"What is a Flat Character vs a Round Character?": A Literary Guide for English Students and Teachers

View the full series: The Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms

What is a Flat Character vs a Round Character? Extended Transcript

By Gilad Elbom

When we talk about flat characters and round characters, what we mean is that there is a difference — or some kind of distinction — between characters who are superficial, predictable, or otherwise not very sophisticated — we usually call these characters flat— and, on the other hand, round characters: characters that have a certain kind of depth or complexity.

And the question is: What exactly is this depth? What makes a round character more interesting or more complex? If we look at a very famous narrative — let’s take for example the very first Star Wars movie — Episode 4, A New Hope, 1977 — we can see that Luke Skywalker, for example, is a good character. How do we know that he’s good? He has blue eyes, he has blond hair, he wears white — we can talk about that when we talk about symbolism— as opposed to Darth Vader, who is a bad character. How do we know he’s bad? He’s dressed in black, of course. Which is very predictable and very superficial. How do we know that Obi-Wan Kenobi is a good character? He has white hair and a white beard, he looks like a religious figure — like a monk, or someone who is pure, etc. 

What I would like to suggest is that these characters are flat characters. Not that they’re not interesting. I think it’s a fascinating narrative with captivating and memorable characters. I’ve watched it many times. But I have to admit that there is not a lot of depth to these characters — in the sense that they are, for the most part, stable. They are rarely confused, and their behavior doesn’t confuse us. It’s true that Luke Skywalker — at the beginning — is reluctant to join the rebellion. But once he does, that’s it. He’s committed to the cause. He never has second thoughts, he’s completely dependable, he never does anything that is selfish or shocking or controversial or uncharacteristic. He’s entirely good. And Darth Vader, in spite of his respect for the Force, is completely committed to defending the Death Star.

I think that when we talk about round characters, we’re ultimately talking about characters who defy the whole idea of moral dichotomies. In other words, round characters cannot be referred to in terms of good or bad — or good and evil — or right and wrong. 

So if we take, for example, a more complex narrative — Wise Blood, a famous American novel by Flannery O’Connor — we can see a set of characters that are much more complicated than the superficial distinction between — or division into — good and bad. The main character, Hazel Motes, is a young man who is an anti-preacher: he is against religion, he hates God, he hates Jesus, and he starts — or he founds — his own church: the Church Without Christ. Paradoxically, he is completely devoted to the Church Without Christ; he has a lot of faith in the Church Without Christ; he’s an absolute believer in the truth of Church Without Christ — which means that he’s a very honest, very sincere, very serious person. When he’s confronted by frauds — people who pretend to be representing God but are actually in the religion business to make money — he kills one of them. In that sense, he plays the role of an angry biblical prophet — Elijah, for example. He’s violent, he’s self-tortured, toward the end the novel he blinds himself — and at the very end he’s willing to make the ultimate sacrifice and die — for the sake of truth, for the sake of showing people that they are being deceived by fake preachers and false prophets. He’s willing to die for the sake of saving the masses from their own blindness. We could say that he really becomes a Christ figure. And it’s very strange, because he’s not a very sympathetic character. He's not a lovable character. He’s not Luke Skywalker. He’s controlled by rage, he’s a killer, he rejects the people who follow him — his own disciples — and he ends up dead. But that’s a round character.

Other round characters in this novel are his disciples. One of them is a nasty kind of guy — ugly, aggressive, a Peeping Tom who is often rude to people, and who is himself a target for — or a victim of — ridicule and abuse. He steals a museum artifact, he physically attacks an actor in a gorilla costume — then he puts it on and becomes a gorilla himself, and disappears into the wilderness — we never find out what happens to him at the end — but he’s the most honest, most loyal, most devoted disciple: he basically plays the role of Saint Peter. 

Another disciple is a questionable young woman who works as a sidekick for a conman — she’s wild, she’s self-serving, she’s consumed by sexual urges — she’s a self-proclaimed sinner — but at the same time, she’s kind, compassionate, sensitive. Another round character.

Naturally, some characters in this novel are flat. These are all the greedy people who pretend to be righteous while cheating everybody in sight. For example, the landlady, Mrs. Flood, a sweet old lonely woman who, I think, is a horrible person and not so sweet at all. She’s gluttonous and avaricious, and she doesn’t change throughout the novel, even if she claims she does.

It’s interesting that we are often trained to look for depth when we examine literary characters, and sometimes it’s hard for us to accept the fact that certain characters remain flat in spite of our tendency to think about them in terms of growth, transformation, epiphany, and so on. I think that the point is that good fiction often presents a curious interplay of flat characters and round characters, and it’s not always easy to tell which is which.

Further Resources for Teachers:

Flannery O'Connor's short story "A Good Man is Hard to Find" offers a good opportunity to practice identifying flat vs round characters that fits well with this video. The flatness of most of her characters in the story expresses O'Connor's critique the unthinking nature of post-Reconstruction southern mythology. The Misfit is the only clearly "round" character in the story. The story pivots around the central question "Does the Grandmother change at the end?", which suggests the possibility of redemption linked to her "roundness."  This is a subject of ongoing scholarly debate that students could join.