Round vs Flat Characters in Fiction: Differences & Examples

Sarah Rexford
July 31, 2023 | 6 mins

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Round vs flat characters, which is better? This age-old question needs an answer that delves into the why behind it. Writing is highly subjective and truly great writers can cast either type of character as their lead. However, knowing why you chose a round vs a flat character is essential to maintain integrity in your story telling. 

There are key differences in both types of characters. Why you choose a round character instead of a flat one makes the difference in character arc. 

For instance, if you cast a flat character as your hero but your plot demands a dynamic character arc, you either lose the integrity of your hero or of your plot. One has to give. To help you equip yourself for success on both fronts, plot and character, it’s time to look at the differences between round vs flat characters. 

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Differences Between Round vs Flat Characters

The primary difference between a flat character vs round character is their arc. Round characters are dynamic. From the first to last page their story is filled with circumstances (internal or external) that ultimately result in their change. 

Flat characters are just the opposite. They are often much less complicated, they do not change, and they are a steady presence throughout the plot. With these general definitions in mind, let’s dive a bit deeper into their differences.

Their Presence: Dynamic vs Steady

Round vs flat characters are not at odds. In fact, they often work together extremely well as foil characters. Due to their polar opposite characteristics they automatically reveal the other’s differences. However, looking more closely at these characteristics, one of the first aspects to take note of is the type of presence they bring to the story.

Round characters are dynamic—they push the story along and drive the action. More similar to stock characters, flat characters are steady—they do not change and are more so an addition to the plot than a focal point of the plot. 

While a round character calls the shots, creates change, and is integral to the unfolding story, a flat character goes with the flow, exists through change, and is present for the revelation of the various plot points. 

Related: An Exploration of Static Characters

Their Personality: Complex vs Straightforward 

With these key differences between round vs flat characters established, their personality comes next. Round characters are layered. Like an onion, it takes time and patience to peel back those layers and find the core of what drives them. Their complexities often add plot twists and surprises. 

Flat characters are straightforward and often down to earth. They are the what-you-see-is-what-you-get type of character. Their purpose or goal is unchanging, as is their character arc. They can be a refreshing “safe” character that grounds the reader and provides a sense of stability. 

Oftentimes, when writers use a round character as the lead, their personality is a key focal point of the plot. Who is this protagonist? What defines them? What’s the driving force behind their actions? Round vs flat characters vary in this regard. The flat character is typically seen and understood from their first scene.

Their Purpose: Spotlighted vs The Spotlight 

Finally, the purpose of round vs flat characters is usually either to highlight the main point or a way the main point itself. For example, if a defining aspect of your story is the protagonist’s redemption arc, casting a round character is essential. They are the lead character, they fill the spotlight with action, and they need to be seen.

However, flat characters often act as a conduit to what needs to be seen. In essence, they are the spotlight. Their unchanging character is the perfect lens to look through and clearly see what is changing in the story. Flat characters are great protagonists for plots with in-depth storylines, complicated plot points, and an array of moving pieces. 

Round characters are the show. They are the main point of the plot. Their character arc is dynamic, engaging, and keeps readers on the edge of their seats. Their purpose is to change. In this way, the reasoning behind creating round vs flat characters is completely opposite. 

While a round character stays within the spotlight, a flat character is the spotlight. Their purpose is to showcase the change of the round character (or the plot points) as they take place.

Round Character Examples

With these three key aspects of flat character vs round character in mind (presence, personality, and purpose), take a look at the following examples. Each example is pulled from literature and features a round character who embodies many of the traits discussed above. 

Take note of the characteristics that pique your interest, which types of characters you resonate with most, and which ones could inspire your next protagonist. 

  • Celie in The Color Purple
  • Edmund in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe 
  • Dantès in The Count of Monte Cristo
  • Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice 
  • Jean Valjean in Les Miserables
  • Snape in Harry Potter
  • Beatrice in Divergent 
  • Bilbo in The Hobbit
  • Thomas in The Maze Runner
  • Scrooge in A Christmas Carol

Notice how these characters are complex and change in some way from the beginning of the story to the end. Their character arc is evident throughout the story and they are a different type of person on the last page than they were on the first. These are round characters and their character arc is obvious to readers.

Flat Character Examples 

Flat character vs round character traits can sometimes be a bit confusing for writers. That said, most well-written characters do embody some form of nuance. For instance, a deep dive into the below characters could culminate in noticing a modicum of change. However, all things considered, for the majority of their page time they possess more flat characteristics.

  • Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express 
  • Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock Holmes
  • Gail in The Hunger Games
  • Jane in Les Miserables 
  • Javert in Les Miserables
  • Crabbe and Goyle in Harry Potter
  • Eric in Divergent 
  • Gollum in The Lord of the Rings
  • Alby in The Maze Runner
  • Fred in A Christmas Carol

Dissecting round vs flat characters is important because it shows the differences between them. For instance, Gollum experiences massive change in The Hobbit, but in The Lord of the Rings he is a relatively flat character—obsessed with the ring and refusing to change.

Eric in Divergent is flat as we don’t know much about him and his character experiences little to no change. What was his origin story though? How did he end up becoming the ruthless man he was? A novel focused on answering these questions could showcase him as a round character.

And finally, Gollum shows the change in Frodo, Jane reveals the arc in Elizabeth, and Eric contrasts with Tris. While these flat characters possess a few traits common with round characters, overall, they are flat. 

Round vs Flat Character: Make The Choice For Your Novel

Through this deep dive into round vs flat characters you’ve likely noticed a few characteristics that apply to your own protagonists or one you hope to one day write. How do you choose between a flat character vs round character? 

Round characters make great protagonists in novels where character arc stars as the primary focus. To Kill A Mockingbird is largely character driven. George Orwell’s 1984 is known for its driving plot and while it contains great characters, is largely plot driven. 

Consider which type of novel you hope to write, then cast your protagonist. Feel free to refer to the resources linked above for further help! 

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