Three Ways Of Looking At Character

There are many ways of looking at character: flat vs rounded, static vs dynamic and stylised versus natural. These distinctions are explained below.

FLAT/ROUNDED

flat-rounded

Is this character more ‘flat’ or more ’rounded’?

This distinction was first made by E.M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel, who said that a round character is one who is capable of surprise.

I would like to carve my novel in a piece of wood. My characters—I would like to have them heavier, more three-dimensional…. My characters have a profession, have characteristics; you know their age, their family situation, and everything. But I try to make each one of those characters heavy, like a statue, and to be the brother of everybody in the world.

Georges Simenon

In any work of literature there is a place for characters of both orientations.

FLAT CHARACTERS
  • Are by nature 2D and without colour
  • Typically have one stand-out trait or none at all
  • Are often either ‘good’ or ‘evil’
  • Actions are predictable
  • Common in formulaic fiction
  • The characters in Winnie the Pooh are all flat, but collectively make up parts of a single character (Christopher Robin), who is not flat
  • But a flat character is not necessarily artistically worse than a rounded one — whatever serves the story is good.
  • Respond in predictable, mechanical ways. This makes flat characters very useful in comedy or in suspense stories (e.g. horror and thriller).
ROUNDED CHARACTERS
  • More closely approximates a real person
  • Possess a number of traits
  • We can’t predict their behaviour
  • Protagonists aren’t necessarily rounded, though are more likely to be so
  • Secondary characters aren’t necessarily flat, though are more likely to be so
  • In children’s literature, the rounded characters are generally less complex than they would be in real life, for simplicity’s sake

Basically, rounded characters are individuated characters. Individuated characters are detailed.

I want each character to be as unique as possible. I want them to reflect something of who they are in the way that they move and in how their bodies work. That was foremost in my head when I was writing Salvage: I wanted every gesture, every little movement, to really carry meaning and communicate meaning to the reader. I was very conscious of that when I was writing.

Jesmyn Ward

STATIC/DYNAMIC

static-dynamic

Dynamic characters change over the course of the story.

Static characters remain the same.

What about the characters in the books you’ve published so far? Here are mine:

Asaf of The Artifacts changes. Therefore he is of ‘dynamic orientation’. He stops collecting material items to make himself happy and begins to broaden his mind with experiences.

Roya of Midnight Feast changes a little, but ultimately chooses to ignore the realities right outside her window. She is closer to the ‘static’ end of the continuum.

Hilda of Hilda Bewildered undergoes an entire character arc from overwhelmed to able to cope.

Allegra of Diary Of A Goth Girl also undergoes an entire character arc, from prickly and mean to loving.

  • Both main characters and supporting characters can be static or dynamic.
  • Old didactic (moralistic) children’s literature is more likely to have static characters.
  • But static characters aren’t necessarily worse  than dynamic characters — it depends on the story.
  • Contemporary children’s literature commonly depicts inner growth, and therefore needs a dynamic main character.
  • Rounded characters can be either dynamic or static — these are two different continua
  • There’s kind of a rule of kidlit that a good kid can’t turn evil, but the opposite often happens, even if the ending is left ‘open’, and we’re encouraged to assume redemption
  • Oftentimes, if a character were to change too much we’d be disappointed. We’d be disappointed if Anne of Green Gables lost her optimistic attitude, for example.

STYLIZED/NATURAL

stylized-natural

This distinction is important in children’s fiction.

  • Stylisation is a commonly used didactic device. (Stylised characters are used to teach the reader something.)
  • A stereotype is a kind of stylisation (as well as tropes and stock characters)
  • Contemporary psychological novels tend to feature natural characterisation

I don’t use people I know at all. I really value the shorthand, the compression of suggesting a whole life while actually having to render up very little of it. I feel tired of exposition and backstory; the more you can suggest without spelling out, the more you can encompass in the same space. Fiction writing is always about compression and suggestion.

Jennifer Egan

Header photo by Basil Samuel Lade.

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