Round Character Definition
Round characters (ROWWnd care-ihk-ters) are complex and multifaceted. There’s more to them than what appears on the surface because they have layered personalities and multifaceted backgrounds, desires, and motivations. These characters are authentically complicated and flawed, like real people, thus making stories interesting and believable.
The term round character was first introduced by novelist E. M. Forster in his 1927 work The Aspects of the Novel. In this book of compiled lectures, he identifies two types of characters: flat and round. Where flat characters are two-dimensional, Forster believes round characters embody the “incalculability of life.”
How Round Characters Are Used
Round characters populate fiction with believable, lifelike characters with whom readers can relate. Both primary and secondary characters tend to be round.
- A protagonist is the primary character who drives the narrative forward in pursuit of a goal. Protagonists are generally round characters with full backstories, complex emotions, realistic motivations, and flaws. Readers can usually identify round protagonists from the start, even before conflict incites any transformation in character. Ponyboy from The Outsiders is an example of a round protagonist.
- Antagonists are the primary source of conflict, as the protagonist often must overcome the antagonist to achieve their goal. Antagonists can be round or flat depending on the story. Some antagonists are driven by complex motivations, like the Creature in Frankenstein, while others are driven by a simple, singular motive, like Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter series.
- A deuteragonist is a character who supports the protagonist, often a sidekick or companion. Deuteragonists and other character types—love interests, mentors, and so on—can also be round or flat depending on their role in the text. Ford Prefect from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a round deuteragonist.
Why Writers Use Round Characters
Writers use round characters because they’re authentic and relatable. When readers sympathize and empathize with a character, they become invested in the story. Authors also use round characters to demonstrate various facets of human personality and behavior, which allows them to comment on society, culture, and humanity.
Round characters can also show narrative progression. Since these characters often transform in response to the plot, readers can discern a difference between who a character was at the beginning and who they are at the end, conveying movement and development.
Round Characters and Other Character Types
Round Characters vs. Flat Characters
A flat character is the opposite of a round character. Defined by a single personality trait or characteristic, they lack complexity and depth. Flat characters are not inherently poorly written characters because they often serve crucial narrative roles that propel the plot.
Round Characters vs. Dynamic Characters
Round refers to complexity, while dynamic refers to transformation. Many round characters are also dynamic because they change in response to conflict, but this is not always the case. Round characters aren’t always transformed by their circumstances, and dynamic characters don’t always have complex, multifaceted personalities.
Round Characters in Pop Culture
Round characters are found in all manner of media, including film, comics, and television. These fictional pop culture icons are examples of round characters.
- Batman from DC Comics: The dark knight is certainly stoic and reserved, but there’s a wealth of characterization beneath his mask. Audiences particularly delight in the tension between the character’s two personas, the vigilante Batman and billionaire Bruce Wayne.
- Norman Bates from the movie Psycho: Norman is an example of a round antagonist. He seems placid and inoffensive, but he harbors dark, psychopathic depths. His troubled childhood raises questions of nature versus nurture, adding an extra layer of complexity that tempts audiences to pity him even as they revile him.
- Elle Woods from the movie Legally Blonde: Several characters judge Elle as spoiled and superficial, and to a degree she is. But Elle is as intelligent and ambitious as she is stylish and spoiled—and even a bit vindictive. She’s an excellent example of a round character whose physical appearance and gregarious personality bely her smarts and dedication.
Examples of Round Characters in Literature
1. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Jane Austen’s heroines are famous, and none more so than Elizabeth Bennet. Elizabeth is intelligent and clever. However, her wit often manifests as a sharp tongue, and she’s prone to hasty judgment that often leads to trouble. This passage, in which Elizabeth reflects on her initial opinion of potential suitor Mr. Darcy, showcases her complexity when it comes to judging others’ character:
“How despicably I have acted!” she cried; “I, who have prided myself on my discernment! I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity in useless or blameable mistrust! How humiliating is this discovery! Yet, how just a humiliation! Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind. But vanity, not love, has been my folly. Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment I never knew myself.”
This passage marks a moment of personal revelation. Elizabeth was blinded by her pride and vanity—the very flaws she criticized Mr. Darcy over. This understanding causes a change of heart; Elizabeth reconciles with Mr. Darcy and accepts his new proposal. This shows that Elizabeth’s character is both round and dynamic.
2. George R.R. Martin, A Feast for Crows
In the fourth book of Martin’s epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, Brienne of Tarth prefers honing her skills as a warrior to being a traditional lady. Though she is barred from knighthood because she is a woman, she still strives to embody the ideals of a true knight. Here, Brienne swears to find and protect Catelyn Stark’s daughter Sansa:
I will find her, my lady, Brienne swore to Lady Catelyn’s restless shade. I will never stop looking. I will give up my life if need be, give up my honor, give up all my dreams, but I will find her.
Brienne is repeatedly disparaged despite her demonstrable martial skill, but her resolve to uphold the tenets of knighthood, such as valor and honor, never wavers. Yet she vows to give up everything—her life and her dreams—to find Sansa, demonstrating that there’s much more to Brienne than aspirations of knighthood.
3. Williams Shakespeare, Hamlet
In this classic tragedy that pits family members against each other, Hamlet is compelled to avenge his father’s death. He resolves to affect madness to better observe life in the castle, but he winds up mired in a steep philosophical quandary. His indecision is depicted in this famous soliloquy from Act 3, Scene 1:
HAMLET: To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them.
These iconic lines are born of internal strife, as Hamlet vacillates between philosophical extremes. Is it better to endure life or to chance death, despite its uncertainties? Should he honor convention and kill the murderous Claudius, or should he uphold morality because murder is a sin? These moral and existential questions are complex, and they demonstrate that Hamlet is an incredibly complicated character.
Further Resources on Round Characters
This Masterclass article gives an overview of round and flat characters, including definitions, differences, and examples from fiction.
The Squibler blog offers examples and common identifiers of round character.
Writers interested in creating well-rounded characters can consult this list of 33 ways to write stronger characters.