What exactly is a flat character? Many beginning writers might assume that all flat characters are inadequate characters that they need to scrub them from their story. Not true! You need a few flat characters wandering around your narrative, and we’ll talk about why these characters are important.
But first, we’ll answer the question- what is a flat character. We’ll also look at classic examples of flat characters, and compare flat characters to other character types. Finally, we’ll discuss how to fix a one-dimensional character that you need to be more complex and dynamic. Let’s get started!
Flat Character Definition:
A flat character is a character that has only one or two personality traits. Flat characters are usually motivated by a single, specific desire and undergo little or no change throughout the narrative.
Characteristics of a Flat Character
- Possess only one or two personality traits.
- Have simple motivations.
- Undergo little or no change throughout the narrative.
- Their role in the narrative is to support the main character.
- They may have stereotypical qualities.
- Have no internal conflicts.
- They usually lack a backstory.
Synonym for Flat Character
Flat characters are often called one-dimensional characters, or sometimes two-dimensional characters. These names come from the tendency of flat characters to have a limited viewpoint on life or events in the story.
For example, you may have a villain who is motivated by greed. Their desire for money drives every choice this character makes. For contrast, a complex character is motivated by many different drives, and these motivations may even contradict!
You may also have heard the terms ‘flat character’ and ‘static character’ used interchangeably. However, not all static characters are flat. We’ll discuss the difference between these characters further down in the article.
What is an example of a Flat Character?
Examples of Flat Character in literature
John Watson, Sherlock Holmes
In recent film and tv adaptations of Sherlock Holmes, writers have spent more time fleshing out the famed detective’s loyal compatriot. However, in the original books by Sir Arthur Conan Doyal, Dr. Watson was little more than a foil to the titular character.
Watson’s most prominent trait is his loyalty to his friend Sherlock. Watson’s only function in the narrative is to serve as a sounding board for Holmes’s theories and narrate the story’s events to the reader.
John Hammond, Jurassic Park
John Hammond can be considered a flat character in both the film and the novel Jurassic Park. However, he serves a role that often falls to flat characters in the story- Hammond is the villain. In the book, Hammond is only motivated by greed. He is so motivated that he puts innocent people, including his grandchildren, in danger to prove the safety of his park.
Hammond’s character, in the book, can be summed up in a single quote, “remember our original intent was to use the emerging technology of genetic engineering to make money. A lot of money.”
Romeo, Romeo & Juliet
Many articles online point to Benvolio as an example of a flat character in Shakespear’s Romeo & Juliet. But you know what? Romeo is pretty flat when you think about him. He has a single motivation, his infatuation with Juliet. His backstory is thin. We know he’s a teenager, and we know that he comes from an influential family and little else beyond that.
Finally, does Romeo experience any growth or change in the duration of the play? Not really. Romeo is an impulsive slave to passion at the beginning of the play. He is done in by that same impulsivity in the end.
Examples of Flat Characters in movies
Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park
In the film, Dr. Ian Malcolm, while one of the more interesting characters, is flat. Malcolm has a single motivation- to prove the park is unsafe and embarrass its billionaire owner, Hammond. Malcolm doesn’t undergo any change during the narrative because the film proves him correct. If you have never seen the movie, the dinosaurs escape and start eating people.
Max Rockatansky, Mad Max: Fury Road
This one might be a stretch considering he is the title character, but in the context of Fury Road, Max is a flat character. Max, as a character, has a complex backstory of losing his wife and son to a biker gang. However, we glimpse none of that history in this film. He experiences no growth during the movie. He’s a decent man at the beginning and remains a decent man throughout.
Max’s role in the movie is in service to the film’s protagonist, Furiosa. Max has a one-dimensional personality. His character is summed up in one word- survivor.
For contrast, compare Max to Nicholas Hoult’s character, Nux. Nux starts the film as a “war boy,” a brainwashed soldier ready to die for a maniacal warlord. However, by the end of the movie, he sacrifices himself to save a group of innocent people.
John McClane, Die Hard
In Die Hard, John McClane has one character trait: he is a New York cop. His vocation pretty much tells you everything you need to know about John. He’s tough, he’s no-nonsense, and he can kick ass.
John has a single motivation; he wants to save his wife from the terrorists that have stormed her office building. And, he doesn’t really change throughout the film. He just kills the terrorists.
It’s Reginald VelJohson’s character, Al Powell, who undergoes a dynamic change in the movie. Powell reveals to McClain that he was relegated to a desk job after accidentally shooting a child holding a toy gun.
After the incident, Powell refuses to fire a weapon again. But, when the final terrorist lumbers out of Nakatomi Plaza and levels a submachine gun at our hero, McClane, Powell shoots him saving John and his wife. In the end, Al recovers the courage he once lost.
Flat Character vs. Static Character
Flat characters are often confused with static characters. However, there are significant differences between the two. As we’ve already defined, flat characters are one-dimensional and do not undergo change throughout a narrative.
All flat characters are static, but not all static characters are flat.
Static characters are similar in that they also will not change from the beginning of a story to the end. All flat characters are also static characters because they will not change during a story. However, not all static characters are flat.
The key difference between static and flat characters is that some are very complex, possessing internal conflicts, motivations, and fascinating backstories. Examples of static characters would be people like Hermoine Granger in the Harry Potter series or Indiana Jones. These characters are complex but never fundamentally change.
Flat Character vs. Round Character
Flat characters are the opposite of round characters. Round characters have rich backstories and complex personalities. When it comes to round characters, the reader has a lot of information. Flat characters, again, are one-dimensional, and we don’t get a lot of information about flat characters.
Flat characters are, by nature, not round characters.
Quick note: static characters can also be round characters.
Flat Character vs. Dynamic Character
Dynamic characters are characters who undergo fundamental change through the events of a story. For that reason, a protagonist is very likely to be dynamic, but not always. Some main characters are simply round, and don’t change throughout the narrative.
How to use a Flat Character
Use them to liven up your setting.
Flat character doesn’t mean boring character. A lot of flat characters can be engaging and full of personality if you spend the time developing them. Flat characters are also great at making your setting feel real. I’ll give an example:
While writing this article, I’m reading Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. The novel is full of exciting characters that breathe life into the narrative’s setting, New Orleans. The author gives each flat character a unique voice, dialect, and motivations that provide a non-native reader an idea of the people and lives that inhabit the city.
Take the character of Santa, a friend of the main character’s mother. Aside from undermining the protagonist’s tense relationship with his mother, Santa doesn’t have a massive role in the plot. But, Santa speaks with a thick accent, she cracks oysters in her yard, and she gossips about other families in the Quarter. In short, she gives us an idea of what it’s like to live in the New Orleans French Quarter.
In short, flat characters provide an atmosphere to your story.
Use them as a character foil.
Check out that link if you want to read the full article, but here’s a quick reminder. Character foils are characters who highlight specific personality traits in other characters.
Usually, a character foil will have opposing views to your main character. You can use character foils to point out weaknesses in your protagonist’s point of view or highlight personality traits.
Because flat characters only need one or two personality traits, they make for perfect foils. Don’t pin yourself in, though; you can have character foils that are both round and dynamic, as well!
Use them to move the plot forward.
Sometimes a flat character can make a decision that moves your plot along. I once read a book where a flat character was frustrated with his employer. The character in question was high enough in the company that he had power to sabotage a significant project.
This single act of sabotage creates the majority of the conflict in the plot. Still, the character disappears from the narrative about halfway through. Just because a character is minor or flat doesn’t mean that they can’t affect the plot.
How to fix a Flat Character (in four steps)
You might have a flat character that you need to flesh out if that character has a prominent role in your narrative. For instance, you typically don’t want a flat character in the role of your protagonist.
When it comes to your hero, readers want to read about complex characters with complicated inner lives. However, if you find yourself with a one-dimensional main character, don’t panic. We can transform a flat character into a round, dynamic character by adding a few crucial elements.
- 1. Start with a backstory.
To turn that flat hero round, the first place you should start is with backstory. Round characters are characters that the reader has a lot of information about. We know where they grew up, what their childhood or past was like, and most importantly, the root of any trauma, flaws, or internal conflict they have.
If you’re unsure of your hero’s backstory, spend some time fleshing it out. You should know everything about your character’s past. Write a character biography. Then ask yourself how the character’s past shaped their worldview.
Write a timeline of your character’s past, tracking the most important events of their life.
Create a short character biography for your hero and describe their life in 2-3 paragraphs.
Develop events that caused your hero trauma or shaped their personality.
- 2. Give your character internal motivations.
Flat characters have simple, usually external, motivations. If your hero’s only goal is to acquire some physical prize, like treasure, then you need to create internal incentives for them.
A dynamic character, or character who changes, will have inner flaws that they need to overcome. Again, look at your character’s backstory. What are some early events that negatively shaped their personality?
Maybe, one of your character’s parents abandoned them, and your character has become a loner in response. Your character will have a deep-seated internal motivationt connect with other human beings in a meaningful way.
Internal motivations will motivate the change needed for a dynamic character arc.
Create an internal motivation for your character. Some personal needs they want satisfied, like respect, friendship, or love.
Develop events in your character’s backstory that created internal motivations (most likely traumatic events- even minor traumas can create a motivation)
- 3. Add internal conflict.
Now that you’re thinking about internal motivations, think about how these motivations can conflict. Think of a main character who, as a child, was abandoned by a parent. This character was raised by a single parent who struggled to make ends meet. This trauma created two needs in your character:
- They didn’t have money growing up, so as an adult, they sought security through wealth.
- Their sense of abandonment drives an internal need for close-knit, familial bonds.
Now you can play these internal motivations against each other. You could have a character who is driven to succeed in their career, but chose to have a large family with their partner. These two motivations naturally conflict, and your character will have to decide which is more important.
Brainstorm internal motivations that can conflict with each other.
Ex. the need for success and the need for family.
- 4.. Give your character an arc.
Once you’ve created a character’s history and tinkered with their motivations, you have one last step. It’s time to turn your protagonist into a dynamic character!
Creating a dynamic character is simple in theory. Write a character who overcomes a flaw or changes their worldview through the plot’s action. Dynamic characters can change for the better or the worse, but hero’s change for the better.
Plotting character growth sounds easy enough, but creating a dynamic character means mapping out an entire character arc for your hero. How to create a character arc is a whole article itself. Lucky for you, I’ve already written that article, and you can check it out here:
That’s everything I know about flat characters. Remember, flat characters aren’t always bad; they can be useful in your narrative. However, if you want to transform a flat character into a dynamic character it will take some hard work and research. So, It’’s time for you to start writing, or fixing, your flat characters!
Continued reading on flat characters: