Round vs. Flat Character: What’s the Difference?

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Though someone may pick up a book because of its premise, great characters are why they will keep reading and remember the story. In fact, well-developed, believable characters are the heart and soul of any great story. Your characters will captivate readers, drive your narrative forward, and provide depth and authenticity to the world you’ve created.

When it comes to character development, there are two general types: flat characters and round characters. Let’s explore the differences between round vs. flat characters, discuss their characteristics, and consider the importance of using each in your story.

Diving deeper into character depth

In literature, character depth refers to the level of complexity and dimensionality of a character. It encompasses their thoughts, actions, emotions, motivations, and character development throughout the story.

What is a round character?

Round characters are multi-dimensional and complex. They’re portrayed as imperfect, exhibit realistic emotions, and most importantly, they undergo personal growth or change in the course of the story. Round characters typically have well-developed backstories, relatable motivations, and conflicting traits, making them believable and engaging.

In short, round characters are akin to real people you know well, with strengths, weaknesses, and internal conflicts. These characters typically have a greater impact on a story and often serve as the main protagonists or significant supporting characters. Think Jay Gatsby from The Great Gatsby, Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice, and Harry Potter from the seven-book series.

How to write round characters

Creating well-rounded characters requires attention to myriad details, including:

  1. Backstory and motivations. A fulsome backstory shapes your character’s personality, values, and motivations. Explore past experiences, relationships, and actions to create a foundation for their behavior and decisions.
  2. Character arc. Give your character a journey of growth or change from the beginning to the end of your story. Create obstacles and challenges that force them to confront their flaws, overcome conflicts, and evolve. A well-executed character arc adds depth and engages readers emotionally.
  3. Relationships and interactions. Develop meaningful relationships between your round character and other characters in the story. Consider how these connections shape their beliefs, choices, and development. Dynamic and authentic relationships contribute to the realism of your character.

What is a flat character?

A flat character is a relatively uncomplicated and one-dimensional character who does not undergo significant change or growth throughout the story. Flat characters often serve a specific purpose, such as providing comic relief or acting as a foil to the main character. They tend to possess few distinguishing traits and lack the depth, complexity, and prominence of round characters.

Flat characters might be portrayed as the bumbling sidekick in a comedy, the evil villain motivated solely by power, or the wise mentor who imparts wisdom. These characters typically fulfill their roles without undergoing significant personal growth or transformation.

Although flat characters tend to be secondary characters, this is not always the case. Consider James Bond, Hercule Poirot, and Sherlock Holmes. These three characters are among the most popular in history and yet they are all relatively one-dimensional. Their stories do not include character arcs that have them experiencing growth and development, and they remain unchanged from one book to the next.

Do you need flat characters in a story?

While round characters are typically more dynamic and engaging, flat characters have their place in storytelling. Flat characters serve various functions within a narrative, such as:

  1. Foils. Flat characters can act as foils to your round characters, highlighting their traits and complexities. They provide a contrasting perspective, allowing readers to better understand and appreciate the depth of the round characters.
  2. Symbolism. Flat characters can embody specific traits, symbols, or archetypes that represent broader themes or concepts in the story. They can serve as symbolic representations and contribute to the overall meaning and impact of the narrative.
  3. Distinctive traits. Flat characters with exaggerated or distinctive traits can add humor, tension, or memorable moments to the story.

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Choosing round vs. flat characters for your story

Determining whether to use round vs. flat characters depends on the specific needs of your story. Consider the genre, themes, and intended impact on readers. How long is the character going to be in your narrative? If they are just passing through in one chapter, we probably don’t need to know their back history.

In literary fiction or character-driven stories, round characters often take center stage, allowing readers to explore the complexities of human nature and relationships. In genre fiction, such as action or mystery, a mix of round and flat characters can enhance the pacing and plot dynamics.

Set your characters free!

Developing compelling characters is an essential aspect of storytelling. Round vs. flat characters offer distinct approaches to your story’s development, each serving different purposes. While round characters provide depth, growth, and relatability, flat characters can serve as foils, symbols, or sources of distinctive traits. Understanding the differences between these character types and incorporating them thoughtfully into your story can elevate the richness and impact of your writing. Choose the character type that best aligns with your story’s objectives and engages your readers on a meaningful level.

When your characters have said all they have to say, it’s time to contact BookBaby. Our Complete Self-Publishing Packages have everything you need to bring your round and flat characters to your readers, including eBook conversion, printed books, design, print-on-demand, worldwide distribution, and more.

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  1. I am always uncomfortable with Harry Potter references. The author is all villain, and references to her books insult a great many people.
    Otherwise great article.


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