it would be nice if all of our friends were perfect and had no flaws, that’s simply not true.
If we’re going to write realistic fiction and movies, we have to accept that in real life, people will have faults and flaws, and our characters should too.
What Is A Flat Character?
A flat character is sometimes difficult to spot because their personality traits can be somewhat similar to other characters in the story.
They are, however, easily distinguishable once you know what you’re looking for.
Flat characters can actually be very useful in stories with large casts of supporting players.
If you introduce a large number of characters in your novel or short story, it’s likely that some of them will suffer from being too similar to one another.
A flat character is a type of character that is not developed by the author. A flat character does not change throughout the story.
The reader does not know their thoughts or feelings. The author does not describe them in depth.
Flat characters are usually minor characters in stories, and they are very different from round characters, who are major characters that undergo complex changes in personality and development.
However, there are some flat characters who are more prominent than others.
Examples of Flat Characters
More than any other medium, cinema thrives on the creation of characters who are interesting and multi-faceted, and three-dimensional.
Whether they’re historical figures or fictional protagonists, there is no better way to bring a film to life than by making the audience care about the people they’re watching.
A flat character, on the other hand, is one who lacks depth and seems to have been created with a singular purpose in mind.
These are the folks who walk in and out of the story, performing their function and then vanishing into the background again until it’s time for them to reappear.
They may be more memorable than characters without much screen time, but they often lack any real substance.
It’s possible that filmmakers design certain characters to be this way deliberately. In some cases, a flat character can actually enhance or perfect an already strong plot by adding an extra element or two.
For example, if you happen to be watching a movie that involves a mystery, it can be fun (and even helpful) to watch for a character who sticks around just long enough to be distracting but not long enough for you to really learn anything about them.
In literature, there are two types of characters: major and minor. Major characters usually have a lot of screen time, and we get to know them very well.
Minor characters do not have as much screen time and most often support the major ones.
Most minor characters in literature are flat because they do not change throughout the story and play a very small role.
We do not learn much about them besides their name, appearance, likes/dislikes, occupation, etc …
There are many famous examples of flat characters from literature and film over the years. Here are just a few:
Harry Potter series
Ron Weasley is a loyal friend to Harry, but his personality is nearly unchanged over seven books.
The Great Gatsby
Daisy Buchanan is shallow and rich but doesn’t grow much over the course of the novel.
Lord Of The Rings Trilogy
Boromir is brave but stubborn; he’s also tragic because he’s tempted by evil forces but later redeems himself before dying.
Examples Of Flat Characters In Novels
A flat character, in literature, is a character that does not change throughout the course of the work or at all. In many cases, they do not have any personality traits that change over the course of the novel.
They are flat and one-dimensional. They may be likable and interesting, but they are flat nonetheless.
This can make them appear less realistic than round characters because they lack depth and dimensionality.
Flat characters in literature often times are used as background characters or supporting characters to the main character or protagonist of a novel or story. These types of characters are usually easy to identify because they lack substance or depth in personality and/or appearance.
The most common type of flat character is called a stock character. A stock character is a character that has been overused time and time again for so long that it has become stereotypical.
Creating Dynamic Characters
Creating dynamic characters with depth is hard. It’s even harder when you’re forced to write in the blank—with no backstory, no history, and especially no dialogue. So how can you do it?
Are your main characters always doing the right thing? Are they always being honest?
Are they always being kind to their significant others and children? Do they always make good choices?
If not, then you have a great opportunity to make them seem real.
The best way to accomplish this is to involve your protagonist in a moral dilemma. It doesn’t have to be something huge.
If your protagonist gets into an argument with her sister about something stupid, that could cause her to question herself for days.
Or if someone he knows is accused of a crime he knows he didn’t commit, does he still turn him in? Maybe your protagonist has been tasked with killing someone who’s trying to kill his family.
There are hundreds of ways to create a moral dilemma for your protagonist, but the important thing is that it should be a situation where there is no black and white answer. There’s only a choice between two evils—a choice that will haunt your character for the rest of the story.
Characteristics Of A Flat Character
The flat character is a rather serious character, as they are not a fun character. They tend to be serious, and can either be very likeable or very much the opposite of that. That is usually how the character is intended.
A flat character tends not to have many layers to them. They tend to have very good or very bad traits about them, and this can be shown by their mannerisms and their way of speaking.
A flat character can be a protagonist or an antagonist, but it doesn’t matter as both their personality will be the same.
They generally has positive or negative characteristics about them. They either like everything in general or hates everything in general.
They are often hard to relate to because they are so one dimensional. Flat characters tend to have no life experience as they haven’t lived very long in general.
Their life experiences don’t really seem to change them in any way, shape or form.
The problem with this type of character is that they are so one dimensional, they become boring and predictable which makes the story dull and boring for the reader/audience to watch/read.
How To Fix A Flat Character
While the other two character types exist on a spectrum, flat characters tend to be one-dimensional. They are either good or bad, with no shades of gray in between.
Truly flat characters serve little purpose in a story; they don’t develop and they don’t change. There is no inner conflict and no growth.
This makes them rather boring, not to mention predictable and one-dimensional.
Fixing a flat character requires an author to dig deep into their psyche and ask themselves why that character acts the way they do. Doing so will help you flesh out who your characters are as people, which is necessary in order to make them real for your readers.
More importantly, it can lead to growth and change that would otherwise never have happened.
Write Down Your Character’s Motivations. The first step toward creating a three-dimensional character is writing down their motivations, both short term and long term.
Consider what drives your character, what their goals are, and why they want these things so badly.
If you can’t answer these questions about your character’s motivations with certainty, you should take some time to figure it out before moving on to other parts of the story because if you can’t understand why your character does what he or she does.
Don’t Be Afraid Of A Flat Character
I see it all the time. The author has created an interesting, one-of-a-kind character, and the story takes off. It’s page after page of pure gold, but then the author hits a snag.
The problem is that they’ve gone too deep with a unique character that doesn’t fit into any genre conventions.
Trying to find a place for this character can be difficult, so some authors start trying to make their characters fit into types that are more common in their genre. However, by doing so they lose a lot of what makes them unique in the first place.
This post is to remind you not to be afraid of flat characters, and why you shouldn’t be afraid of them.
Flat characters are what most people think about when they hear the word “character.” They don’t have any special powers, or strange quirks — just personality traits. They speak the way someone would expect someone from their background to speak, and act like someone from that background would act.
When I say “flat characters,” I mean flat characters — not weak ones or boring ones. Flat characters have all the depth needed for readers to understand. By a “flat character” I mean a character whose personality consists solely of a single word or trait (I call it their “word”).
So Why Do Authors Write Flat Characters?
Have you ever read a book, movie or watched a TV show where the characters were so flat and one-dimensional that they might as well have been cardboard cutouts?
Totally devoid of any depth or personality, they may as well have been robots as far as their interactions were concerned. You know what I’m talking about – characters who did what the plot demanded of them, not for any reason that we could understand, but because the author required it to happen.
So why do authors write flat characters? The simple answer is that it’s easier to do. When you cast your leading man as the all-knowing, super-capable hero who always knows the right thing to say and is able to solve any problem with ease then it’s easy to make him act exactly like that all of the time.
It’s much harder to make him a multifaceted character with fault and flaws. It’s much harder still to give him a backstory and motives that drive his actions in the present day narrative.
But if you want your story to be believable, you need your characters to act believably – especially your main character. Readers invest a lot of themselves in the story you tell and they need the characters within it to feel real.
Not All Static Characters Are Flat
In my last post, we talked about the difference between round and flat characters. Today I want to focus on static characters, which are probably the least understood character type.
Static means a character who doesn’t change over the course of the story.
Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game is one of my favorite books for middle schoolers. It goes to show that even a novel with only static characters can be incredibly interesting and appealing to kids in that age range.
However, since static character are less popular (or at least less commonly used), I’m going to focus on films today.
In films, most of the characters are dynamic. The main character(s) change as they deal with their problems. But there is room in films for static characters too. For example, let’s look at three of my favorite films:
The first two are action/adventure films where the main character is a hero (or set of heroes) who goes on a quest to save the world/country/galaxy/universe.
The third film is also an action/adventure film, but it’s much more focused on personal growth than saving the world—and as a result has far fewer action sequences than its predecessors.
Are Flat Characters Bad?
There are many ways to create a character. However, one of the most common ways of creating a character is by making them Flat.
A Flat Character does not have any major qualities that make the character unique or memorable. They are simply there to fulfill whatever role they need to fulfill in the story. Take for example the Villain in “The Incredibles”.
The Villain’s name is Syndrome, he has no other qualities that make him stand out as a character beyond being a villain. He even refers to his powers as just “good stuff”, which further adds on to his lack of depth and makes him more flat than anything else.
There are two types of flat characters: Static & Stereotyped. A Static Character is a character whose personality does not change throughout the course of the story, regardless of what happens to them in the plot, whereas a Stereotyped Character is a character whose personality consists entirely of only one trait (or multiple traits) and lacks any other defining characteristics besides those traits.
A Flat Character Is Not A Bad Character
A flat character is not a bad character. A flat character does not have an arc. They do not need an arc.
They are not boring, and is certainly not dull, but flat characters are all too often misunderstood.
The same can be said for the term “minor characters”. They can be minor by name, they can be minor in their interactions with the MC, they can be minor to the plot, but they are never “minor” in terms of importance to the story.
“Minor” Characters Are Not Minor. The best stories are built on their minor characters, and it’s important to remember that before we go any further. In fact, it’s critical to remember that the best stories of all time are filled with great examples of minor characters!
The Lord of the Rings is full of them! Star Wars is packed with them!
The Harry Potter series reeks of them! The Fellowship of the Ring’s success (and thus the success of its movie adaptation) rests on its ability to interweave fantastic and memorable minor characters into its story like so many threads in a tapestry.
And each thread is as important as those that stand out because without them, even those that are colorful and bright would appear bland.
A Flat Character Adds Value
A flat character adds value to a story, when it’s used correctly. Flat characters are the ones who don’t change as the story progresses.
They remain steadfast in their ways and don’t learn anything new about themselves or others. In a way, flat characters are the equivalent of plot devices; they exist to move the story forward. How you can use flat characters:
The main protagonist must be somewhat one-dimensional. After all, the main character is supposed to grow and change throughout the story. It’s hard to do that if your character has always been that way.
So flat characters in main protagonists are often quite common and accepted in stories.
Flat secondary characters also add value to a story. Flat secondary characters are really just there as a means of showing growth in your protagonist(s).
By creating an entirely one-dimensional secondary character, you can show contrast between that one-dimensional character and your more complex main character(s). This also allows you to focus on multiple protagonists and show how each are growing or changing individually.
Lastly, you can use flat primary antagonists for the same purposes that you’d use flat secondary characters: You can contrast those flat antagonists with a non-flat protagonist (or protagonists).
Flat Characters In The Classics
What makes a flat character? Flat characters are two-dimensional, with very little to distinguish them from any other character in the story.
They have little to no change throughout the story and have no real personality.
Telling a story is like giving a speech, you need to catch the audience’s attention and hold their interest. If you’re telling a story about a flat character, it’s not interesting because it’s hard to identify with or care about this character.
To make your characters more three-dimensional, try adding more details that show what they think and feel. In the book “Flat Characters in the Classics” by Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow, there are example after example of flat characters in classic novels and how they could have been developed more.
Here are some helpful tips for making your characters more three-dimensional:
Give Them a Change of Heart – Even if they don’t change their minds, they can still show some kind of change throughout the story. They can start out as friends with someone, but then something happens to make them hate that person.
Perhaps they’re enemies at first, but then they start having feelings for one another and become friends. Maybe they were just acquaintances at first.
Flat Character Examples In Disney
Here are a few examples of flat characters in Disney movies. I know there’s some controversy about this but I hope you’ll enjoy my analysis.
Tin Man from Wizard of Oz.
The Tin Man is one of the most innocent and likable characters in the Wizard of Oz movie. His personality, on the other hand, is very flat.
He has no dialogue except for the “If I only had a heart” song and he hardly reacts to any of the events that happen.
One could say that he is a personification of “heart”. Shere Khan from The Jungle Book Shere Khan has a much more sinister side than his counterpart, Baloo. However, his personality is still very flat.
He also has no dialogue except for his famous “roar” in which he shows his power to intimidate others. This makes him appear larger than life and gives him an aura of fear.
His roar also helps the audience to see what kind of character he is without having him speak.
Pocahontas from Pocahontas. Pocahontas’ character is also very flat since she doesn’t really have any dialogue. However, she does have a song where she compares herself to the wind and her spirit to nature which helps us.
Flat Characters – Wrapping Up
The difference between a flat character and a round character might seem easy to spot, but it’s not always that simple. Sometimes, authors who think they’ve created a round character actually have written a flat one instead.
Telling the difference can take some practice, but if you’re aware of the signs of flatness, you’ll be able to avoid writing characters that are uninteresting and shallow. A flat character is a boring character.
Even if it’s not your intention, it’s easy to write a character who isn’t realistic enough for readers to relate to or care about.
Let’s look at how to avoid creating flat characters by building them more fully.
The Character Triangle
One way to create more interesting characters is to build them with the help of what I call the Character Triangle. The idea is based on work done by Dr. Linda Berens in her Practice of Creativity course on Navigate Your Life Online and in her book The Artist’s Way Workbook: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity .
Here are the three points of the triangle: What is the main character? What roles does this person play? What is this person like? Your main character is your protagonist or major character (or both).