“What is a Flat Character vs a Round Character?”: A Literary Guide for English Students and Teachers

When we talk about flat characters and round
characters, what we mean is that there is a difference — or some kind of distinction
— between characters who are superficial, predictable, or otherwise not very sophisticated
— we usually call these characters flat — and, on the other hand, round characters:
characters that have a certain kind of depth or complexity. And the question is: What exactly is this
depth? What makes a round character more interesting
or more complex? If we look at a very famous narrative — let’s
take for example the very first Star Wars movie — Episode 4, A New Hope, 1977 — we
can see that Luke Skywalker, for example, is a good character. How do we know that he’s good? He has blue eyes, he has blond hair, he wears
white — we can talk about that when we talk about symbolism ¬— as opposed to Darth
Vader, who is a bad character. How do we know he’s bad? He’s dressed in black, of course. Which is very predictable and very superficial. How do we know that Obi-Wan Kenobi is a good
character? He has white hair and a white beard, he looks
like a religious figure — like a monk, or someone who is pure, etc. What I would like to suggest is that these
characters are flat characters. Not that they’re not interesting. I think it’s a fascinating narrative with
captivating and memorable characters. I’ve watched it many times. But I have to admit that there is not a lot
of depth to these characters — in the sense that they are, for the most part, stable. They are rarely confused, and their behavior
doesn’t confuse us. It’s true that Luke Skywalker — at the
beginning ¬— is reluctant to join the rebellion. But once he does, that’s it. He’s committed to the cause. He never has second thoughts, he’s completely
dependable, he never does anything that is selfish or shocking or controversial or uncharacteristic. He’s entirely good. I think that when we talk about round characters,
we’re ultimately talking about characters who defy the whole idea of moral dichotomies. In other words, round characters cannot be
referred to in terms of good or bad — or good and evil — or right and wrong. So if we take, for example, a more complex
narrative — Wise Blood, a famous American novel by Flannery O’Connor — we can see
a set of characters that are much more complicated than the superficial distinction between ¬— or
division into — good and bad. The main character, Hazel Motes, is a young
man who is an anti-preacher: he is against religion, he hates God, he hates Jesus, and
he starts — or he founds — his own church: the Church Without Christ. Paradoxically, he is completely devoted to
the Church Without Christ; he has a lot of faith in the Church Without Christ; he’s
an absolute believer in the truth of Church Without Christ — which means that he’s
a very honest, very sincere, very serious person. When he’s confronted by frauds — people
who pretend to be representing God but are actually in the religion business to make
money — he kills one of them. In that sense, he plays the role of an angry
biblical prophet — Elijah, for example. He’s violent, he’s self-tortured, toward
the end the novel he blinds himself — and at the very end he’s willing to make the
ultimate sacrifice and die — for the sake of truth, for the sake of showing people that
they are being deceived by fake preachers and false prophets. We could say that he really becomes a Christ
figure. And it’s very strange, because he’s not
a very sympathetic character. He’s not a lovable character. He’s not Luke Skywalker. He’s controlled by rage, he’s a killer,
he rejects the people who follow him — his own disciples — and he ends up dead. But that’s a round character. Naturally, some characters in this novel are
flat. These are all the greedy people who pretend
to be righteous while cheating everybody in sight. For example, the landlady, Mrs. Flood, a sweet
old lonely woman who, I think, is a horrible person and not so sweet at all. She’s gluttonous and avaricious, and she
doesn’t change throughout the novel, even if she claims she does. It’s interesting that we are often trained
to look for depth when we examine literary characters, and sometimes it’s hard for
us to accept the fact that certain characters remain flat in spite of our tendency to think
about them in terms of growth, transformation, epiphany, and so on. I think that the point is that good fiction
often presents a curious interplay of flat characters and round characters, and it’s
not always easy to tell which is which.

4 Replies to ““What is a Flat Character vs a Round Character?”: A Literary Guide for English Students and Teachers”

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