Flat characters are okay.
E.M Forster outlines the difference between flat and round characters in Aspects of the Novel. He suggests that a rounded character is fully realised and multidimensional. A flat character is well, flatter. They are given less detail and don’t have as much complexity as a round character would.
Despite common advice that every character has to be incredibly well rounded, it is not necessary to inject a lot of life into unnamed characters or minor role characters. Here’s how to tell when to put the effort in!
How to use a flat character.
Flat characters should not be placed into major roles but rather slide into the background serving as secondary characters. They can play an important part, but they don’t need to have too many complexities.
Just because a character is flat, it doesn’t mean that they should have interesting characteristics or vivid details.
Flat does not mean uninteresting!
Ford Madox Ford explains that you can’t have a character in a story long enough to sell a newspaper without giving details that allow the reader to visualise them.
So your flat characters need to be described. Your reader should be able to imagine them. That being said, try to avoid your typical ‘stock’ character descriptions, even your secondary characters deserve better than that. Subverting character expectations when it comes to is a simple way to create a character that is interesting without much effort. Now your character sticks out and is memorable without you having to say much about them.
Taking a ‘stock’ character and mixing them up with something more interesting can make for an impactful moment in your story. The ‘old-fashioned elderly woman’ could be subverted to someone who has impeccable taste. This would help make them stand out to the main character.
Try playing with a smart jock or an ADHD accountant. There are lots of ways you can take a flat role and add a little flair to them! Don’t be afraid to distract your reader with side characters. The main protagonist was distracted by them, too; that’s why they are in the story.
Not every character has to be interesting.
Every character does have to be visualisable, brief descriptions or interesting personality quirks can make or break a story.
Help your readers imagination and write someone worth remembering. You might end up liking your flat character so much you develop them and inject them into the plot. Don’t fall into the trap of describing a side character too much, this may confuse your reader.
One of the problems that I have with The Great Gatsby is how many characters are described but are also irrelevant to the plot. I ended up trying to remember all of the characters and I was never sure who was relevant. This meant that I often forgot who was impactful to the story and who wasn’t.
Don’t confuse your reader by giving side characters a bigger moment than necessary! Do your character justice but don’t spend too much time developing someone with exactly one line.
As always, I cannot wait to see you on the bookshelf!