In writing workshops and courses, you might hear other writers talking about “round characters” and “flat characters.” Often, they might say something like, “This character is too flat! Give them some dimension.”

But what do we mean by flat and round characters? Is one really better or worse? What purpose do they serve in our writing?

What do round and flat characters mean in writing?

“Flat characters” and “round characters” are terms used to describe how deep, complex, and well-development characters are in a story. Flat characters are unchanging and lacking in deep characterization, while round characters are multi-layered and well-rounded, displaying the rich and often contradictory elements of a fully-fleshed personality.

What is a round character?

A round character is a type of character in storytelling that exhibits nuanced, multi-dimensional human complexity. They have clear strengths, weaknesses, needs, beliefs, and ambitions which drive the events of the plot. These characters might display traits that are in conflict with one another, and they take an active role in moving the story forward. Protagonists are always round characters.

A round character isn’t quite the same thing as a dynamic character, although many characters can be both. While a round character is one with nuance and dimension, a dynamic character is one who changes over time. They may develop a new way of seeing the world, or overcome an inherent flaw.

Elizabeth Bennet, the protagonist of Pride and Prejudice, is an example of a round, complex character.

Round character definition: A round character is a three-dimensional character with a complex nature that mirrors real life.

What is the purpose of a round character?

Round characters are essential in fiction because they feel real and relatable to the reader. Rather than representing a broad idea—which often manifests as a trope or a cliché —round characters mirror our own humanity back at us. They display the contradictions and fundamental needs that readers will recognize within themselves. This makes us want to follow them and cheer them on as they work towards their happy endings.

The vast majority of the prominent central characters in a novel or short story should be round characters. If your protagonist is flat (more on flat characters below!), the reader won’t be able to fully engage with them.

Examples of round characters from literature

To see how this looks in practice, here are some successful round characters from famous literary works.

The queen from The Sleeper and the Spindle, by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman’s fairy tale retelling focuses on an unnamed protagonist, referred to mainly as “the queen,” who is an imagining of Snow White. In this version, Snow White isn’t a blushing, wilting rose; she is a strong leader of her people who nonetheless feels caught in the conventions and gender expectations of her society. As her story progresses, she learns to trust her own strength and make her own choices.

This protagonist is a round character because she has goals, fears, and contrasting emotions that she needs to sort through before she can earn her happy ending. The writer alludes to her backstory and the traumas and experiences which shaped those feelings. She’s also a dynamic character, meaning that she undergoes an internal shift from beginning to end.

Mrs. Bennet from Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

Although Mrs. Bennet is a love-to-hate antagonist in this classic romance, the matriarch of the Bennet family is richly developed with her own fears, needs, strengths, and flaws (in the multitudes). She is a clear, lifelike character with a complex personality, recognizable nuance and humanity.

Mrs. Bennet is a round character because she has a clear objective which she works towards across the entire novel, as well as a blend of positive and negative feelings towards her family. Unlike the previous example, Mrs. Bennet is a static character, meaning she doesn’t change very much from beginning to end. Even without a dynamic change, however, she is recognizably a complete person. This makes her a round character.

Peter Parker in The Amazing Spiderman

The web-slinging hero of one of history’s most successful comic book franchises is one of the most complex characters in modern literature. He has two distinct identities, each fully realized yet intimately intertwined. Peter Parker has skills, weaknesses, fears, ambitions, and people and places dear to his heart. He’s both completely human and completely otherworldly at the same time. The character’s complexity makes him deeply relatable and memorable to generations of readers.

Peter Parker is a round character because the reader understands why he makes the choices that he does, what matters to him most in life, and which personal failings are holding him back. This makes his story feel natural and organic—because the plot comes from the depth and humanity of his character.

All of these figures are examples of round characters because they have:

  • Goals which they actively pursue

  • Flaws which inhibit them from obtaining them

  • Complex personality traits that make them feel alive

  • Nuanced relationships with those around them

  • A personal stake in the events of the plot

What is a flat character?

A flat character is a type of character with limited personality traits and a simplistic view of the world. Their motivations in a narrative will be straightforward and direct, and they remain unchanged across the story. These formulaic characters might make mistakes, but they never learn from them or grow.

Most clichés you see in fables, fairy tales, and trope-filled teen movies will fall under this category. While it’s not inadmissible to have a few flat characters filling out the world of your story, they don’t make for very engaging lead protagonists or antagonists.

You’ll sometimes hear the terms “flat character” and “static character” being used interchangeably, but they’re not quite the same thing. A static character refers to a character who remains consistent between the beginning and the end of a story. But, these characters can still be fully formed with a range of conflicting emotions and depth. In other words, all flat characters are static, but not all static characters are flat.

Flat character definition: A flat character is a one-dimensional character that lacks nuance and depth.

What is the purpose of a flat character?

Flat characters can be useful in certain types of stories or in certain roles. They can be used as foil characters for the protagonist, helping to enhance opposite traits or opportunities for growth. For example, if your hero is beginning to question a corrupt and unbalanced social system, you might have several flat characters who follow the norm unquestioningly and don’t look beyond the everyday.

A one-dimensional character can also be useful when writing an allegory, or a symbolic story meant to convey a social message or idea. For example, “The Tortoise and the Hare” follows two flat characters, each with only one key characteristic. These characters allow the storyteller to communicate a straightforward moral to the reader.

Examples of flat characters from literature

Here are some flat character examples throughout history.

The townspeople from The Sleeper and the Spindle, by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman enhances his fairy tale world with stock characters who populate the local village. They work well in this story because they enhance the fairy tale setting and offer exposition to both the characters and the reader. Through them, the narrator is able to explain what has happened leading up to the events of the plot.

These people are flat characters because they don’t have any personal history, relationships, or ambitions of their own (at least, not ones that are explored in this tale). Instead, they’re used as narrative devices to convey information and move the story along. They still manage to be vibrant and entertaining, but they don’t display any real depth.

George Wickham from Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

The villain of Jane Austen’s most famous novel is a cowardly rake who believes in having a good time, pushing the cost of it onto those around him. He’s not particularly complex, representing a generation of entitled men. However, he becomes an effective foil to the depth and contradictions of the novel’s heroic lead, Mr. Darcy.

Wickham is a flat character because he doesn’t display a lot of depth throughout the story. The narrative doesn’t bother to explore his motivations for the choices he makes, instead using those choices as plot points that incite the other characters. However, his lack of dimension is used effectively to contrast some of the other players in the novel.

J Jonah Jameson in The Amazing Spiderman

Another beloved literary villain, J Jonah Jameson is an upper-middle-class rapscallion with a vendetta against the titular hero. He remains consistent throughout the first few decades of his character’s appearances, and represents an unchanging obstacle for both Peter Parker and his primary-colored alter ego. Jameson is lovable in spite of his curmudgeonly ways, and his attitude ensures he always draws attention when he enters a room.

Jameson is a flat character because the story doesn’t explore his history or the experiences that have made him the way he is—he just explodes onto the page with his hat and cigar and no-prisoners attitude. He has one goal upon which all of actions revolve, and he never deviates from this guiding axis. He makes for an entertaining character, but one that’s mostly surface.

All of these figures are examples of flat characters because they:

  • Have a limited set of consistent personality traits

  • Have one singular approach to their circumstance

  • Don’t change across the story

  • Aren’t given a detailed backstory

  • Function mainly to guide other characters

Are round characters always better than flat characters?

In general, writers are told to avoid using flat characters in a story. If an editor says that a character is flat, that usually means that you as the author haven’t done enough work to bring them to living color.

When developing your key players—protagonist, antagonist, and secondary supporting cast —it’s best to give them as much depth and complexity as possible. This means things like internal conflict, flaws, ambitions, habits, speech patterns, and all the details that go into making a person real. Without these elements, readers will find it challenging to care about what happens to your characters.

Many round characters are also dynamic characters, which means they undergo significant change.

The exception might be if you have an epic packed full of characters, and delving too deeply into the character development of every single one would slow down your pacing and drag down your story. In this case, your time is better spent fleshing out your main characters and leaving some of the tertiary characters as set decorations.

While flat characters can be useful in targeted instances, they should only be included when they don’t better serve the narrative as a round character.

How to know if your character is flat or round

So is there a litmus test for identifying a round character? How do you know if you’ve hit all the right notes in your character development?

During your revision process, ask yourself questions like:

  • Do I know my character’s backstory?

  • What does this character want more than anything?

  • What internal flaws or weaknesses are keeping them from getting it?

  • What do they value most in life?

  • What’s driving them to make the choices that they do?

  • Do they undergo significant change as they progress towards their goals?

A good round character should have distinct motivations that drive them forward, as well as things they value that they’re not willing to lose. They won’t ever be completely bad or completely good, but instead a blend of positive and negative traits built out of their experiences.

If you’re not sure what’s happening under the surface of this character’s actions or what’s influencing those actions, you might have a flat character. Then, it’s up to you to decide if your flat character is serving the narrative, or if they need a little more development.

Tips for writing round characters

With that in mind, here are some essential tips when developing round characters in your story.

Know their history

Your characters’ background information is essential in helping the reader understand and empathize with their choices. Some of the most damaging actions we take in life are due to past traumas, toxic lessons we were taught as children, or social constructs we absorbed through our interactions with the world. This is especially important when crafting complex, sympathetic villains.

As your main character is taking action that moves the plot along, it’s essential for readers to understand where these actions come from. They might be motivated by experiences with friends, family, lovers, or figures of authority. When, where, and how they grew up will also play a pivotal role.

A character’s history informs the choices that move the plot forward.

Give them a tragic flaw

For a round character to be engaging and believable, they should have an inherent flaw which gets in the way of what they need most. For example, a character may want a safe, loving relationship but is held back by a debilitating fear of vulnerability. Or, they may want to be respected by their peers, but are hindered by their unwillingness to compromise.

A character’s need and their flaw will often be antithetical to each other. Once the character overcomes their flaw, they’re able to get what they need.

Give them something to fight for

In order for your characters’ choices to mean anything, they need something to fight for—in other words, your story’s stakes. Even the worst baddies of badtown care about something, if they’ve been written well.

This might be a loved one, a home, a purpose in life, or the greater good. Once your character has something they care about, for better or for worse, they have a reason to push forward on their journey.

Tips for writing flat characters

Here are some things to be mindful of when inserting flat characters into your work.

Isolate their purpose in the story

If you’re including a flat character in your story, determine what they’re contributing to the wider narrative. Are they a foil to the hero’s more complex traits? Or is their role to enhance your story’s worldbuilding? Make sure you understand what you’re using this narrative device for and why.

Determine what they represent

You may find it helpful to ascribe a particular symbolic meaning to your flat character to help understand them better. For instance, your character might represent capitalist oppression, or nostalgic romanticism. Then, you can build a character around this idea to enhance your story.

Flat character traits can be useful for conveying allegory and metaphor.

Make them memorable

The best flat characters are vivid and cinematic, even when they lack complexity and depth. Be sure to use distinct descriptions and include unique characteristics and quirks that give your characters presence in your story.

Round and flat characters both play a storytelling role

Character and characterization are some of the most important elements in fiction. You’ll find both flat and round characters in many of our most beloved literary works. Once you know how to identify them, analyze them, and write your own, you’ll be able to use these techniques to create your own powerful stories.