Have you ever read a book or watched a movie where one character seemed unusually consistent, their role straightforward and their traits unchanging? If you found yourself understanding them almost immediately, chances are you encountered a “Flat Character.”
These characters, while often underappreciated, can be fascinating in their simplicity and consistency. They have an uncanny ability to keep the narrative focused, while also adding color and dimension to the story world.
Dive in with us as we explore the intriguing world of flat characters — their functions, elements, and impact on literature.
Defining Flat Character
A flat character is a one-dimensional figure in a narrative or story. You’ll often find these characters in supporting roles, with little to no character development throughout the story. They tend to serve specific purposes and possess a limited range of emotions, typically sticking to a single trait or quality.
In contrast to dynamic or round characters, flat characters don’t undergo significant change. They are predictable and easily understood by readers. While this may seem limiting, flat characters play a crucial role in stories by pushing the plot forward and highlighting the main characters’ attributes.
Flat characters are not necessarily dull or uninteresting. They can be engaging and memorable while still retaining their one-dimensional simplicity. Although they may not evolve as characters, they can serve as valuable tools in your storytelling arsenal.
Flat Character vs. Round Character
In literature, characters play an essential role in driving the narrative and engaging the reader. They can be classified into two main categories: flat characters and round characters. Both types have their unique attributes and roles in storytelling.
|Straightforward and one-dimensional
|Complex and multidimensional
|Limited to none, represents a single trait or quality.
|Significant, often exhibits a range of qualities, emotions, and motivations.
|Change in Story
|Static, undergo no significant changes or growth.
|Dynamic, undergo changes and growth throughout the story.
|Function in Story
|Serve to advance the plot, emphasize a theme, and contrast more complex characters.
|Protagonists or central characters in the narrative, compelling and relatable.
|Examples in Literature
|Often found in fairy tales and fables, symbolizing specific moral lessons or ideas.
|Most works of fiction feature round characters, reflecting the complexities of real-life individuals.
|How to Distinguish
|Examine the character’s depth, development, and ability to surprise while maintaining narrative coherence.
|Assess the complexity of their motives, emotions, and relationships.
|Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsisters (showing consistent cruelty and jealousy).
|Elizabeth Bennet from Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” (a multidimensional character who evolves throughout the story).
Origin of Flat Character
From the epic poems of ancient times to the digital narratives of the present, the concept of “flat characters” has played a pivotal role in the world of storytelling. While it’s challenging to pinpoint the exact moment of their genesis, we can certainly trace their influence through the timeline of literature.
Ancient Greek and Roman mythology, dating back to the 8th century BCE, provides the earliest examples of flat characters. Myths and legends from this era often featured gods and goddesses who were personifications of abstract concepts or natural phenomena.
These characters, like Apollo, the god of the sun, remained static, embodying their single defining attribute.
The Middle Ages brought us morality plays, a form of allegorical drama popular during the 15th and 16th centuries, where characters often personified moral qualities or vices. These characters, such as Everyman’s “Good Deeds” or “Death,” are clear precursors to the modern flat character concept.
The 17th and 18th centuries’ fables and fairy tales, with characters like the cruel stepmother in “Cinderella” or the cunning fox in Aesop’s Fables, further solidified the flat character’s place in literature. Their simplicity and consistency were integral to conveying the moral lessons these stories aimed to impart.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that the term “flat character” was coined, thanks to the renowned Victorian novelist E.M. Forster. In his book “Aspects of the Novel” (1927), Forster classified characters as “flat” or “round.”
He argued that flat characters were not inferior but served a unique purpose within a narrative – often to evoke humor, drive the plot, or contrast with more complex characters.
The 20th and 21st centuries witnessed an evolution in the use of flat characters, particularly within genre fiction like detective novels and comic books. Stock characters like the hard-boiled detective or the damsel in distress were flat but contributed significantly to the story’s atmosphere and progression.
Tracing the historical origin of flat characters unveils how this seemingly simplistic character type has held its ground through millennia, morphing, adapting, and proving its worth time and again.
They are a testament to the timeless power of storytelling and the myriad ways characters can engage and influence a narrative’s heart and soul.
Functions of Flat Character
Flat Character Acts as A Foil
A flat character can act as a foil, revealing more about the main characters and the protagonist in your story. This is accomplished by contrasting the flat character’s traits, goals, and actions with those of the more complex, dynamic characters.
- Contrasting Traits: Use the flat character’s static personality to highlight the growth and change the protagonist undergoes. For example, if your protagonist is adventurous and open-minded, a flat character might be overly cautious or resistant to change.
- Conflicting Goals: Introduce conflict and tension in your story by placing the protagonist in opposition to the flat character. This can serve to emphasize the protagonist’s values and priorities.
- Contrasting Actions: As your protagonist evolves over the course of the story, their actions may change. Use the consistent, unchanging behavior of a flat character as a benchmark to underscore your protagonist’s development.
Flat Character Drives the Plot
In some cases, a flat character can play a vital role in driving the plot forward. They may do this by initiating important events, causing conflict, or influencing the decisions of the main characters.
Here are some tips for using flat characters to drive your plot:
- Initiating Events: Introduce the flat character early in the story to set up key plot points or catalyze the inciting incident.
- Causing Conflict: Utilize the flat character’s actions, decisions, or even their very presence to create conflict in both the external world of the story and within your main character’s psyche.
- Influencing Decisions: Your protagonist may be swayed or influenced by the flat character to make significant choices that impact the story’s outcome.
Flat Character Provides Consistency
Consistency is important in storytelling, and flat characters can serve as anchor points, providing a sense of stability in your story. As the main characters grow and change, readers can rely on the familiarity that comes with flat characters to ground them in the narrative.
Consider the following approaches:
- Establish Familiarity: Introduce the flat character early in your story so that readers become acquainted with their distinct personalities or characteristics.
- Reinforce Stability: Emphasize the static and consistent nature of the flat character throughout your story, contrasting it with the evolution of your protagonist and main characters.
- Support Main Characters: Allow the flat character to serve as a point of reference for your main characters as they contend with conflict and change.
Flat Character Offers Comic Relief
Incorporating a flat character with a humorous or quirky personality can offer comic relief in your story. This lightens the narrative and provides readers with a break amidst heavy emotional or dramatic content.
Some tips for using flat characters for comic relief include:
- Humorous Dialogue: Infuse the flat character’s dialogue with wit, humor, or sarcasm.
- Distinct Personality: Create a flat character with a unique personality that provides amusement, whether it’s through their optimism, eccentricity, or even their obliviousness.
- Unexpected Actions: Allow the flat character to initiate humorous situations or perform actions that catch both the main characters and readers by surprise.
Flat Character Enriches the Setting
Flat characters can also serve to enrich the setting of your story. They can help create a vivid and immersive world by representing the customs, values, and attitudes of the characters who populate it.
Here are some examples of how flat characters can enrich the setting:
- Embodying Cultural Norms: Create flat characters that represent specific cultural or societal norms in your story’s world.
- Supporting Worldbuilding: Use the actions, choices, and interactions of your flat character to reveal details about the setting’s political climate, social structure, or historical background.
- Creating Atmosphere: Allow the presence of flat characters to contribute to the overall atmosphere and mood of your story; for example, they might be symbols of hope, fear, or despair.
Characteristics of Flat Character
Flat Character Displays Limited Traits
In literature, flat characters often have limited traits. They are one-dimensional, displaying only a few characteristics that define their personality. Unlike round characters, who possess depth and complexity, flat characters typically serve a singular purpose within the narrative.
- In a comedy, the flat character might function as a comic relief, providing humor to balance the tension of the story.
- In a more dramatic tale, the flat character could highlight the protagonists’ growing complexity by remaining static.
As you read, you may notice that flat characters lack an extensive backstory or a detailed personal history. They are not the focus of the story, so their existence is primarily to support the main characters or plotline. This simplicity allows the reader to focus on the core narrative without distraction.
Flat Character Undergoes Little to No Change
A notable characteristic of flat characters is that they tend to remain stagnant throughout the story. While round characters undergo significant changes, flat characters are unchanging, predictable, and easily recognizable.
Flat Character Is Often Stereotypical
Flat characters tend to fall into identifiable stereotypes, with predictable behavior patterns that adhere to closely defined roles.
Some common stereotypes include:
- The dumb jock
- The mean girl
- The loyal sidekick
By providing these well-known archetypes, the author can quickly establish the character without extensive detail or description. This ensures that the reader knows what to expect from the character and can focus on the progression of the story.
Flat Character Has a Predictable Behavior
One advantage of having flat characters is that their predictability can create a sense of familiarity and comfort for the reader. You can easily understand their motivations, desires, and reactions, allowing you to focus on the complexities of the round characters and the overall plot.
Some predictability in behavior includes:
- The flat character is often seen fulfilling their specific role without deviation or complexity.
- The flat character does not present surprises in their actions, reactions, or emotional responses.
Using flat characters strategically can help an author maintain the reader’s focus on essential elements like the plot, themes, or round characters’ development. While they may be simple and easily recognizable, flat characters play an important role in the narrative landscape of a story.
Elements of Flat Character
Flat characters are often simple in nature. Their personalities and roles within a story are uncomplicated and straightforward. They are not as complex or multifaceted as round characters, making them easier to understand and identify.
You will often find that flat characters remain consistent in their behavior, attitudes, and beliefs throughout a story. Unlike complex characters, who may undergo significant character development, flat characters are more static and do not evolve or change their viewpoints.
This stability can provide structure and familiarity, helping to drive the plot forward.
Flat characters have a single, defining trait or motivation that drives their actions and decision-making. This unidimensional aspect can be useful in more plot-driven stories where you want the focus to remain on larger narrative themes or the protagonist’s journey.
A unidimensional character may appear as a minor character like a villain or a supportive role like a best friend, emphasizing their narrative purpose and framing them relative to the main character(s).
Often, flat characters serve as supporting roles to more complex, dynamic protagonists or secondary characters. Their consistent and straightforward nature makes them effective in providing stability or contrast within a story.
Flat characters can be used to represent stereotypes, social or cultural expectations, or even moral beliefs. By portraying a representative function within the text, these characters can help readers connect the narrative to their own experiences, expectations, or values.
In fiction, flat characters have a clear narrative utility, often contributing directly to the progression of the plot. They may act as an inciting incident, an obstacle, or a source of guidance for more dynamic characters.
Flat characters are purpose-driven within the story and contribute to its structure in a way that is often more direct than complex characters.
Lack of Inner Conflict
When it comes to flat characters, you will rarely encounter any inner turmoil or significant self-reflection. These characters are generally steadfast in their convictions and beliefs, and their limited emotional range serves to reinforce their role as static in the narrative.
This can be particularly useful in emphasizing specific moral stances or narrative themes.
Flat characters can function as symbols, representing abstract ideas, opposing forces, or specific themes within a story. By using flat characters as symbolic representations, writers can explore deeper concepts or convey messages without the need for complex character development.
When it comes to flat characters, their backstories are often limited or absent. This allows the reader to focus on the character’s role in the plot rather than getting caught up in a complex history or personal motivations that might distract from the primary narrative.
Focus on External Characteristics
Flat characters tend to be described or defined by their external characteristics, such as physical appearance, actions, or social status. These easily-identifiable traits can make them memorable and help audiences understand their role within the story quickly.
Types of Flat Character
The Foil is a flat character whose primary function is to highlight or accentuate the traits of a more complex character in the story, often the protagonist. This is achieved through contrast, with the foil’s traits starkly opposing those of the main character.
The differences between the two characters can amplify specific aspects, such as the protagonist’s strengths, weaknesses, or values.
The Sidekick is a supporting character whose purpose is to accompany and assist the main character in their journey. While they are usually secondary to the main character, their consistent traits, such as loyalty or bravery, help enhance the narrative.
A sidekick often provides a contrast to the protagonist, emphasizing their attributes and aiding in their character development.
The Stock Character
The Stock Character is a type of flat character that represents specific stereotypes. These characters are instantly recognizable due to their conventional traits. They provide familiarity to the readers and are often used to convey particular social roles or character types within a narrative.
Their behaviors and traits are predictable and constant throughout the story.
The Static Character
The Static Character is a character who remains the same throughout the narrative. They do not undergo significant growth or transformation, with their motivations, attitudes, and behaviors remaining consistent from the beginning to the end of the story.
Static characters provide stability within a narrative and help maintain focus on the main plot.
The Symbolic Character
The Symbolic Character is a flat character used to represent an abstract idea, theme, or concept. Their traits, behaviors, or experiences symbolically express broader themes within the narrative.
While they might not evolve much throughout the story, their role is critical in conveying the underlying messages or themes.
The Catalyst is a character that triggers significant events or changes within the narrative. Their actions, decisions, or presence set off reactions or transformations that move the plot forward. Despite their lack of complexity or development, they play a crucial role in driving the story.
The Archetype is a character that represents a typical example of a certain person or thing within the narrative. They are classic examples of common character types that appear in various works of literature, such as the “hero,” “villain,” or “mentor.”
Despite their lack of complexity, archetypes are essential in storytelling, for they tap into universal patterns of human nature.
The Caricature is a type of flat character that exaggerates certain traits for comic or dramatic effect. These characters are characterized by one or two overemphasized traits, which are repeatedly showcased throughout the narrative. Their exaggerated attributes can create humor, satire, or critique within the story.
The Confidant is a character who the protagonist trusts and confides in. They often serve as a tool for revealing the inner thoughts, feelings, or plans of the main character to the reader.
Although they may not undergo significant development, they play a crucial role in advancing the narrative and deepening the reader’s understanding of the protagonist.
The Device Character
The Device Character is a character used specifically to advance the plot or to create conflict or tension. They might hold a piece of crucial information, introduce a plot twist, or provoke a conflict, influencing the course of the narrative.
Despite their lack of depth, their role is essential to the plot’s progression.
Examples of Flat Character in Literature
In novels, flat characters often serve as necessary complements to the main characters.
"Pride and Prejudice" by Jane Austen In this classic novel, Mrs. Bennet is a notable flat character. She remains static throughout the story, consistently defined by her single-minded goal of marrying off her daughters to wealthy men. Her concerns and actions revolve entirely around this objective, never deviating or evolving over the course of the narrative.
"The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald Tom Buchanan serves as a flat character in this iconic novel. He is depicted as consistently arrogant and unfaithful from beginning to end, embodying the negative aspects of the privileged upper class in the 1920s. His character does not show growth or change throughout the story.
"To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee Miss Stephanie Crawford is a classic example of a flat character. She's the town gossip, a role she maintains throughout the entirety of the book. Her behavior is consistent and unchanging, adding a touch of humor and personality to the narrative.
"Harry Potter" series by J.K. Rowling Argus Filch, the Hogwarts caretaker, is a flat character who maintains his grumpy and strict demeanor throughout the series. His dislike for students and obsession with punishing rule-breakers does not change or develop, making him a reliable constant in the Hogwarts setting.
"1984" by George Orwell Parsons is a flat character who consistently embodies the characteristics of an ideal Party member in Oceania. His actions and attitudes remain the same, displaying unerring loyalty to the Party and Big Brother throughout the narrative.
Short stories often introduce flat characters to emphasize specific characteristics or support the plot.
"The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson Old Man Warner is a flat character who staunchly supports the village's tradition of the lottery. His character represents the resistance to change and blind adherence to tradition throughout the story.
"A Rose for Emily" by William Faulkner Tobe, Emily's servant, is a flat character in this story. His constant role is to serve Emily, a duty he fulfills without change or development.
"The Necklace" by Guy de Maupassant Monsieur Loisel is a flat character who remains content and accepting of his social status throughout the story. His character contrasts with his wife, Mathilde, emphasizing her dissatisfaction and ambition.
"Hills Like White Elephants" by Ernest Hemingway The American man in this short story is a flat character who remains firm in his desire for his girlfriend to have an operation. His character doesn't evolve or change throughout the course of their conversation.
"The Tell-Tale Heart" by Edgar Allan Poe The old man with the "vulture eye" is a flat character who serves the singular purpose of inciting the narrator's madness. His character does not show growth or change in the story.
Although more common in prose, flat characters can also appear in poetry to further illustrate the poem’s themes and concepts.
"The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge The Albatross in this poem is a flat character that symbolizes good luck. Its presence is consistent, and its role is crucial in influencing the Mariner's fate.
"Porphyria's Lover" by Robert Browning Porphyria is a flat character whose sole purpose is to be the object of the speaker's desire. Her character does not evolve throughout the poem.
"My Last Duchess" by Robert Browning The Duchess in the poem is a flat character represented as consistently cheerful and easily pleased. Her character, revealed only through the Duke's monologue, remains unchanged from beginning to end.
"Annabel Lee" by Edgar Allan Poe Annabel Lee is a flat character who symbolizes the narrator's idealized young love. Her character remains the same throughout the poem.
"The Highwayman" by Alfred Noyes King George's men in the poem are flat characters who consistently represent the oppressive authority. Their single-minded pursuit of the highwayman remains unchanged.
Plays often rely on flat characters to move the plot forward, add humor, or highlight specific themes.
"Romeo and Juliet" by William Shakespeare Benvolio, a character in this classic play, consistently portrays peace and reason. He remains a stable character throughout the story, neither undergoing significant development nor change.
"Death of a Salesman" by Arthur Miller Charley, Willy Loman's neighbor, serves as a flat character. He maintains his successful, reasonable, and generous character traits throughout the play.
"A Doll's House" by Henrik Ibsen Nils Krogstad is a flat character who consistently represents a threat to Nora's world. His character revolves around his blackmail scheme, a trait that remains consistent.
"The Importance of Being Earnest" by Oscar Wilde Miss Prism is a flat character who consistently represents moral rectitude and propriety. Her character traits do not change or develop throughout the play.
"The Crucible" by Arthur Miller Reverend Parris is a flat character in the play who consistently portrays self-interest and concern for his reputation. His traits and motivations remain the same throughout the story.
Examples of Flat Character in Pop Culture
In the world of film, flat characters are often used to support the plot or the main character’s development.
Bob from "Fight Club" Bob is a fellow member of the underground fight club who primarily serves as a friend and emotional support for the main protagonist, the unnamed narrator (played by Edward Norton). Despite his tragic backstory, Bob remains relatively static throughout the film.
Gretchen Wieners from "Mean Girls" As one of Regina George's "Plastics," Gretchen is an obedient and loyal sidekick. Although she plays a significant role in the main character's transformation, Gretchen herself doesn't exhibit much change throughout the film.
Flounder from "The Little Mermaid" Flounder is Ariel’s best friend and loyal supporter. His purpose is to provide comic relief and be a sounding board for Ariel, but he never undergoes any significant character development himself.
Mr. Smee from "Peter Pan" As Captain Hook's sidekick, Mr. Smee is a perfect example of a flat character. He is subservient, loyal and incompetent, and his primary purpose in the film is to provide comic relief through his bumbling actions.
Squints from "The Sandlot" As a member of the neighborhood baseball team, Squints has a sole purpose: to provide comic relief through his exaggerated antics and over-the-top infatuation with a lifeguard named Wendy. His character remains essentially the same throughout the story.
Flat characters also make appearances in television shows, often providing humor, plot assistance, or characterization of the main characters.
Janice from "Friends" Janice, Chandler's ex-girlfriend, is a memorable character known for her distinctive voice and laugh. While she appears in multiple episodes, she remains static and unchanged, serving primarily as a recurring joke.
Jerry/Larry/Gary from "Parks and Recreation" Jerry, also known as Larry and Gary, is a character who continually finds himself the victim of jokes and ridicule. He serves as a consistent source of humor but does not undergo significant character development.
Tara Lewis from "Criminal Minds" Dr. Tara Lewis, a forensic psychologist, is a key member of the BAU team. Her purpose in the show is to provide professional insight and skills to help solve cases, but her personal life and development remain mysterious to the audience.
Gunther from "Friends" As the manager of Central Perk, Gunther is a recurring background character. He provides a familiar, constant presence in the show but does not experience significant development.
Teddy from "Bob's Burgers" Loyal customer of Bob's Burgers and the Belcher family's friend, Teddy serves as a consistent source of humor with his peculiar personality traits and obsession with Bob's family. His character doesn't experience significant changes throughout the show.
Using Flat Characters as Symbols
Flat characters can serve as powerful symbols in a story. They often embody a single idea or theme, making them useful for reinforcing the message or moral of a tale. By limiting their development, you, as a writer, can focus on the central point these characters represent in the narrative.
For example, in George Orwell's "Animal Farm," the character Napoleon is a flat character symbolizing tyranny and corruption. He doesn't undergo significant change throughout the story, but his presence reinforces the ultimate message of the dangers of absolute power.
In stories, flat characters who serve as symbols often:
- Represent specific moral values or ideas.
- Exert influence on the main characters.
- Create conflict, leading to character development in others.
Some tips for effectively using flat characters as symbols in your writing include:
- Choose their traits, actions, and dialogue carefully so that they strengthen the symbolism.
- Use their interactions with other characters to highlight the theme they represent.
- Avoid overusing them, as excessive reliance on single-dimensional characters can make a story feel shallow.
When crafting your own story with flat characters as symbols, remember to use them wisely so they effectively enhance your story, underline its themes, and contribute to the overall narrative.
Adopt a confident, knowledgeable, neutral, and clear approach when adding these characters to your story, ensuring that they serve their intended purpose while keeping the focus on the plot and other dynamic characters.
Impact of Flat Character
Flat Character Enhances the Focus on Main Characters
When you encounter flat characters in a story, their purpose is often to highlight and contrast the main or round characters. With their lack of complexity, flat characters serve as a backdrop that allows the central characters to be more significant and attention-grabbing.
For instance, think of a novel where the protagonist’s best friend is a flat character. This friend might not have much growth or change throughout the story, but their unwavering nature can provide support and stability for the protagonist, allowing the reader to focus on the protagonist’s development.
Flat Character Streamlines the Narrative
In many cases, flat characters contribute to a more streamlined narrative since they are less complex and have a defined role in the story. As they are more straightforward and predictable, you can understand their actions and motivations easily.
Their simplicity allows the plot to progress more smoothly without being bogged down by unnecessary character development.
Example: A flat character as a mentor in a hero's journey can provide guidance without diverting attention from the main plot.
Tip: When creating your flat characters, ensure they serve a purpose and balance the focus on the main character.
Flat Character Contributes to Theme
A flat character can help to convey a specific theme or message within a story. Through their presence and actions, a flat character may represent an idea or aspect of society that the author wants to explore or emphasize.
This thematic connection adds depth to the story without requiring the investment and complexity of developing a round character.
Trivia: Flat characters are often used in allegorical or satirical works to represent a specific viewpoint or aspect of human nature.
Flat Character Amplifies Dramatic Effect
Although flat characters may lack complexity, their simplicity can be used to create a more significant impact on the reader. By using flat characters as foils or contrasts with round characters, you can heighten the dramatic effect of conflicts and situations in the story.
Their unwavering nature might amplify the challenges faced by the protagonist or other characters in essential moments.
Tip: Utilize flat characters to emphasize dramatic moments or create tension in your story.
Flat Character Defines Cultural and Social Background
Flat characters can provide context and insight into the cultural or social background of a story. In many cases, flat characters can function as a representation of the wider community or a particular social group within the narrative.
These characters can give you, as a reader, a sense of the environment or societal norms within which the main characters exist.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can a protagonist be a flat character?
While it’s more common for protagonists to be round characters because they typically experience growth and change, a protagonist can be a flat character.
This usually happens in stories where the focus is more on the plot or the setting rather than character development.
Can a flat character become round?
It’s possible for a flat character to become round if they start to display more complexity and undergo significant change or development as the story progresses.
However, this transformation is not common as the defining feature of a flat character is their consistency and lack of change throughout the narrative.
Can a character be both flat and static?
Yes, a character can be both flat and static. In fact, flat characters are often also static because they are defined by a limited number of traits that do not change or evolve significantly over the course of the story.
As we delve into the fascinating world of storytelling, it becomes apparent that every character, regardless of their complexity, plays a critical role in the narrative tapestry. Flat characters, with their consistency and simplicity, offer unique value to a story.
They provide contrast, reinforce themes, and sometimes even drive the plot forward. Despite their lack of personal growth or change, they remain an essential tool in a writer’s arsenal, shaping our understanding and experience of a story.
The true mastery of storytelling lies in the strategic use of both flat and round characters, crafting narratives that resonate with us, the readers, on multiple levels. So, next time you come across a character that seems straightforward and unchanging, take a moment to appreciate their role and contribution to the story.
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