Flat or Round Characters


Are your characters stereotypes or individuals?

In his seminal work ‘Aspects of the Novel,’ a collection of literary lectures published in 1927, the novelist E.M Forster famously distinguishes between ‘flat’ and ‘round’ characters. ‘Flat characters’, he suggests, ‘…are constructed round a single idea or quality.’ We might know them as stereotypes. Round characters, in contrast, are fully developed, three dimensional human beings. Flat characters were popular in the eighteenth century when the emphasis was more on plot: they carried the narrative forward, they clearly embodied vices or virtues. Nowadays readers prefer characters to be believable and rounded. However, that can pose problems for writers. Rounded characters are harder to produce!

            I was interested to hear that even the great Andrea Levy starts with flat characters: ‘[Initially] I get my characters straight out of central casting,’ she admitted in a ‘BookClub’ interview in 2005. Her characters are so richly layered and complex it’s hard to believe, but when you are thrashing out the plot of your novel, characters are often just there to carry out the demands of the story. Later on we can add in the flaws, characteristics and eccentricities that make them round and memorable.

If you have a look at my blog entitled ‘Quirky Characters’, I suggest some ways to do this.

In my current w.i.p, some of my characters are too flat. I tend to make the good characters too good and the bad characters too bad. Yet most people are in between. As Dylan Thomas reminds us at the beginning of his famous ‘play for voices’:

We are not wholly bad or good,
Who live our lives under Milk Wood

 Even Adolf Hitler was kind to animals!

            So I’m off to flesh out my stereotypes and hopefully make them into real people. Wish me luck!