What is a Flat Character: Examples and How to Write One

No matter where you are in your writing career — whether you're just starting out or you've got a few books under your belt — you've probably heard of flat characters. You may have even been put off from a movie, show, or book by too many flat characters. Sometimes called two-dimensional characters, these are just as they sound. They lack complexity and don't have an identifiable character arc. So why would you want to know how to write a flat character?

After all, you would assume most authors want to avoid flat characters. 

Good writers know that flat characters are necessary. They know when to use them and how to write them well. Which is what this post is all about!

In this article, you will learn:
  1. What is a Flat Character?
  2. Flat Characters vs. Round Characters
  3. Flat Characters vs Static Characters
  4. Can a Main Character Be Flat?
  5. Flat Characters as Protagonists
  6. What is an Effective Way to Use Flat Characters?
  7. Tips for Writing a Flat Character

What is a Flat Character?

A flat character is one that lacks complexity in several facets. The two-dimensional character's journey is often described as having a flat arc, meaning they don't change from the beginning of the story to the end. They also usually lack complex personality traits. 

We'll get into some examples later, but for now just know that a flat character can be used to great or detrimental effect, depending on their purpose in the story and even the genre in which you're writing.

To further explore flat characters, it's helpful to compare them to round and static characters.   

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Flat Characters vs. Round Characters

The biggest difference between a flat and round character is the arc. A flat character is defined by the lack of an arc, either positive or negative. A round character, on the other hand, changes over the course of the story. This can be a “good” change as in a positive character arc or a “bad” change as in a negative character arc.

Additionally, a rounded character will be complex in terms of desires, personality traits, relationships, and backstory. Round characters have internal conflict, flat ones don't. Round characters are often protagonists because readers can grow bored or impatient with flat protagonists. But, this isn't always the case, as we'll discuss below. 

Flat Characters vs Static Characters

It's easy to confuse flat and static characters. This is because there tends to be significant overlap between the two. A static character is one that doesn't change over the course of the story. 

Confusing, right? Didn't I just say that flat characters don't experience change? 

Yes. But, there's an important distinction here: A static character can be complex and nuanced in terms of personality, relationships, and backstory. Static characters, although they lack a change arc, can still be much more interesting and nuanced than flat characters, who only have one or two defining traits. 

In short, a flat character is always static, but a static character isn't always flat.

Note: A static character is often referred to in comparison to a dynamic character. As you can probably guess, dynamic characters experience change and therefore have a positive or negative arc. 

Can a Main Character Be Flat?

You often see the flat character type used as secondary characters. Usually, each flat character has a specific use in the plot to further the story. But flat characters can, and often do, take center stage as a story's protagonist. 

This is common in plot-driven novels, such as thrillers, mysteries, and crime novels. 

Flat Characters as Protagonists

Just because a character is flat doesn't mean he or she can't lead the reader on an interesting and adventurous journey. But it takes a special skill to pull this off — and you have to know your genre well. If you write in a genre where character-driven stories are expected, your flat arc character probably won't be well received. 

The hero's journey for a flat character is different from that of a rounded character. The most common journey for a flat character is one of changing the world around them, as opposed to changing internally. The flat character's truth is known at the beginning of the story, and his or her (or its) quest is to make others in the world around them see that truth. 

Of course there will be conflict. A story without conflict is likely to bore readers, after all. But the conflict in a flat arc is that of the odds stacked against the protagonist. The world doesn't want to see the character's truth, and so resists. At a certain point, the character will appear beaten, ready to give up on spreading the truth. Whether the character succeeds or not is up to the writer. But they do more often than not. 

This kind of hero's journey can be a little vague when described in general terms, so let's look at some examples of flat protagonists in literature. 

Flat Protagonist Examples

Sherlock Holmes – Perhaps the most famous example of a flat protagonist is Sherlock Holmes. Although he is eccentric, Holmes isn't all that complex and he doesn't change throughout the stories. His is a great example of a flat character arc because he already knows his “truth” and each story is about solving the mystery, not about the changes Holmes goes through. 

Classic Disney Princesses – Children's stories often have flat characters as protagonists. If you think about it, this makes sense. I certainly wasn't interested in character development when I was a child, watching Cinderella or Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. These stories are simple and plot-driven, which makes them ideal stories for flat protagonists. 

What is an Effective Way to Use Flat Characters?

The most common use of the flat character is as a secondary character in a supporting role. It makes sense for a minor character to be flat since developing that flat character into a complex character can bore readers and take away from the plot. 

However, there are other ways to use flat characters effectively in a story. One is as a foil and another is to further the story in a plot-driven novel. 

Flat Characters as Foils

An excellent use of a flat character is as a foil. A foil character is one that provides a comparison as opposites with another character. For example, a one-dimensional character can be effective in cementing a main character's complexity in the reader's mind. 

When a flat character and a round character both take the stage, each with opposite traits, it can strengthen each character's traits through comparison. The round character will seem more like a real person, whereas the flat character will seem more like a stock character. When done intentionally, this can be a good tactic to portray character development and strengthen the reader's identification with a major character.  

Flat Characters in Plot-Driven Stories

As mentioned briefly above, flat characters are essential for plot-driven stories. These kinds of stories aren't focused on character development — that's not what the reader is reading for. Instead, they focus on what's happening in the plot. So, taking time away from the plot to focus on character development — which is essential for turning a flat character round — can disappoint readers.

In fact, this is one way to tell the difference between plot-driven and character-driven narratives. If there are pages dedicated to explaining a minor character's backstory, it's likely a character-driven story — or a plot-driven story gone off the rails.  

Flat Characters for a Laugh

Comic relief is often a job given to flat characters. It can be difficult for a reader to relate to a flat character, but not to laugh at them. If you take a look at funny secondary characters in some of your favorite stories, you'll find that they're probably pretty one-dimensional. 

Flat Characters as Antagonists

Some stories need a complex, well-developed antagonist. Others are just fine without them. In fact, some of the most famous villains are flat. They only have one or two traits that they stick to throughout the story, not deviating or changing, even as the hero shows them the error of their ways or defeats them in battle. 

Other Flat Character Examples

Dracula – Dracula in Bram Stoker's novel is an excellent example of a flat antagonist. All he's interested in doing is drinking blood and making more vampires. He's shrouded in mystery, making him both flat and intriguing at the same time. 

C3PO – Even if you don't find this droid particularly funny, he's there for comic relief. He's a good example of a flat character that the audience expects to be flat (he's a droid, after all). 

Crabbe and Goyle – These two henchmen-like characters from J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series don't experience a growth arc. They can also be summed up in just one word: Bullies. They're two-dimensional and only serve one role in the series, appearing alongside Draco Malfoy to mindlessly do his bidding. 

Tips for Writing a Flat Character

Still, even character-focused stories need flat characters to fill out the supporting roles. In fact, many of the best literary novels have a good balance of flat and round characters. 

This is why it's important to know tips for writing a flat character. 

The Flat Character Arc

If you're writing a flat character as a protagonist, you'll need to think about the flat character arc. In essence, you'll need to understand that if your character is intentionally flat, he or she won't change over the course of the story. But they will need to have a “truth” and a goal associated with that truth. The main conflict of a flat character arc is about the “truth” that the character knows coming up against the “lie” that the world is currently living. 

Different Traits for Flat Characters

When writing a flat character, it's important to consider what traits will work best. You can reverse engineer traits by thinking about what the character's purpose is in the story. Whether the character will be the comic relief, a henchman, a love interest, or a foil will help you determine the best one or two characteristics for your flat character's personality. 

Many writers also find it helpful to come up with a simple backstory for their flat characters, even if this won't be shared at all with the reader.

Listen to Your Instincts

The nice thing about flat characters is they don't need a ton of effort to perfect. And most writers have developed instincts for all character types through reading and writing. So if your instincts say that a certain type of flat character will work best in your story, follow that instinct and see where it leads. You can always change the flat character if you feel it's not working for the story. And making those changes is (thankfully) much easier than changing the main characters!

Flat Characters Don't Have to Be Dull

Remember as you're writing that flat characters don't have to be boring. They can be memorable characters, provided they add to the story and don't take away from it. Your flat character can have an enormous impact on the story, as is often the case when they're used as mentors or helpers in the hero's journey. 

They can be facilitators of positive change and negative change. And, when done well, certain flat characters can evoke powerful emotions from the reader, even without going into their backstory. A flat character's personality should be shown through his or her actions or interactions with the main character(s). 

Identify the Flat Characters in Your Life

We all come across what could be considered flat characters in the normal world. See if you can identify them as you go through your day. (Hint: most people you don't know but have daily interactions with could be considered “flat characters” in your life story.) 

The woman getting angry at the barista at your favorite coffee shop. The man who helped you pick up a book you dropped. The neighborhood kids who ring your doorbell and run away. While flat characters in a story should have more of a clear purpose than those in our daily lives, thinking of them this way can help you wrap your head around what flat characters are — and it could give you ideas for flat characters in your current work in progress. 

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Conclusion

Most stories are populated with both round three-dimensional characters and flat one- or two-dimensional characters. And while it's possible to have a plot-driven book with nearly all flat characters, it's rare to have a book with all round characters (unless there are only a few characters in the book). 

Think of some famous literary characters from your favorite stories and see if you can come up with which ones are flat. It's pretty easy once you know what to look for. If you can only come up with one or two traits for a given character, they're probably flat. And once you know how to identify them in other works, you can write them on your own!



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