In 1997, Harry Potter pulled the heartstrings of American readers, engaging them in a fantasy world of magic and strife. In 1851, Captain Ahab took readers on a deadly journey to seek the great white whale. In 1630, Othello lead the way through a tangle of jealously and murder. Each character is undeniably memorable, and each character is arguably flat.
In his work Aspects of the Novel (1927), E.M. Forster discusses two character types: round and flat. A round character is similar to an actual person; they have depth and more than one thing that defines his/her identity. On the other hand, a flat character is less dynamic with only one defining personality trait causing the reader not to be challenged when deciding the motives behind the character’s actions. Each type of character affects a narrative different, but each type of character is still very important. Being a flat character does not mean they are a minor character. Whether you are reading or writing a book, looking into what makes up a character is engaging, meaningful and useful.
Flat: the seemingly boring characters, the characters that are predictable, the ones readers barely give a second thought because everything about them is already written in the words of the narrative. But, is that true or fair? Let's look at the three important characters that I argue are flat.
Harry Potter, the boy who lived, sacrificed himself book after book both physically and emotionally. His self-sacrificing hero persona rules his character to the point that nothing he does surprises us, as readers we know that he will protect the wizarding community or die in the process. He may be predictable, but the books are far from boring (the proof is in the seven books, eight movies, and theme parks). Why does Harry have to be so predictable? The world he lives in is so different from the readers, and the war he is living is so complex that a predictable character is not only useful, but also, necessary. A flat character like Harry keeps the reader connected and grounded to the text. He is the connecting thread between the reader and the narrative.
Jumping back in literary history there is Captain Ahab, the slightly terrifying captain of the Pequod who is defined solely by his obsession to kill the white whale. Unlike Harry, Captain Ahab is not the main character, but he is a vital one. He is the reason the ship sets sail and the decider of the course it takes. He is the one pulling the strings and his obsession is the one pulling his strings. Ishmael is able to take this adventure, learn a lot because there is Captain Ahab. His power and his odd obsession make him one of the most interesting characters in the whole text. What causes the obsession? Why can’t he think about anything else? Is his obsession really worth putting his crew's lives in danger (and getting some killed)? A character with one dimension controls the entire text.
A starkly different character from Ahab is Shakespeare’s Othello. He is an honorable, stereotype-defying General that is drawn into a world of jealousy and manipulation. He does not pull the strings in the narrative, but has his strings pulled like a puppet. It has been argued the play is not Othello’s but his manipulative Captain, Iago. However, Iago could never stand alone as a character, he always needs a person to manipulate and ruin. It is Othello that gives the story purpose, it is Othello that gives Iago a path for destruction, it is Othello’s life we watch getting destroyed. Without Othello, there is no story.
These three characters have many similarities: they hold positions of power, they give the narrative purpose, and they have a name or self-identity to uphold. These three characters prove that flat does not mean boring or disposable. This suggests that there is a slight complexity to flat characters, not in their personality but in their relationship with the plot. The Oxford English Dictionary defines flat as “Spread out, stretched or lying at full length… Of a building or city: Level with the ground.” This definition has nothing to do with the literary world, but it does directly correlate to these characters. Each character is “spread out” or “stretched” in the sense that they are interweaved in the entire story. At the end of the day, fiction is not real but merely a construction. In the structure of their stories each of them (Harry, Captain Ahab or Othello) are the ground level—without them the rest of the narrative would crumble apart.
Whether you are reading or writing a novel, play, short story, don’t be too harsh on the flat characters. Their personality may be one dimensional, but often, their role is complex. It is the flat character’s role to teach lessons: the good win, the consumed live a half-life, and the jealous live in despair.
The next time you read a flat character, ask yourself why the writer made that decision. I would argue that most of the time it is not because they were not imaginative enough to create a rounded character, but that as a flat character, they serve a larger purpose in the plot. The next time you go to write a story, don’t feel that your main character has to be flat; perhaps, she or he will cause more of an impact as a predictable character. Examine the possibilities of the literary world—it’s inspiring.