Critical Concepts

"Flat" and "Round" Characterization

Often we think of "characterization" as akin to "portraiture" in drawing and painting, or in sculpture.  One of the decisions a portraitist is confronted with is:  in how great detail shall I execute this portrait?  Should I sketch it in simple terms, or should I strive for complex accuracy of detail?  Should I work in monochrome (sepia ink, or pencil, or black oil; on beige paper, or white-primed canvas), or should I do it in color (pastel pencils, or watercolor, oil-based paint)?  Should I work on a two-dimensional surface (paper or canvas) or construct something in three dimensions (casting bronze, carving stone or chiseling stone)?

Writers face analogous decisions, but (as we shall see) the analogy goes only so far.  One limitation (we'll have more to say on this in a moment) is that in fiction the writer is not starting from an existing reality, which he aims to represent, but making things up.  That is:  complexity in characterization, in fiction, is not something that confronts the writer as a matter of how much of what is already independently out there should I strive to capture in my representation of it, but more a matter of how complex does this character need to be?  The criterion of "need," that is,  is not accuracy (it might not be that for a painter doing a portrait for a client, but it can be and often is).  It is something else -- "the needs of the work as a whole," which itself is also something the writer generally end up discovering in the process of experimenting with "what to put in" and "what to leave out."  In fact, many writers report that a large part of their "creative process" amounts to deciding what to cut out from successive drafts.  Partly this is a matter of not letting things get out of control (having an interesting subordinate character "get out of proportion:" and "run away with the story").  Partly it is a matter of deciding what is superfluous to include because what it is there for is already adequately communicated by other details. But always it is guided by an emerging "feel" for what the situation is that (for some reason) they feel the impulse to ask their reader to imagine.  You discover what this situation is that you "want" by experimenting with variations and discovering that you don't want them.  It may gradually dawn on you why you are so interested in a situation with just these properties and why some close relative of it misses "the mark."  If you do -- if you arrive at some reflective grasp of why you want to ask attention for this situation rather than that -- then this sort of insight may be one of the last things that the whole process results in, for you, the author.

On the assumption in mind that what is of deepest interest in a story is "defined by" exactly what the explicit and implicit facts of the story have been decided to be, serious readers in turn cultivate a careful attention to what the exact details are that the story consists of.  If we want to know "what a story is there for," we'll look to see (among other things) what characters are included in it.  And if we're looking a characters in terms of their "reason for being" in the story, one of the things we'll be interested in is the relative degree of complexity with which different characters are endowed.

Perhaps it will be better if we think in the first instance in terms rather of “flat or round characterization than in terms of “flat or round characters,” and then say, derivatively, that a round character is a character whose characterization by the author is (relatively) “rounded” rather than (relatively) “flat.”  We have to keep in mind not only that we’re dealing here with a matter of degree rather than with discrete categories, and that we’re dealing with metaphor (hence the reminder quotes at the end of the last sentence) but that what’s at stake is more manner of portrayal than what is portrayed, or (even better) of creation rather than representation.  After all, it’s not as if these fictional critters had an independent prior existence that a writer could either capture fully or lay hold of only superficially.  They are what the author decides to make them.  For example, in the story "Gimpel the Fool," I.B. Singer makes Elka and Gimpel by deciding what qualities he will give them.  It’s his decision to make them relatively complex (as pretended persons) or relatively simple (i.e., the way he goes about characterizing them) that determines whether they come across as (relatively) “round” or (relatively) “flat.”  

But what exactly is it about the way he goes about constructing them that determines whether they end up "round" or "flat"?

We might be tempted to conclude that Elka is round “because the author gave us many details about her.”   It is certainly true that Singer gives us many details about Elka, and that these details are quite vivid.  They make her "come alive" for us: she's certainly not "wooden"!  But it's not the number of details that makes for a round character, or even the vividness of those we are served up.  If it were simply a question of vividness, then there could be no vivid flat characters, but literature abounds with them.  Pangloss in Voltaire's philosophical tale Candide is a hilarious example, just as Fagin in Dickens' Oliver Twist is a villainous one.  

To begin with, the flat/round distinction has to do not with the richness of detail, but with the traits these details express.  It's important to see, though, that it is not just a matter of the clarity with which express the character's personality and ethical features comes across.  If this were so, it would be the case that we would end up with only a dim or vague or confusing notion of what makes flat characters tick, but this is surely not the case, as the same examples (Pangloss and Fagin) will serve to drive home.  Certainly we don't have any problem arriving at a conception of how Elka thinks and feels:  we are not just confined to bare information about what she says and does.  But the fact that we know what type of woman Elka is (self-centered, with strong physical appetites, short-sighted) does not suffice for her to count as a flat character.

Nor is the flat/round distinction is a matter of the number of traits.  It is true that round characters will have to exhibit more than one trait, it is also true that flat characters are often possessed of a multiplicity of distinguishable traits.  The key point in the flat/round distinction, however, has to do with the kind of relation a character's traits bear to one another.  Consider the character's we meet in Vonnegut's story "Harrison Bergeron.."  Martha is clearly simple.  But it is not the fact that she is a simpleton that makes her an instance of a flat character; it is rather that this is all she is:  dim-witted.  Her husband George is definitely not a simpleton, but the recipe by which he is drawn is still quite simple.  He is intelligent, and endowed with the natural instincts that accompany intelligence:   a spontaneous appetite for tracing out implications, noticing contradictions.  He suffers, but not in virtue of any internal inconsistencies of personal nature -- only because his society is determined (in its pursuit of abject conformity on the part of all "citizens") to inhibit his thinking, by subjecting him to periodic, but unpredictable,  distractions through the headset he is obliged to wear.  Notice that even Martha's and George's son Harrison himself counts as a flat character, even though his outstanding characteristic is that he’s a “well-rounded” collection of perfections.  The relevant question is:  how rich a personality do we have here?  Harrison is simply “perfect” (handsome, strong, graceful, brilliant, courageous) and single-minded in his mission:  there’s no nuance, and there doesn’t need to be.  We can enumerate distinguishable traits, but these are all-of-a-piece:  he is (simply) a supremely talented individual.  (This is what makes him, in the political culture in which it is his misfortune to have been born, an Enemy of the State.)

So what kind of relationship do the traits of a round character bear to each other?   There has to be a certain kind of richness that we call "complexity."  The various traits of a "round" character will not all line up in some coherent hierarchy.  Harrison's "multifaceted natural excellence" expresses itself in a comprehensive totality of distinct realms (physical, intellectual, moral), and within each of these realms we see a wealth of distinct aspects of excellence (as to the physical, for instance, he is agile, graceful, swift, strong, and beautiful; the brilliance of his intellect presumably not only logical competence but imaginative powers and aesthetic sensibility, not only tactical cleverness but [we suppose] strategic depth; ethically he is evidently courageous and resolute as well as clear-sighted about the rights of individuals to realize their potentials [i.e., not only strong of will but committed to presumably sound values]).  This systematic unity of conception means that all these various traits are mutually harmonious and, in the end, reducible to a simple overall formula, in this case, something like "Versatile Natural Talent."  But a round character, like a "complicated personality" in real life, tends to be subject to internal stress, as the result of adherence to values that, at least in the situations with which the character is confronted, are not easily reconciled, or as the result of inclinations and appetites that pull in contrary directions.  These are often (but not always) characters who are harder to figure out, not (at least not necessarily!) because they are confusingly or vaguely conceived by their authors, but rather because they are too "rich" to be reduced to a simple formula, and this because the implications of their psychological and ethical traits, as these are called into evidence within the situations in which they find themselves immersed, not only have to be "thought out," but typically turn out to be "balled up"  -- tangled and conflictive.  This is the force of the metaphor of "depth" involved in the idea of "roundness."

Note that we can imagine a flat character who is chronically indecisive.  This could be his leading trait, his "defining essence":  whenever he is faced with a decision (whether to marry, to buy a car, to go to Mexico for vacation, etc.), he ties himself in knots thinking of a host of pros and cons, and ends up procrastinating his way into a decision by default (the girl leaves in disgust, the car gets sold to someone else, the two weeks runs out, etc.)  But a character is capable of being faced with a complex decision -- of really responding (eventually) to the complexity of the issues attaching to it -- we must be faced with character who is multidimensional in a sense that goes far beyond the monolithic perfection of Harrison Bergeron.

The issue is thus whether a character is drawn with some complexity or whether it is the embodiment of a rather simple set of traits (sometimes even just one or a couple, as in the stock character of the "braggart soldier" in Roman and Renaissance drama.  Note, though, that it's possible for even this simple stereotype to be developed in ways that result in a pretty rich portrait:  think of Shakespeare's Falstaff (in Henry IV Part I) — there's someone who's arguable "round" in more than the physical sense (which of course he is also, being quite a hefty sack of flesh).  

Flat is not worse than round.


Related discussions.

   Character and Characterization

   "Static" and "Dynamic" Characterization.  (It is essential to appreciate how the distinction between static and dynamic characters is not the same as the distinction between flat and round characters.)

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      Contents copyright © 2001 by Lyman A. Baker

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  This page last updated 06 September 2001.