If you’ve ever been part of a writing group or received feedback on your work, you’ve probably heard some characterization terms thrown around like flat character, round character, static character, dynamic character, stock character, and so forth. It can be overwhelming trying to remember what each one means and which (if any?) is the best one to aim for in your writing.

Not to worry—we’ll lead you through everything you need to know about flat characters, how they compare to other character types, when to use them in a story, and when they should be avoided (with some flat character examples, too!).

What is a flat character in a story?

The term “flat character” refers to a character in literature who is one-dimensional, with limited personality traits and a lack of dynamic growth. These characters don’t have complex emotions or motivations; rather, they function as stock characters to move the plot of a story forward.

Flat characters can be helpful to fill out a story’s worldbuilding, to use as foils to more complex central characters, or to bring levity to an otherwise dense narrative. However, they can also indicate a lack of proper character development or skill on the part of the writer.

For this reason, flat characters are often seen as a weakness in writing.

What is a flat character? A flat character is a simple, one-dimensional character without depth.

What’s the difference between flat and round characters?

While a flat character is a one-dimensional character with minimal personality traits and development, a round character is the opposite: a richly developed character with complex emotions, driving motivations, and multilayered relationships. The most effective protagonists will always be round characters.

In addition, a round character will always have positive points and negative points—strengths and weaknesses, advantages and disadvantages, skills and flaws. A flat character generally won’t have all of these things. Instead, they’ll be characterized solely by their weaknesses or their strengths.

What’s the difference between flat and static characters?

You’ll sometimes hear the terms “flat character” and “static character” being used interchangeably, but they’re not quite the same thing. A flat character, as we saw above, is a character that’s developed only on the surface. They display only a few characteristics, and only ones that are needed to move the plot along.

A static character, by contrast, refers to a character who remains consistent from the beginning of a story to the end. They don’t undergo any sort of internal shift or learn from their mistakes.

The opposite of a static character is a dynamic character, which means a character who changes from one state of being to another over the course of the story.

This means that all flat characters will be static, but not all static characters are flat. You can have a static character with complexity and nuance, even if they don’t experience the same dynamic arc as some of the other characters.

Flat characters: characters lacking in complexity. Static characters: characters who don’t change

Are flat characters a bad thing in writing?

Often when people talk about flat characters in a novel or short story, it’s intended as a criticism; they’re saying, “this aspect needs a little more work.”

If a beta reader or critique partner tells you they find your main characters to be a little flat, they usually mean that the characters are poorly written, or their actions are unbelievable, or they lack enough internal conflict. This means you need to dive a little deeper into your character development to create compelling, memorable characters.

There are a few ways you can use intentionally flat characters, which we’ll look at below. For central characters, however— your protagonist and your antagonist, and any supporting players with their own character-driven subplots—it’s best to make them as well-rounded as possible.

When are flat characters useful in a story?

So can a flat character ever be a good thing? Although they’re not ideal for main characters, they can still be useful tools in certain roles. Here are some of the reasons you might choose to include a flat character in your story.

As character foils

The most common way flat characters are used effectively is as foil characters to the protagonist. A foil character is someone who is used in contrast to another character, thereby highlighting certain personality traits or features.

By situating a flat character and a round character side by side in your story, you can emphasize the round character’s complexity and growth.

For example, you may decide that your main character is an unscrupulous businessman who eventually overcomes his avarice to make stronger ethical choices. In this case, your foil character could be the protagonist’s colleague or employer who is dishonest and dastardly through and through. By placing your main character next to someone with an incapacity for change, their own journey to absolution becomes even more powerful.

A character foil could also be someone who blindly accepts the conventions of society, while the protagonist questions them; or, someone in a position of status or privilege to which the protagonist is aspiring.

Flat characters can be used to highlight traits in your center stage characters.

As comic relief

Some of literature’s most beloved stock characters are flat characters. You’ll see this in fables, fairy tales, cartoons, soap operas, comic strips, and any other storytelling medium that uses repeated archetypes and tropes.

Flat characters can be useful for making readers laugh, especially in serials where the reader is expecting the same thing on a continued basis. This is why flat characters are so effective in long-running comics like Garfield, Peanuts, Archie, and more. They never truly become round or dynamic characters, because giving them deeper motivations and conflicts would mean sacrificing some of the levity that makes them so popular.

In this way you can also use flat characters to add some comic relief to an otherwise serious or dramatic story.

As worldbuilding tools

In richly drawn, plot-driven stories, an assorted cast of flat characters can be used as a way to build up the story’s setting. Ensemble-heavy story worlds like those of the Harry Potter series or Buffy the Vampire Slayer have plenty of flat characters to fill out the corners of the world and make it feel more immersive to the reader or viewer.

This is particularly effective in off-world settings (i.e. science fiction and fantasy), but can also be used in settings with large groups of people in it—for example, a school, corporate workplace, or apartment complex. By adding a few extra minor characters to your story, you crystallize the reader’s experience as they follow your main characters through it.

4 ways to fix unintentionally flat characters

Even with these tricks in mind, it’s generally best to make your central characters as round and human as possible.

So what do you do when someone flags a flat protagonist in your story, or two-dimensional secondary characters that you want to bring to life? Here are some tips to keep in mind when rounding out an unintentionally flat character.

1. Explore their motivations

Everyone has a reason for making the choices that they do. If the people in your story are making choices and you’re not sure why, you probably have a flat character on your hands. Motivation is important for all the main characters in a story, but especially for villains and other unsympathetic or unrelatable figures.

For example, if one of your flat characters is a school bully, consider what makes them that way. Parental expectation? A façade to cover a fear of exclusion? Or, if your main character’s boss is overly stingy with money, ask yourself where that attitude came from.

Every time a main character makes a contentious choice, you as the writer should have a sense of the driving force behind it.

If you don’t know your character’s motivations, your story might need some more work.

2. Deepen their relationships

All fictional characters have relationships—romantic, familial, professional, and otherwise. One of the most effective ways to flesh out a flat character is to examine these relationships, or create some new ones.

This might be something like exploring how this character was shaped by their relationship with their family, or how their professional and personal relationships contrast, or the confessional relationship they have with the shopkeeper who sells them a loaf of bread every morning. Everywhere they go in the world, they’re forming and developing new relationships.

Not everything you uncover about your character will make it into the final draft. However, by developing a little more humanity in their interactions, this humanity will emerge organically through your writing.

3. Give them a contrasting attribute

To create a more rounded character, try making a list of some of the key traits that encapsulate your flat character. Then, see what happens if you throw in some opposite traits.

For example, maybe one of your character traits is “frugal.” To build a more realistic and complex character, try giving them one thing in which they financially indulge, such as fine chocolate or quality shoes. What does this new facet reveal about the character?

Or, if your characteristic is “introverted,” think about the one experience or conversation topic that makes your character open up.

By spending some time thinking about the natural contradictions that exist in everyone, you can give your character a more multi-faceted personality.

4. Try a character development exercise

Sometimes, two-dimensional characters occur simply because you haven’t gotten to know them well enough. As the author, your job is to be the divinity of this story world; you know the truth about everyone, even if you don’t reveal the entirety of that truth to the reader.

To help bring your characters to life, try writing a short story or scene that you don’t intend to use in the completed novel. Put two minor characters in a room together and see what happens; explore where a minor character was and what they were doing while another scene with your main character was taking place.

You can learn more about your character’s purpose by free writing new stories and scenes.

A low-pressure creative exercise like this will help make your flat characters feel more real and alive. As an added bonus, it also gives you exclusive behind-the-scenes content to share with your fans once your book is out in the world.

Examples of flat characters in literature

Next, let’s look at some of the ways writers have used flat characters in their stories.

Mr. Collins from Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

One of the secondary antagonists in Jane Austen’s most famous romantic dramedy, this typical flat character is used to achieve two purposes: comic relief and social satire.

Whether on the page, or on stage and screen in one of this timeless story’s numerous adaptations, Mr. Collins never fails to lighten the tension and elicit some laughs. However, he also creates conflict and raises the stakes for the main characters.

Mr. Collins is a good example of a flat character because he displays only one side to his personality, and pursues only a single motivation—societal acceptance—with no nuance or ambiguity. Austen uses him as a caricature of the British upper classes in order to call into question some of the social expectations of the day.

The wicked stepsisters in Cinderella

Traditional fairy tales are riddled with flat characters, largely because they’ve been passed through so many hands that they’ve been sloughed down to stock characters and archetypes. The benefit of this oral storytelling style is that it allows room for a world of exploration when it comes to retellings and reimaginings.

In Cinderella, the main character’s stepsisters have little distinction apart from being everyday obstacles for the heroine to overcome. Each one is an uncomplicated bad character who makes life miserable for Cinderella while clawing their way up an invisible, impenetrable social ladder.

They’re both flat characters because they lack any real personality or motive, instead being used as faceless plot devices to move the protagonist forward on their journey.

Fables and fairy tales are often populated with flat characters.

Jimmy Hawkins from Practical Magic, by Alice Hoffman

This flat character (which film fans will recognize as the slightly reimagined Jimmy Angelov from the 1998 movie adaptation) is the novel’s primary antagonist. However, he mostly functions as a device for bringing the two main female leads together so that they can begin their character-driven family drama of renewal and redemption.

Although he’s vivid and distinctive, he’s still an example of a flat character because he doesn’t display any depth, ambiguity, or drive. He does bad things across the entire story without the sort of remorse or introspection that would be present in more complex characters.

While the author could have taken a deeper look into the way this character’s life story and how he became the person he grew to become, it wasn’t necessary because it wasn’t his story.

An interesting story can have both flat characters and round characters

While flat characters can be indicative of weak writing, it’s okay to leave certain characters flat when that’s all they need to be in order to serve their purpose in the story. Although stories work best when they’re centered around three-dimensional characters, adding a few flat ones throughout the story can enhance your worldbuilding and even illuminate your protagonist in a new way.