When a writer embarks on telling a story, perhaps the first port of call alongside crafting the plot is to develop the characters. Understandably this can be a daunting task and given the quite literally endless number of options to choose from combined with the various criteria to decide upon, any help to simplify this process and provide extra insight is likely to be welcomed. One way to do this, is to break down the different types of characters that will feature in the tale. No doubt everyone reading this is familiar with main characters, second leads, recurring characters etc. And with this, a writer is generally judged upon how well they can shape and mould these characters into as vivid and whole people as fiction will allow. However, a type of character that by its very nature receives far less attention, but can crucial to a story if not quite as important, is the flat character.
As the name implies, a flat character is far less developed than perhaps others in the story will be but can serve a variety of purposes in both narrative, meaning and to develop the other characters around them. In this article, we will break down exactly what a flat character is, what purpose they serve in a story as well as some examples of flat characters to fully colour in who they are and what they mean to a writer.
What is a Flat Character?
A flat character is a character that has little emotional depth, often fits into a cliche or stereotype, does not go on an emotional journey and has very little personal evolution throughout the story.
All of which sounds very blunt and obtuse, which can be the case. However broadly speaking a flat character will fall into one of two categories, accidental and intentional.
An accidental flat character, is one not created by design but by accident, and will often be a reflection of a writers skillset in that they may not have the talent required to fully develop their characters. In fact, often the most cutting remark a critic can give a writer is that their characters were flat and two dimensional. This isn’t always the case however, and this article will focus on the intentional flat character from here on and the ways they can be utilised to enhance the story instead of detract from it.
An intentional flat character fits the above description but by design not by chance. The writer would intentionally create a shallow amount of depth for a variety of reasons which we’ll explore in more depth below.
What Purpose Does a Flat Character Serve?
A flat character could be useful for a writer to use in a few key scenarios.
Firstly, if a story is particular dense with regards to plot, and the book is not so much a character study but the characters serve a purpose to fulfil the narrative, a writer may flatten his characters in order to allow the reader to focus their attention on where the writer would like it to be directed. Otherwise, if both the plot and the characters are of such great depth and complexity, it may result in an overly complicated book that ends up in conflict with each other rather than harmony, almost serving as a distraction.
Perhaps most commonly, flat characters are used as accents or flavours as a way to enhance the central or main characters around them. A flat characters traits may be a cliched mirror image of the main characters, in order to provide an easy reflection for the ready to confirm and establish who the main character is. This could be done with both comic effect for a light interlude or emotional and intellectual intensity to further colour in the main characters traits.
Finally a flat character could be written into a story to represent an emotional or moral lesson. Their arc within the tale may be brief but regardless of how short their appearance may be, it is what they add or impart on to the main character rather than who they are themselves that makes them a valuable device literary device. If the writer was to add in a complex backstory in this moments, it would likely end up detracting from the moral or message they are being used for rather than enhancing the story.
Of course these are individual examples and it is more than likely that the best writers will interweave the above as well as other uses of a flat character to maximise their impact and meaning within their book.
Flat Character Examples
Let us take a look at a few hypothetical examples of flat characters, to emphasis the points made above and hopefully complete the understanding of what they are.
The first example would be as a way for the story to take centre stage over the characters. As mentioned above, if the plot is particularly complex or the writer wishes to focus on narrative as opposites to personality, adding characters with as much depth as the tale could provide a clash. Whereas flattening them may well make it easier for the reader to focus on the story as the writer intended. So, for example, if there was a particularly complicated science fiction book where things like space time, the future of the universe was at stake and detailed quantum theories were being introduced to the reader, flattened characters may make this easier to follow. Not to say they have to be completely without emotion or backstory, but perhaps not as fully developed as a human drama or everyday slice of life story.
A second example would be, to add or enhance a main character. This could be through a chance interaction where these two characters only converse or cross paths for a very brief time. But the actions or words of the main character placed in stark contrast to the flat character can re enforce or provide clarity in the readers minds as to who the main character is. This could be kindness shown to a stranger as opposed to viciousness or anger as opposed to calmness for instance.
Finally, perhaps without knowing it, the example that we are all most familiar with. Ever since we were read bed time stories as children, flat characters have been in our lives as ways to impart a moral or message. This could be in a fairytale where an animal represents sadness or happiness, or in a learning book where a character encounters a wise old man who only appears momentarily but imparts some valuable advice. Not to say this example is not relevant for novels or books focused on adults, it can indeed be utilised for any type of story.
Flat Characters – Final thoughts
In conclusion then, a flat character is not what it may at first appear. Often associated with lower quality writing or an underdeveloped book, they can in fact be valuable additions to stories and perhaps it could be argued are essential. It would be exhausting for the reader if every single character in the book had a lifelong back story and extensive character arc.
Their uses are many but perhaps the most concise where to explain flat characters is that they add to their book not through their own complexity but how they can add to the complexity of others, whether that’s plot or character.
A good exercise for any writer seeking to develop their own use of flat characters, is take a well know book and imagine a new flat character. Writer about who they are, which main characters they would interact with and what the purpose of deploying them would be. Do this multiple times for many books and before you know it you will be a flat character expert, ready to use them as part of your perfectly well rounded story.