flat vs rounded character

Flat Character vs. Round Character: Definitions and Examples

Every fictional person that populates books, movies, and plays falls into one of two categories: flat characters and round characters. Flat and round characters each fill important roles in works of fiction, and while this isn’t the only way to categorize fictional characters, it’s a useful distinction to help guide your own character writing.

What is a round character? What is a flat character? It has nothing to do with their shapes—the two terms are set apart based on the character’s depths and complexities. Generally, the main characters are round, and the supporting ones are flat—but you’ll soon see this isn’t always the case.

Let’s take a look at the distinction between flat character vs. round character. Along the way, we’ll include tips for writing each category and look at copious examples in literature.

Round Character Definition: What is a Round Character?

A round character describes any character whose depth and complexities are apparent throughout the story. Round characters exhibit the psychological complicatedness that all of us share as human beings.

Round character definition: any character whose depth and complexities are apparent throughout the story. Round characters exhibit the psychological complicatedness that all of us share as human beings.

Of course, writing a round character is easier said than done. In order for a fictional human being to reflect the complexities of real world people, the author must unravel several aspects of human psychology in that character. Most round characters will have the following:

  • External conflict: No one gets along with everyone, and your character will feel very disagreeably about certain people and personalities.
  • Internal conflict: Many characters are their own obstacles. A good round character will have their own flaws, insecurities, philosophies, and problems to overcome.
  • Desires and motives: The conflict of a story is generated from your protagonist having certain desires and motivations which are not easy to obtain. These motives can be physical, emotional, material, and/or philosophical.
  • Contradictions: Truly complex characters are riddled with internal contradictions. For example, a character might desire love, but push away every potential suitor that tries to give them that love.
  • Speech patterns: The dialogue of a round character is informed by their personality, the region they grew up in, their profession, their generation, their quirks of speech, and even the words they simply like and dislike.
  • Backstory: When we first encounter a character, they are usually an adult or, at the youngest, a teenager. Since we don’t follow the character’s life from the moment they are born, that character’s backstory is essential to understanding their complexities, traumas, feelings, desires, and flaws.
  • Relatable traits: Most round characters are relatable, if not likable. Something about them must be relatably human for the reader to connect with them on a personal level.
  • Fatal flaws: Also known as a hamartia, a character’s fatal flaw is the thing that prevents them from growing and overcoming the obstacles necessary to their successful resolution of the conflict.

Do note that some characters might not have all of the above components, such as a fatal flaw or internal contradictions, depending on their place in the story. Nonetheless, these items seem like a lot to fit into one character, right? Later on, we’ll discuss some tips for crafting effective round characters.

Who is the round character in literature? Generally (but not always), main characters are round. This includes your protagonist and perhaps their closest relationships, but it also includes your story’s antagonist, too.

Round Character Examples

The following round character examples come from classic works of literature. Note: we do not analyze each character’s speech patterns, as it would take far too long to detail how a person’s speech is informed by their entire life.

Quentin Compson in The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

The Sound and the Fury is a novel about the Compson family’s fall from grace in the postbellum south. The novel is broken up into 4 sections, each section focusing on a different singular day and a different person’s story. Quentin, the most intelligent of the Compsons, is a freshman at Harvard who grapples with issues of justice, purity, and meaninglessness in the world. He is obsessed with Caddy, his sister, whom he tries and fails to protect from the awful facts of life.

External conflict

Most of Quentin’s relationships are antagonistic. His father burdens him with an overwhelming sense of nihilism. He is overly protective of Caddy, whom he loves, which fosters his hatred of Dalton Ames, who may have impregnated Caddy. He also finds Caddy’s brief husband, Herbert Head, repulsive. Nonetheless, none of these conflicts materialize during the present day that Quentin’s story is narrated.

Internal conflict

Quentin’s large internal world is, in part, his fatal flaw. Quentin thinks critically and seriously about everything to the point of insanity, not unlike Shakespeare’s Hamlet. He obsesses over concepts like justice, purity, and the meaninglessness of life, often searching for a reason to stay alive. He believes in justice and chivalry, finding hope in the purity of people like his sister Caddy. And yet, Caddy is, in Quentin’s eyes, no longer pure, due to her sexual promiscuity and status as a single mother. By fixating on the perceived injustice of Caddy’s impurity, Quentin drives himself crazy searching for meaning and value in an inherently meaningless world.

Desires and motives

Quentin desires meaning, order, justice, and purity. He is motivated by a search for reason, value, and beauty in the world.

Contradictions

Despite believing in justice and chivalry, Quentin’s relationship to Caddy is rather patronizing and possessive. He wants Caddy’s purity for himself. At one point, he lies to his father that he and Caddy have committed incest, hoping his father will banish the two of them so they can be exiles with each other. Quentin hopes that, by being responsible for Caddy’s sin, he can absolve her of impurity and make her his reason for being alive.

Backstory

Quentin’s family has lost its honor and prestige since the end of the American Civil War. The Compsons have lost much of their wealth and are ridiculed by townsfolk. Quentin himself laments the South’s loss in the Civil War. While these details are not immediately relevant to Quentin’s backstory, they inform his strained family relations: his nihilistic father, his unhappy siblings, and his search for meaning in a world that seems to have abandoned him.

Relatable traits

Quentin’s desire for justice is admirable. Additionally, Faulkner writes much of Quentin’s story using stream of consciousness, which gives the reader a clear window into Quentin’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions to the world. Of course, Quentin is hardly likable in the modern age, considering his willingness to lie about incest, his obsession with Caddy’s virginity, and his desire for a slaveholding South. But, his need for meaning in the world is certainly relatable to most, a common trait of many round character examples.

Fatal flaws

Quentin thinks too much. He obsesses to the point of insanity, driving himself mad with abstract thoughts and memories. Additionally, Quentin’s desire for justice and purity is ironic, given that these desires stem from a selfish need for order and honor. Eventually, Quentin’s inability to find justice and meaning in the world drive him to suicide.

Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Impossible to summarize, The Brothers Karamazov is a novel about the three sons of a small town’s wealthy but crass “sponger.” Ivan, the middle child, is both deeply intelligent and deeply troubled. He is an academic and essayist, and often talks about issues of religion, atheism, and man’s cruelty. He is in love with the fiancée of his brother, Dmitri.

External conflict

Ivan does not like most people. He thinks his father is a buffoon, he dislikes Dmitri’s hedonism, and he regards his brother Alyosha—the novel’s lovable protagonist—with little appreciation. Most of Ivan’s problems are internal, however.

Internal conflict

Ivan is deeply discomforted by man’s cruelty. He often laments the awful reality of human nature. Because of this, Ivan is deeply atheistic, as he believes no omnibenevolent God would allow for the suffering of innocent people. These beliefs contribute to his later psychosis in the novel. He begins to hallucinate conversations with the Devil, and in these conversations, Ivan constantly revokes the idea of a higher power. Nonetheless, the “Devil” makes Ivan confront the reality that logic alone cannot heal the world. For a brief period of the novel, Ivan goes insane as a result of these dialogues.

Desires and motives

Behind Ivan’s aloofness is a strong sense of idealism, and a desire to mend the world’s suffering. Additionally, Ivan desires the love of Katarina, his brother’s fiancée.

Contradictions

Ivan seeks to mend the world’s suffering, but he himself contributes to that suffering. In his aloofness and pretensity, Ivan locks himself into the world of his mind, doing little to alleviate the suffering of others. Additionally, at one point he tells a family servant that nothing humans do ever results in real consequences, which encourages that servant to kill Ivan’s father.

Backstory

Ivan, like his brothers, grows up emotionally estranged from his father. Each brother confronts this estrangement in different ways, but for Ivan, he becomes increasingly sensitive to the suffering of others and increasingly aware of his inability to help. A born philosopher and thinker, Ivan retreats into his mind and tries to intellectualize man’s inherent cruelty, constantly thinking about the fate of mankind.

Relatable traits

Although Ivan comes off as aloof and pretentious, he has a deep seated hatred for the suffering of mankind. His reaction to suffering isn’t always logical, but then again, whose is?

Fatal flaws

Ivan’s reliance on logic is also his downfall. He tries to intellectualize suffering and pain, but logic is not the only way to understand human psychology. Additionally, Ivan uses logic as a means of distancing himself from his own emotions, which don’t abide by logic. Despite Ivan’s atheism, he cares a lot about the fate of mankind, and one can argue he secretly desires a God to worship anyway. Ivan’s reliance on logic contributes to his psychosis, which he cannot intellectualize his way out of.

Jane Eyre in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre, the titular protagonist of Jane Eyre, is a headstrong and resilient woman in 19th century England. Jane’s novel charts her path from an abusive childhood to a life of her own choosing, and her independence and strong sense of justice prove quite controversial for the culture of her time period. Jane’s character and life are difficult to summarize, as Jane Eyre is one of the first novels to discuss its protagonist’s social, moral, and psychological development with great depth and clarity.

External conflict

Jane grows up in an abusive family and also has a headstrong nature, so she routinely encounters conflicts with other people who try to influence how she should behave. Jane’s aunt and cousins are spiteful; her headmaster and many of her teachers are also keen on guilt and punishment. Jane’s employer and eventual husband, Edward Rochester, both teases Jane and makes her jealous with other women, while also having a secret wife. Finally, Jane’s cousin, St. John Rivers, proposes to marry Jane, but only out of duty, not love. Each of these conflicts shape Jane’s character and help her form a sense of self and a personal philosophy in a cold, often selfish world.

Internal conflict

Jane’s awful childhood shapes much of her internal conflict. The ambiguous relationship she had with her family shapes much of her future relationships: on the one hand, she desires love, intimacy, and connection; on the other, she desires her freedom and independence. On top of this, the level of trust involved in meaningful relationships, particularly with men, demands more of her than she is sometimes willing to give. This constant conflict between desiring others and prioritizing the self recurs throughout the novel, and also informs some of the novel’s themes of feminism and sexuality.

Desires and motives

Jane desires both independence and connection. These competing desires influence her many decisions throughout the novel.

Contradictions

As stated above, Jane’s competing desires make her difficult to understand as a character. Difficult, but not impossible: if anything, the reader can relate to Jane’s resolve to be herself and desire for connection. These two motives may contradict each other, but more specifically, they coexist in a woman who struggles to navigate the social realities of 19th century England.

Backstory

Much of Jane’s backstory has been summarized above, but it’s important to understand that, on top of her horrible family, Jane’s schooling was also a very lonely experience. She and the other students were often publicly shamed for minor wrongdoings, and they were frequently neglected of food, medicine, and care. At one point, this neglect contributes to the death of Jane’s good friend Helen.

Relatable traits

A major aspect of Jane Eyre’s enduring success as a novel is the likability of Jane. She is unapologetically herself, especially in a society which tries to control women’s behavior. She is earnest both in her independence and her desire for intimacy. When she doesn’t receive the care she seeks and deserves, her adverse reactions, though intense, feel familiar to readers of all stripes.

Flat Character Definition: What is a Flat Character?

In contrast to a round character, a flat character lacks the depth, complexity, and nuance typically reserved for protagonists and antagonists. That’s not to say the character lacks depth entirely, only that their depth is not crucial to the story. Flat characters fulfill a specific role, often an archetype, for the purpose of advancing the plot.

Flat character definition: a character who fulfills a specific role, often an archetype, for the purpose of advancing the plot.

Flat characters populate both literary and genre fiction, but they are often (not always) a key characteristic of genre fiction protagonists. Sherlock Holmes, for example, is a decisively intelligent character, but his interior life and personal emotions are irrelevant to solving the story’s mystery, so the reader simply has access to his speech patterns, logical mind, and problem-solving prowess.

What are the traits of flat characters? These include:

  • Understandable: Nuances, contradictions, and complexities aren’t necessary for these characters.
  • Predictable: If you drop a flat character in the middle of any scene, you can predict what kind of response they will have.
  • Easy to summarize: You can explain a flat character in a few adjectives or sentences. For example, here’s a description of Sam Spade from The Maltese Falcon: Wry, jaded, and driven, Sam Spade is San Francisco’s finest and grittiest private investigator.
  • Plot driven: The decisions that these characters make are meant to advance the plot. While a round character’s decisions drive the plot, it is the plot which decides the actions of flat characters.
  • Built on tropes and archetypes: Often, these sorts of characters act upon tropes and archetypes. For example, a flat engineer might be dry, awkward, and focused on work; a flat prom queen might be pretty, sociable, and elitist.

Flat characters populate both works of literary and genre fiction. In genre fiction, these characters might be the protagonist and antagonist; in literary fiction, these characters are usually secondary or tertiary, but still important to advancing the story’s plot.

Flat Character Examples

The following flat character examples come from classic works of literature.

Hercule Poirot, a recurring character in Agatha Christie’s mystery novels

Hercule Poirot is Agatha Christie’s most renowned protagonist. In novels like Murder on the Orient Express and The ABC Murders, Poirot’s deft understanding of human psychology paves the way for his tricky, exciting detective work. Additionally, his quirks of speech and distinct mustache have made him an icon for both literature and murder mystery TV.

Understandable

Poirot is an easy character to understand because his goal is always to dissect human behavior and solve mysterious crimes.

Predictable

After you’ve read a few of Agatha Christie’s novels, you understand that Poirot is economical with information and great at setting up psychological traps.

Plot driven

Everything Poirot does is to catch the murderer. The pursuit of justice drives Poirot’s actions and investigations.

Built on tropes and archetypes

Poirot is a distinctly original character, but his intelligence, wit, psychological prowess, and quirky detective behavior are all entertaining conventions of the murder mystery genre. Poirot is an archetypical flat character example of mystery fiction.

Madame Defarge in A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Madame Defarge is the primary antagonist of A Tale of Two Cities. She is cold, ruthless, and cynical. Defarge tirelessly works to bring down the royalty and the bourgeoisie during the French Revolution, having been hurt repeatedly by French aristocrats. She symbolizes both the Reign of Terror and the Fates, as she uses her knitting to encode messages about whom the revolutionaries will kill next.

Understandable

Defarge’s motivations and behavior are easy to comprehend. Her own family has been killed by the Evremondes, an aristocratic family, and her sister was sexually assaulted as well. It’s possible to argue that Defarge’s motives are complex, given that her tireless need for revenge extends to the innocent family members of the Evremondes. Nonetheless, revenge drives Madame Defarge.

Predictable

Defarge’s nature as a tireless, ruthless, driven revolutionary makes her a predictable character to follow. It is unsurprising that she tries to kill Charles Darnay, one of the novel’s protagonists, despite his innocence; his association with the Evremonde family is reason enough to kill him.

Plot driven

Madame Defarge’s role as the novel’s antagonist helps drive the novel to a close. Because she imprisons and tries to execute Charles Darnay, a different and similar looking character, Sydney Carton, decides to trade places with Charles and receive his execution. This allows the novel, and specifically Carton, to muse on questions of death, progeny, and hope for mankind.

Built on tropes and archetypes

Because A Tale of Two Cities was written before the modern day conventions of genre fiction, it would be difficult to argue she’s filled with tropes. Nonetheless, her tireless rage and search for revenge is typical of many antagonists in both literary and genre fiction.

Nick Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

Nick Bottom is a comic relief character in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A trickster fairy, Puck, accidentally turns Nick’s head into a donkey’s. Separate from this, Oberon, the jealous Fairy King, casts a spell on the Fairy Queen Titania to make her fall in love with the first thing she sees, and also to awaken when something vile comes near. Titania’s romance with the donkey-faced Bottom, as well as Bottom’s continuous bumblings and verbal errors throughout the play, drive much of the play’s comedy.

Understandable

Like other comic relief characters, the audience understands that Bottom’s role is to screw things up and, quite literally, make an ass of himself.

Predictable

Comic relief characters in Shakespeare’s plays are distinct for their situational irony, their sexual jokes, and their frequent use of puns.

Plot driven

Bottom appears with nearly every character at some point or another in the play. Despite this, his actions are entirely plot driven, as he must scare away certain characters, miscommunicate to other characters, or act in A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s play-within-a-play.

Built on tropes and archetypes

Nick Bottom is a typical comic relief character of Shakespeare’s. Shakespearean plays needed to appeal to people of all social strata, so while his plays often involved main characters who explored deep, complex, and literary themes, comic relief characters often provided the opposite, entertaining the audience (and especially the lower class audience) with bawdy humor.

Flat Character vs. Round Character

What are the differences between flat characters and round characters?

A round character is:

  • Fully developed—the reader has access to their thoughts, feelings, complexities, conflicts, internal contradictions, hopes, desires, etc. We know what makes a round character seem like a living human being.
  • The driver of the plot—the story advances because of the decisions that a round character makes. The story takes its shape because of this character’s personality.
  • Flawed—it is essential for the reader to understand and connect with the round character’s flaws. If they were perfect, they probably wouldn’t have a place in the story.

By contrast, a flat character is:

  • Two dimensional—the reader does not need access to a flat character’s interiority, complexities, or contradictions. Merely knowing their basic traits, conflicts, and desires is enough to propel the story forward.
  • Plot driven—the decisions made by a flat character serve to advance the plot towards a specific conclusion. For example, they might do something to solve the murder, advance the story’s tension, or goad a round character along their own plotline.
  • Flawless—the flat character does not have any flaws worth exploring. That’s not to say they’re perfect: they could be twisted, evil, sinister, misinformed, or deeply disturbed. But, they do not have any flaws which the story must address and resolve.

Flat Character vs. Round Character Venn Diagram

The distinctions between a flat character vs. round character are summarized in the following Venn Diagram.

Flat Character vs. Round Character Venn Diagram

Relationship to Static and Dynamic Characters

Another common distinction in character development is static and dynamic characters. A dynamic character will change as a result of the story’s conflict and plot. Static characters, by contrast, do not change, either because they have no reason to change or because their static nature is an intentional artistic decision.

You might assume that round characters are always dynamic, and flat characters are always static. While this is often true, there are instances of the opposite for both.

You might assume that round characters are always dynamic, and flat characters are always static. While this is often true, there are instances of the opposite for both.

A good example of a static round character is Albus Dumbledore from the Harry Potter series. Dumbledore is certainly fleshed out as a character: we have access to his backstory, his complexities, his desires, and his flaws. However, he does not undergo significant change by the end of the series, because his role in the story is not to change: he is a (flawed) mentor for Harry.

To pull from the same series, a good example of a dynamic flat character is Ginny Weasley. Ginny is certainly flat, as we don’t often have access to her interiority or complexity, and she primarily exists as Harry’s love interest or Ron’s sister. Nonetheless, at the beginning of the series, Ginny seems shy and quiet. By the end of the series, she becomes much more confident and outspoken. However, this change isn’t necessarily a reaction to the story’s conflict (a key distinction for dynamic characters); Ginny simply grows up.

To learn more, check out our article on Static Characters vs. Dynamic Characters.

More Resources: Writing Flat and Round Characters

For more resources on developing flat and round characters, take a look at the following articles:

Develop Flat and Round Characters at Writers.com

Character development is an essential aspect of all story writing. Whether your stories are plot driven or character driven, you need a strong sense of character to make your work believable.

Develop your flat and round characters with Writers.com! Our upcoming online writing courses will help you explore your characters’ psychologies, complexities, and intricacies.

6 Comments

  1. Kaci Rigney on February 1, 2022 at 10:26 am

    Definitely a worthwhile read! I need to round out my characters a little more. Thank you!

    • Sean Glatch on February 1, 2022 at 12:16 pm

      Thank you, Kaci, I’m glad this helps!

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  4. Sebastian Howard on April 25, 2022 at 5:21 am

    Ok I’m still kind of confused. For the character you’re talking about in the tales of two cities story, the antagonist, you’re saying that’s not a round character because they’re purely driven my revenge. However if we have the characters backstory and motivation and it comes across as realistic wouldn’t that be a three dimensional round character rather than a flat? The only distinction I see is that she’s purely motivated by revenge so even though she may come across as realaltic she’s still not developed enough or explored enough to be a round character? In the case of poriot I think that’s a bad example if you actually read the last poriot book as he becomes entirely rounded out and is much more explored in his last mystery as he’s not even the main character in that one. I see people also use Sherlock Holmes as an example of a flat character but I’m sure that there’s other Holmes stories that flesh him out more but I get the idea of the them being flat for most of their stories as they’re just solving things rather than being developed most of the time.

    I’m assuming superheroes like spiderman and batman and such would be considered fully rounded out characters even though they’re archetypes because they are fully explored and fleshed out. I was watching this video by Alan Moore on how to make three dimensional characters and he was saying that being a good guy or a bad guy equals one dimensional character and that adding a flaw equals two dimensional but three dimensional is someone who’s not good or bad. I think that’s entirely idiotic as you can obviously flesh out good guys or bad guys and explain why they’re like that. What are your thoughts on the matter?

    I don’t think you always need rounded characters to have good stories as I’ve been reading short horror stories where the characters aren’t that fleshed out but I still enjoy the stories. In one story there is a guy who kills his friend because he wouldn’t give him a loan. He then buries the body at a beach in wintertime and then gets nervous about the body and ends up getting killed at the end. Now is this a flat character or a rounded character as it’s explained why he killed the guy, their past together and his actions are what makes the plot happen and not vice versa. I’d still lean on flat as he’s not developed that much beyond what the story needs for us to know but I’m not entirely sure.

    • Sean Glatch on April 25, 2022 at 5:37 am

      Hi Sebastian,

      Those are great questions! I do agree that Madame Defarge is a bit more complicated than a typical flat character–however, I wouldn’t say she has all the traits associated with round characters. Her actions are predictable, and she isn’t bestowed with the layers of nuance and self-contradiction that are typical of round characters. We never see her grapple with complexity, and her role in the story is simply as vengeful antagonist. What is complex are her motives for vengeance, so she still serves the novel by complicating the themes of class and conflict. As a result, she’s kind of in the middle, and it’s good to see flatness and roundness as ends of a spectrum, rather than concrete binaries. (We treat them as binaries for the purposes of this article, but I might amend that based on your comment!)

      As for Poirot, I don’t know if I’ve read his final novel. But, he is a flat character in the vast majority of his novels, so all I can say is that he usually functions as a flat protagonist. I’ll have to read that novel some time!

      In general, I agree with Alan Moore’s insights on character complexity. Good and bad are highly subjective, and different readers bring different interpretations. Let’s say, for example, you have a protagonist that’s polygamous. One reader might think this makes them a bad person, because they’re greedy and unfaithful. A different reader might say this is a positive trait, as they’re not possessive and want their partners to remain free and untethered. Because people will fall into different camps, it’s not enough to simply reduce traits to “good” or “bad” — rather, we should treat characters with empathy and understand their traits and perspectives using the whole English lexicon.

      People in real life are neither wholly good or bad; those terms are subjective, the human experience is highly nuanced, and round characters allow us to sit inside that nuance and consider our own thoughts and morals.

      You certainly don’t need characters to be round for a story to be good–some of the best novels out there have flat protagonist. Many thanks for your comment!

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