Flat Character Definition
Flat characters (FLAT CARE-ihk-ters) are two-dimensional characters who are defined by a single trait or characteristic. They can often be described with a single word—such as teacher, bully, or jock—that encapsulates their personality and narrative purpose. Flat characters are usually minor characters who serve perfunctory roles. This does not mean they’re inherently boring or poorly conceived; they just lack depth and complexity.
E. M. Forster coined the terms flat character and round character in his 1927 book The Aspects of the Novel. He believed that round characters represented “the incalculability of life,” meaning they are complex, nuanced, and authentic. He described flat characters as two-dimensional in contrast.
How Flat Characters Are Used
Flat characters exist to support the main character and the plot. They are often stock characters, which have become stereotypical through recurring use of common traits. Flat characters inhabit various roles, but they all serve the protagonist’s arc, often by providing critical information or acting as a catalyst.
In helping propel the story, flat characters keep readers focused on plot. This is common in genres like science fiction and mystery, where narrative often supersedes characterization, as well as in fables and fairy tales, which strive to instruct readers about morality.
Flat characters can serve as foils too. A character who exemplifies the inverse of the protagonist’s traits helps highlight that protagonist’s personality, desires, and motivations, emphasizing their complexity. This is common in young adult fiction, which often pits nuanced protagonists against simple antagonists, creating a clear contrast that accentuates the main character’s virtue or integrity.
Why Writers Use Flat Characters
Where writers use round characters to achieve authenticity or engage the reader, they use flat characters to propel the plot and clarify the central conflict.
As mentioned above, this is especially true of genre fiction, in which plot takes precedence over characterization. Writers often deploy flat characters to keep the focus on plot rather than character development.
Too many round characters can burden a narrative. Writers use stock and archetypal characters to support, guide, or confront the hero without overcomplicating things with unnecessary backstories or needlessly complex motivations.
When it comes to conflict, it’s easier to root for the hero when their opposition is wholly defined by a few unfavorable traits. Writers use this flatness to direct the reader’s empathy and keep them from sympathizing with the villain.
Writers also use flat characters as symbols. An author can portray a character driven by prejudice or ignorance to comment on inequity or inequality. Similarly, writers use flat characters to satirize cultural or social groups and to comment on current events.
Flat Characters and Other Character Types
Flat Characters vs. Round Characters
A flat character is the opposite of a round character. Where round characters contain multitudes—a full or complicated backstory, a layered personality, various desires, and complex motivations—flat characters lack complexity and depth. They tend to have a single dominating characteristic, such as greed, ambition, loyalty, or grief. This lack of nuance is not a mark of quality, as flat characters often play crucial narrative roles.
Flat Characters vs. Static Characters
Flat characters and static characters are often conflated, but the difference is simple. Flat characters lack nuance; static characters do not change in reaction to the story. Most flat characters are static, and thus are not transformed by plot. However, not all static characters are flat, and there are many round characters who are also static.
Flat Characters in Pop Culture
Flat characters serve the same purpose in television and film as they do in literature. Consider these examples from pop culture:
- Gaston from Beauty and the Beast typifies the arrogant, vain, and superficial villain. While he is the film’s main antagonist, he also serves as a foil to the Beast. Gaston’s jealous, narcissistic personality throws into greater relief the Beast’s transformation into a selfless, compassionate individual.
- The Night King is one of several antagonists in Game of Thrones. Lacking any distinct personality, the Night King instead embodies evil, desiring nothing but destruction. He and his undead army exist to unite a diverse cast of characters against a single obstacle.
- In the Star Wars universe, there would be no Luke Skywalker without Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru. They raised Luke as their own son, which informed his values and personality, and their deaths draw him into the fight against the Empire. They’re flat characters who, despite their lack of depth, serve a crucial role in advancing the protagonist’s development as well as the plot.
Examples of Flat Characters in Literature
1. Bram Stoker, Dracula
This iconic work of gothic horror is written from the point of view of Jonathan Harker, a clerk who visits Count Dracula’s castle. Jonathan is taken with Dracula’s decorous manners but soon realizes he is Dracula’s prisoner. In the passage below, Jonathan has awoken to find three female vampires in his room, when Dracula suddenly whirls into the scene:
As my eyes opened involuntarily I saw his strong hand grasp the slender neck of the fair woman and with giant’s power draw it back, the blue eyes transformed with fury, the white teeth champing with rage, and the fair cheeks blazing red with passion. […] His eyes were positively blazing. The red light in them was lurid, as if the flames of hell fire blazed behind them. His face was deathly pale, and the lines of it were hard like drawn wires. The thick eyebrows that met over the nose now seemed like a heaving bar of white-hot metal. […] he said,
“How dare you touch him, any of you? […] This man belongs to me! Beware how you meddle with him, or you’ll have to deal with me.”
Dracula is the archetypal vampire, and this excerpt demonstrates his defining characteristics. He is prone to rage and violence, especially when his plans are foiled. He is possessive, manipulative, and cruel and does not feel regret or remorse. He is not driven by complex motivation, he does not have a full backstory, and his only desire is domination. He is a prime example of a flat character who is also a major antagonist—and a pop culture icon.
2. Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games
This dystopian young adult series follows Katniss Everdeen as she participates in the Hunger Games, an annual event that pits children against each other in a televised battle royal. Katniss volunteers for the games to save her younger sister Prim, to whom she is devoted:
I protect Prim in every way I can, but I’m powerless against the reaping. The anguish I always feel when she’s in pain wells up in my chest and threatens to register on my face. I noticed her blouse has pulled out of her skirt in the back again and force myself to stay calm. “Tuck your tail in, little duck,” I say, smoothing the blouse back in place.
Prim is defined by her status as Katniss’s younger sister. Though she matures throughout the saga, she never develops into a complex character in her own right. The excerpt above encapsulates the sisters’ dynamic and the way Katniss continuously looks out for Prim. When Prim is called to the Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers to keep her safe. As such, Prim exists to motivate Katniss into action, both here and throughout the series.
3. William Shakespeare, Hamlet
Gertrude is Hamlet’s mother. She marries Claudius, her brother-in-law, after her husband’s death. This pains Hamlet, who delivers this soliloquy in response to his mother’s choices:
But two months dead: nay, not so much, not two:
So excellent a king; that was, to this,
Hyperion to a satyr; so loving to my mother
That he might not beteem the winds of heaven
Visit her face too roughly. Heaven and earth!
Must I remember? why, she would hang on him,
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on: and yet, within a month–
Let me not think on’t–Frailty, thy name is woman!–
A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she follow’d my poor father’s body,
Like Niobe, all tears:–why she, even she–
O, God! a beast, that wants discourse of reason,
Would have mourn’d longer–married with my uncle,
My father’s brother, but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules: within a month
Gertrude depends on men for affection and status; all her choices stem from a desire to preserve both. Lacking any deeper complexity, she primarily exists to serve other character arcs. Her choices fuel Hamlet’s anguish, as evidenced by his condemnation of her actions, and her obliviousness enables Claudius to take his brother’s place as her lover and king.
Further Resources on Flat Characters
To learn more about the different between flat and round characters, check out this Masterclass article full of definitions, examples, and writing tips.
Flat characters are an essential aspect of fiction, but too many of them can kill a story. This writing resource from Reedsy includes tips and tricks for imbuing a flat character with more depth.
Learn more about the balance between plot and character with Creating Character Arcs from award-winning author K.M. Weiland.