Four years ago, I was beginning a rewrite of A Darkened Light, which was my second full-length novel and my current work-in-progress at the time. It had become clear during the first draft that most of my characters were rather bland: that while a couple characters had some interesting things going on with them, the majority of my characters—including my protagonist—were kind of replaceable and largely tools of the plot without much of a personality of their own.
So as I prepared to rewrite the book to flesh out the characters as well as to revamp aspects of the plot, I was reading some articles on the importance of writing three-dimensional characters and had an idea: why not give all of my characters secret backstories, intricate personalities, and subtle motivations? I would make all of my characters interesting and three-dimensional in their own right. And in doing so, I would be able to solve all the problems that I had with my characters being rather bland.
So I went ahead and did it. I took the ten to twelve most important characters in the book, found a list online of fifty different questions you should use to develop a character, and filled it out for all of them. It would be great, I thought. Now all my characters would be three-dimensional and interesting.
As it ended up turning out, though, while they did end up being more interesting for the most part, many of them still failed as characters because I missed an important fact:
Not all characters are supposed to be round, three-dimensional characters.
In fact, many characters actually work better if they are more flat and one-dimensional characters.
This article is thus going to try to argue for why most (not all, but most) minor characters should be flat ones.
Now, before I argue for why minor characters ought to be flat, I should probably define my terms. “Round” and “flat” are two terms that are often thrown around about literary characters that can often escape a general definition. Everyone agrees that round characters are more complex and more realistic than flat characters, but what exactly does that mean? Are round characters inherently interesting and flat characters boring? I don’t think so. In his classic work, “Aspects of the Novel,” E.M. Forster writes that,
“the test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way. If it never surprises, it is flat. If it does not convince, it is a flat pretending to be round.” (78)
Whether or not a character is round and flat actually doesn’t have all that much influence on how interesting he or she can be (although they do relate). It really has to do with how complex and dynamic their motivations are. Flat characters are normally driven by one motivation or represented by one ideal (e.g., this character is always angry; this character just wants to avenge his father’s death), and thus they are pretty predictable. Round characters, on the other hand, have multiple motivations and multiple sides to their personality, and thus their actions should not be easily predictable.
Now, I think one of the main mistakes that can be made after examining something like this is to decide that all characters ought to be round, three-dimensional characters. This was what my view was when revising A Darkened Light, but this view actually ended up hurting the book, and here’s why:
Round characters are not inherently worse than flat characters; it all depends on how you use them.
The thing about round vs. flat characters is that a lot of the time, when a character is accused of being “too flat,” the problem isn’t that a character is flat per se—it’s that a major character is flat. Characters in literature generally follow a simple rule: the more important a character is to a story, the more round and complex he should be. But there’s an inverse to this general rule as well: namely, that the less important a character is to a story, the more flat he should be.
“Now wait,” you might be asking. “I get that minor characters don’t have to be round. But does that really mean that they’re better as flat character than as round ones?” My answer is yes, for three reasons.
1. Flat characters are more memorable.
If a character is flat, what we’re essentially saying is that he’s a caricature. He’s defined by only one (or possibly two) traits, and that means he isn’t terribly realistic. This is why it’s imperative that your major character not be a flat character. But this is also why it’s important for your minor character to be flat: because while a caricature might be flat, as Forster points out, a caricature is also more easily memorable.
After I went through my work A Darkened Light and tried to make most of my characters three-dimensional, the problem that I ran into was that when I ran this by beta readers, they got confused between characters pretty easily. Without any defining characteristics, many characters blurred together and simply became less interesting. While caricatures aren’t always the most realistic, caricatures do have one benefit, and that is that they tend to be remembered.
Just think about different examples of this in fiction. Mr. Collins (Pride and Prejudice), Haymitch (Hunger Games), Phil Colson (Avengers; ignoring Agents of Shield), Olaf (Frozen), Boba Fett (Star Wars), and Tom Bombadil (Lord of the Rings) are all pretty flat characters for the most part. But that’s part of the reason why they’re so memorable. They portray their caricature well, and given their level of importance in the story, they don’t need to be anything else.
2. Flat characters are less distracting.
Unless you’re writing a 400,000 word doorstopper, you simply don’t have enough space to develop a lot of round characters. This was another of my main problems in A Darkened Light. I was trying to make ten to twelve characters round and three-dimensional where, in a 120,000 long book, I really only had enough time to develop three or four of them really well, if even that. The more three-dimensional characters you have, the more likely they are to distract the reader from the main point of the story. And so for each three-dimensional character you make, you need to ask yourself whether or not it benefits the story as a whole for you to shine so much of the spotlight on that particular character.
3. Flat characters are simply more realistic.
Now this might come as a surprise at first—aren’t flat characters inherently less realistic because they’re more of a caricature? This is certainly true, but there’s another way of looking at it as well. When you look around at all the people you know, for those whom you know really well, you definitely see many facets of their personality and see their “literary roundness,” so to speak. But for acquaintances, you probably just remember them by a couple different characteristics and they appear to be more “flat” in your estimation of them until you get to know them more.
Because of this, it simply stands to reason that, to the extent that a novel mirrors reality, it also mimics this aspect. Minor characters who are less important to the protagonist and the main story thus appear more one-dimensional within the constraints of the story.
If you’ve been following me so far, I’ve hopefully convinced you that minor characters often work better if they’re flat characters. But all of this leads to another question: if minor characters are supposed to be flat, then how do you practically write a flat character well?
While minor characters can—and generally should—be flat, that does not mean that they can be boring. If your character is going to be largely defined by one characteristic or one motivation, it needs to be an interesting motivation or characteristic that’s going to be enough to carry the character on through the course of the book.
So here’s the technique that I use when creating a minor character.
Come up with one characteristic and/or one motivation for your character that you want to define that character.
Make sure it’s an interesting characteristic/motivation. This can be anything by defining them personality-wise as “a grouchy old man,” “an easily-scared little kid,” or “a really talkative but brainless teenager,” or even character-wise as “just,” “spiteful,” or “compassionate.” But come up with one really simple characteristic to describe them by.
Once you have accomplished that, the only other step is then to write all the scenes containing that character with that characteristic/motivation in mind. Now, you do need to be careful that the character doesn’t become too much of a caricature. The more a character is present in a story, the more rounded he has to be to be realistic. As much as we talk about round/flat characters as an either/or issue, it really is more of a continuum, so the more present a character is, the more well-rounded you probably want him to be—even if he essentially remains a flat character. But you also don’t need to be afraid of him being somewhat-flat if that’s what his purpose is supposed to be.
And that’s my unlikely defense for why flat characters are necessary—and even beneficial—in your fiction. While not every minor character has to be flat, often, they are better served by being flat, and so we can let our minor characters remain flat while also trying to make them more interesting.
Ultimately, while minor characters aren’t (or at least shouldn’t be) the stars of the show, they can add a ton of vibrancy to a book and really make it feel alive. They may be flat; but they most definitely aren’t unimportant to the general scope of the story. So focus on them. Make them fun and entertaining. And then set them loose to populate your story.