I bet you’ve heard that some characters in a story are round while others are flat, but do you know exactly what that means? How do you know if your characters are round or flat? Should you always create round and dynamic characters? How can you make your characters more believable?
Before answering these questions, let’s first analyze what round and flat characters are and when to resort to using them:
Only a few features (usually based on clichés) are necessary to create flat characters. They’re generally static characters meant to serve the story.
When should you use flat characters and why?
Flat characters are often used in TV comedies (30-minute sitcoms with canned laughter) because comedic stories usually focus on the anecdote and the joke. Thanks to their commonplace situations and characters, sitcoms are able to transmit a sense of familiarity to the spectator. Flat characters also have a supporting role in stories with round main characters in order to achieve one of these effects:
Fast recognition: You need your readers/audience to easily recognize the type of characters you are presenting.
Contrast: Flat and/or static characters can highlight the internal or external evolution of round characters.
When should you avoid flat characters?
Unless you’re specifically looking for one of the previous effects listed for flat characters, it’s best that your characters (especially the protagonists) are round in order for your readers to identify with them.
A round character is one that has depth. Round characters have weaknesses, strengths, flaws, fears, tastes, and dreams. They are well characterized in order to seem real. Furthermore, a round character is not static or inconsistent; it’s dynamic and changes over time.
Round characters feel affected by the story’s events because they suffer their consequences and learn from them which makes them more realistic and believable. But what’s the secret to creating round and deep characters?
1. Internal Changes
Do your characters undergo any internal changes throughout the story? Think about their situation at the beginning of the story. Is it the same as it is at the end? It shouldn’t be. They can be worse or better, but the story’s events should have affected them in some way.
2. External Changes
Do the external circumstances surrounding your characters change throughout the story? Just as their personalities suffer variations, their external conditions should as well. For example, one of your characters could be a farmer at the beginning of the story and then become a warrior by the end.
What do your characters want? They should have a conscious desire – something that moves them into action.
What do your characters need? Regardless of what they think they want, there’s something they need at an unconscious level – something different from what they consciously desire. That contradiction will bring depth to your fictional heroes.
What do your characters attain? Do they achieve any of their goals? How does that affect them? If you have the answer to the last question, you’ll have a clearer idea of how the story’s events have changed their way of facing life. For instance, if they achieve what they wanted at the beginning of the tale but that’s not what they really need, they can learn from their mistakes and try to correct them. However, they might also give into frustration.
What are their weaknesses? Everybody makes mistakes and has fears and flaws, so if you want your characters to be more believable, they’d better have weak points and see themselves in need of facing them if possible. Your characters overcoming these weaknesses or not depends on the story you want to tell and on the type of evolution you want them to experience.
For example, in the U.S. TV series The Wire (By the way, it’s one of the best series I have watched in terms of characterization, and I highly recommend you watch it!), there are some characters that must face their flaws. Some overcome them and progress while others don’t and fail. The contrast between them is what makes the story more believable.
What are their strengths? Apart from weaknesses, your characters can have strong points they may or may not know about. Sometimes, they discover them and learn how to make the most of them. Other times, they do not know, and it leads them to failure. You, as a writer, should be clear about those strengths and so should your readers be in order to better understand your characters.
What’s your characters’ inner conflicts? I’ve chosen this to be the last question to consider because once you’ve answered the previous seven areas of question, you’ll find this one easier to answer. Every good character must deal with an inner conflict throughout the story such as a mental debate between what they need and what they want or a moral struggle between what they’re trying to attain and what they consider correct. This type of dilemma makes your characters interesting, and their experiences can turn into life lessons for your readers.