It’s no secret that great storytelling comes down to character —to the way readers engage with the people who populate our story worlds, root for them, cheer them on, or sometimes cheer to see them brought down. If your characters don’t feel authentic to your readers, you’ll have a harder time ensnaring and holding their attention.

The best characters—the most lifelike ones, those who exhibit all the mess and ambiguity of the human condition—are round characters. You may have heard this term before in creative writing circles, or its dreaded antonym, flat characters. But what do these monikers mean, and how can you master them in your writing? Read on for everything you need to know.

What is a round character in a story?

A round character is a realistic, believable, and multilayered character in a work of fiction. These three-dimensional characters are flawed human beings with recognizable weaknesses and strengths, as well as relatable motivations and opportunities for growth. All protagonists should be round characters, because character complexity helps readers connect to the story.

Traits all round characters have

All round characters in storytelling will have:

  • Multifaceted personalities

  • A storied history of experiences that led them to this moment

  • A guiding motivation that pushes them into the choices that they make

  • Internal conflict that arises as a result of those choices

  • Ideals, places, or people that they hold dear to their heart

  • Something that they’re afraid of

  • The capacity to make mistakes

  • A tragic flaw that inhibits them from attaining their goal

Round character definition: A round character is a character with a complex, often contradictory personality and believable motives.

What’s the difference between flat and round characters?

The difference between round vs flat characters is that while a round character is someone with a complex personality, internal conflicts, and internal contradictions, flat characters are two-dimensional characters lacking in complexity and depth. A flat character has limited personality traits and simplistic motivations; they’re often used as plot devices and supporting roles rather than leading players.

Other flat character traits include a blank personal history, a lack of nuance in their worldview, and little to no internal change.

You can think of flat characters as TV studio cardboard cutouts. They may look convincing at first glance, but they’re all surface. Round characters are living, breathing people whom readers can relate to and understand.

Flat characters aren’t quite the same as static characters, or characters who remain consistent from beginning to end. We’ll look a little bit more at static and dynamic characters next.

Flat character definition: A flat character is a simplistic character who lacks complexity, humanity, and depth.

What’s the difference between round and dynamic characters?

The difference between round vs. dynamic characters is that “round” refers to a character’s empathetic depth and complexity, while “dynamic” refers to their ability to change. A dynamic character begins with one mindset or state of being, and by the end of the story they have undergone a dramatic and measurable transformation.

For example, a villain may find redemption and ultimately emerge a hero; or, in a tragedy, a hero may be taken over by their tragic flaw and turn into a villain. The change can also be a subtle shift in worldview, such as an overbearing and conservative parent coming to accept their child’s contentious choices.

Most dynamic characters are also round characters. That’s because for this type of character arc to be believable and impactful, the readers need to engage with the character. However, you can have a round character that doesn’t change over the course of the story: this would make them a static character.

Tips for writing effective round characters

Ready to create some rounded characters in your own work? Here are the key elements to keep in mind.

Explore their history

The key to a good round character is to have a thorough understanding of the character’s backstory. Some of this might make it onto the page, but you as the author should always know more than the reader. When you understand your character backwards and forwards, that authenticity will naturally emerge in your writing.

This means asking yourself questions like, “What was this person’s relationship with the people who raised them?”; “Who were their most formative influences?”; and “What were their biggest challenges growing up?”

We like to pretend we can leave the past behind, but in reality, our pasts shape every decision that we make. The same is true of our characters. Knowing your character’s history will help them feel more human and alive to both you and your audience.

Deepen their internal conflict

Round characters are rife with internal conflict. This means that their primary objective is in direct conflict with either a secondary goal or a core belief. An excellent example of this is the protagonist of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which the main character’s objective—helping his new black friend—conflicts with the racially imbalanced views he was raised with.

Internal conflict can also be things like your character supporting a successful friend even as they grow increasingly jealous of their success, or attempting to strike a balance between honoring their family’s expectations while also making their own independent choices.

We all face internal conflict, small and large, every day. When your readers see your complex characters facing inner conflict of their own, they’ll be able to relate to their struggles on a deeper, more empathetic level.

Understand their motivations

One of the most important things to remember when writing well-developed characters is to make sure the reader knows why the character takes the actions that they do. Part of this comes from their history, as we discussed above, but also from the things they want most in life and the things they most believe in.

For example, if a character accepts a dubious job that goes against their personal ethics (a great source of inner conflict!), the reader needs to know why they’ve accepted. Is it because they need the money? If so, what do they need money so badly for? Is it because they’re a corporate spy? If so, what makes them willing to step into such a dangerous role?

Is your character marrying someone they don’t love? What experiences, fundamental needs, or beliefs about themself have led them to this choice?

Whether your main character is a good guy or a bad guy, it’s essential that you understand their reasoning behind the choices that they make.

Give them something to fight for

All compelling characters need something that drives them forward on their journey. This is the reason they can’t give up and turn back. This might be a friend or family member, an altruistic belief, a community, or some form of self validation.

The character’s constant pursuit of this need is what moves the story forward; everything that happens in the plot comes from the character’s refusal, or inability, to give up.

Uncover their greatest strength

As you explore your character development, determine what hidden “superpowers” your main characters might have. In fantastical and supernatural settings, this might be a literal superpower; in more realistic fiction, your character’s “superpower” might be the ability to diffuse tension in a room, the ability to stand up to injustice when no one else will, a gift for music, or a razor-sharp eye for bargains.

Sometimes these strengths will be part of a character’s identity from the beginning, and other times they might be slowly revealed as the story progresses. In the end, their greatest strength will play a role in obtaining the thing they’ve been fighting for all along.

Uncover their greatest weakness

Just as your main character will have strengths they draw on in times of crisis, they’ll also have a fatal flaw that puts them at risk of losing everything they’ve fought for. In real life, people are undone by their tragic weaknesses all the time; much of our lives are spent trying to overcome our own flaws and push them down. Your characters will face the same battles.

Your character’s weaknesses might be something supernatural, like kryptonite; or, it could be something like impulsivity, pride, avarice, an inclination to follow the crowd, a mistrust of others, or a tendency to trust too easily.

Often, a character’s weaknesses and strengths are most effective when they mirror each other. For example, if their key characteristic is that they’re great at diffusing tension and bringing peace to an argument, their weakness might be that they’re very passive and have difficulty standing up for themselves in times of conflict.

By giving your character relatable traits that readers can recognise within themselves, they’ll feel more like real people and less like cardboard cutouts.

Giving your character a tragic flaw will make them feel more authentic and human.

Examples of round characters in storytelling

To see how these elements look in practice, here are some round character examples from literature and popular culture.

Rick Blaine in Casablanca

In one of Hollywood’s most famous allegorical love stories (and arguably Humphrey Bogart’s most famous role), Rick begins as a jaded barman whose catchphrase is “I stick my neck out for nobody.” Despite this façade, however, it quickly becomes clear that he’s deeply conflicted, with a soft spot for vulnerable waifs and a traumatic past.

Rick is a round character as well as a dynamic one; what viewers see as the potential for significant change turns into his dramatic arc. By the end, he has made the choice to sacrifice his own happiness in service to the greater good.

The Owens sisters in Practical Magic, by Alice Hoffman

In both the novel and the cult film adaptation, Sally and Gillian Owens are two very distinct sisters with opposing worldviews, weaknesses, and strengths. Each sees the other’s way of life as deeply problematic and undesirable. Sally is self-assured, practical, and terrified of standing out in her conservative community; Gillian is wild, carefree, and unable to take care of herself without help.

They’re both good examples of round characters because they reveal qualities that readers recognize as being innately human. Each feels like a fully formed person, even in the midst of otherworldly external conflicts. This makes their story believable and engaging to the reader.

Bernie Moon in Broken Light, by Joanne Harris

The protagonist of Joanne Harris’s Broken Light is a complex character who’s crested the apex of her life and is slowly sliding downhill. She’s a middle-aged woman who has learned to settle for the bare minimum that life is willing to offer, and has a lot of buried rage at the way women have been sidelined by 21st-century culture.

As her journey progresses, Bernie discovers that she can use her inner strength to fight back against this seemingly insurmountable social order. The reader can see her multiple facets emerge as her well-intentioned actions create even bigger problems. All the while, she’s fighting for the simple human need to be accepted and loved.

Create strong round characters in your own stories

Every good story needs round characters that your reader can believe in. Without convincing flaws and inner conflicts moving the plot forward, readers will lose interest pretty quickly. Fortunately, life is filled with inspiration to create your own characters who are complex, compelling, and memorable.