Storytelling Class — Round and Flat Characters

Every week, my daughter Freya and I have a “storytelling class.” Really, it’s just a fun opportunity to chat about writing stories. This week, our topic was making characters.

We always start with two questions: What did we read, and what did we write over the past week?

What Did We Read?

The family had a day this week where just about everyone wrote some poetry, so Freya read everyone’s poems. At school, they’re reading “The One and Only Bob.” My wife is reading her “Wildwood” at bedtimes, and she’s still working through Harry Potter in her free time at school.

I read the remaining pile of Vertigo comics that my wife snagged for me at a garage sale. Last week, I read the first two volumes of Y: The Last Man, a critically acclaimed series that I found pretty uninteresting. This week I delved into two other popular comics series and enjoyed them both quite a bit. They were:

  • Fables: Legends in Exile (Vol. 1)
  • Fables: Fairest: Wide Awake (a side series, I guess?)
  • Unwritten (Vols. 1-4)

Fables is all about fairy tales come to life and magically transported to modern day New York, forced to shlub it up with us mundane people while keeping their magical identities hidden. The first volume is a murder mystery, with the Big Bad Wolf as detective. It doesn’t end with the most shocking twist, but it serves as a great framework to introduce some of the main characters and the world they inhabit. Moreover, I appreciate a short, self-contained little arc, since comics are so often sprawling arcs and cross-series tie-ins (something Marvel has now inflicted upon films).

Fables: Fairest: Wide Awake is another self-contained arc, but completely separate from the New York fables. This one tells the story of a few fables who come together by chance and end up in the sights of an evil fairy queen.

While I enjoyed the Fables books, I really fell in love with Unwritten. Of the random selection of series in this pile ‘o garage sale books, these were my favorites by far.

Unwritten is about a sad man named Tom Taylor, who just happens to have the same name as the main character in a series of wildly successful Harry-Potter-esque novels written by his father. The story starts with Tom making a pittance attending conventions and signing his father’s books, but he quickly gets pulled into a strange conspiracy that threatens his life. Odd occurrences start to stack up, and it looks like he might actually be the boy wizard from the books, and that the worlds of stories might be just as real as our own.

I liked these enough that I’m going to buy the other 7 volumes, and at some point I’ll probably write a separate post about them.

What Did We Write?

This week I wrote my usual blog posts and finished the rough draft of Razor Mountain Chapter 8.

Freya wrote another chapter of her story, Amber and Floria. She also wrote a poem for the ad-hoc family poem-fest.

Characters

The topic for this week was characters, specifically flat and round characters. These, like so many writing terms, end up being talked about as a sort of binary, but they’re really two ends of a spectrum.

  • Round, deep or complex characters are those with extensive back-story, with many and subtle personality traits.
  • Flat, shallow or simple characters are those with minimal back-story and little personality.

It should be obvious just from these definitions that there is a spectrum here, where characters can be more or less complex.

It might feel desirable to make every character as complex as possible, and this is generally a good instinct. However, it’s important to note that there are only so many pages in a book. Some characters will necessarily take up more of the story, and others will be inherently less important. So even if every single character is equally complex, they cannot be shown with equal depth in the text itself.

Round Characters

To make characters more round, figure out more details about their

  • Background
  • Personality
  • Strengths and weaknesses
  • Conflict (what’s their problem, and how do they intend to solve it?)
  • Growth (how do they change over the course of the story?)

Again, it’s fine to know more things about a character than you actually end up using on the page. Sometimes having a deep back-story allows you to hint at bits of their personality that don’t show through clearly, but still give the character a sense of being a complicated, living person.

Flat Characters

The flattest characters are usually purpose-built. They do something specific for the story. The danger with these kind of characters is that they look too much like a plot device and not enough like a real person.

For these characters, having a personality, goals and conflict are less important. In fact, they only matter in that they’re useful to make the character feel real for the short time they’re on the page. Sometimes, flat characters can be defined with a shorthand or handle: specific, interesting traits. These might be something physical, or a mannerism, an unusual mode of speech, or other memorable attributes.

Flat Can Be Okay

There’s a school of thought that says no characters should be flat, and especially not ones that are important to the story, but that’s not necessarily true. While we usually want the characters in the spotlight to be complex and interesting, there are certain types of stories and certain genres where relatively flat characters can be effective, even in a starring role.

In some comedy, especially cartoons and sitcoms, it’s common to see characters that are mostly static from episode to episode. These shows typically feature a problem at the start of the episode that is resolved by the end, which means that over time, the status quo is maintained. This allows an audience to “pop-in” to the show at any time, as long as they’re familiar with the characters. They don’t have to catch up on the two or three episodes they missed. When this works, it’s because the characters are largely treated as vehicles for a steady stream of jokes.

Similarly, in certain mystery stories, the detective protagonist may undergo surprisingly little character development. These stories are focused on the mystery: the clues, the false leads, the clever inferences, and the eventual satisfying conclusion. Again, the detective character becomes a vehicle, this time, for the mystery.

Some superhero comics are superlative examples of characters that can remain static and flat. I have a pet theory that superhero origin stories are almost always the most compelling, because the character has an arc in the origin story, but oftentimes becomes much more static after that, enslaved by a serial format that wants to keep selling issues indefinitely. (Of course, this is a gross generalization, but there are certainly examples you can point to.)

Point of View

For POV characters and narrators, who are the reader’s window into the story, having a deep understanding of the character is vital for understanding their voice. When the character is the POV or the narrator, their voice is the voice of the book (or at least the parts they are involved in). It affects what the reader sees and how the reader interprets almost everything.

Examples

As an example of the flat <==> round spectrum in action, Freya and I talked about one of my half-finished stories.

It takes place in a steampunk world where everyone can wield a tiny amount of magic via totemic items, but a rare few (called “hexes”) can wield greater magical power. The protagonist, Edward, is a hex and a former soldier and spy who once worked for the crown. After committing terrible atrocities in a world war, he quit and vowed to never take another life. He’s an emotional wreck thanks to the horrible things he’s done and seen, and he is constantly balancing his natural inquisitiveness and propensity for getting into big, violent trouble with his vow of pacifism.

Early in the story, he gets involved in a mystery and meets a man who calls himself Vociferous. Vociferous is huge. He claims to be a Hex, wears slightly absurd robes and works in a factory, supposedly casting spells as a part of the highly secretive manufacturing process. We quickly find out that Vociferous is a fraud, and not a hex at all. We find this out because Edward is a real hex who knows all about it.

Vociferous is a relatively flat character. We don’t find out much about his personality or past, we just know he’s faking it for money. He has a handful of characteristics to make him more interesting: his distinct look and strange name. His ultimate purpose is to give Edward good reason within the story to explain the way magic works (to another character, and to the reader).

Edward is a much more rounded character. The story follows his point of view. He has a backstory and history with other characters. He has friends and enemies. He has flaws and goals and challenges to overcome.

Next Time: Setting Goals

Next week is going to be a light class. We’re going to talk about goal-setting and growing as a writer.

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