Shannon Wiersbitzky: Do Your Characters Skip or Splash?

Shannon_Wiersbitzky_Author_Photo_2012I’m a big fan of people watching. Many of us are. Whether walking down a crowded sidewalk, or sitting at a café, it can be fun to see the variety of individuals that pass by. Some are noticeable for a specific characteristic, beautiful eyes, or a smile, maybe a unique outfit. Others might be loud and obnoxious, filling a lovely night with noise and you hope they walk faster.

Your novels provide your readers with a different way to people watch. In most stories, as in life, there are a variety of characters. Some are absolutely critical to the plot, no scene is complete without them. Others are less of a focus, coming in and out only to help move the story along at critical junctures. Then there are those that are more akin to bystanders. The people we meet on occasion and perhaps share a passing hello, but don’t really get to know. Those who add dimension to the world we’ve created.

The truth is, characters come in all shapes and sizes. In their most simple form, however, I tend to think of them as either flat or round. Both are good. Both can be interesting. Both add value to your story. The world, like a good manuscript, needs a mix to be its best.

So what does it mean to be flat?

photoImagine a skipping stone, the kind that fits perfectly in the palm of your hand. It’s surface soft and smooth. When you throw it, it glides over the water, touching here and there, dancing over the surface.

Flat characters remind me of these stones. They are likely not your primary characters. They might be secondary or tertiary. Flat doesn’t mean they’re weak. In fact, flat characters can be strong. They’re simply one dimensional, featuring a singular strong attribute. Maybe a sense of humor, a biting sarcasm, or a zany sense of fashion. These characters don’t change. They are who they are and we love them (or hate them) for that. Think of the children who DON’T win in Charlie and Chocolate Factory, we know a singular trait about them, and that is enough.

photo (1)Now imagine a big rock. The kind that has some heft to it. You might even need two hands to hurl it toward the water. And when it hits, you hear a deep thunk, and watch the water splash. This is how I imagine a round character.

Round characters are more fully fleshed out. They’re complex and instead of just one attribute, we know all sorts of things about them. We might know their hopes, their dreams, what makes them happy, or scared, or what means the most to them. In essence, we know them the same way we know a good friend. Now think about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory again, but this time think of Charlie and Willy Wonka. Both are very round.

photo (2)My son is interested in rocks, and we came upon this beauty while on vacation. It made me think of round characters. So many layers! While character change is a function of the plot, not of the character, it is often the round characters who do experience change in a story. Probably because they tend to be the center of our stories.

As you assess your novel and edit, or even as you outline. Ask yourself these questions.

  1. Which characters are flat? Which are round?
    • List them out and note the aspects of them that we know through the writing.
    • Are there aspects of the characters which are still in your head but not on the page? Why?
    • Have you intentionally made them flat or round? Or have they simply ended up that way? Be deliberate!
  2. Is your main character round or flat?
    • This can be intriguing to analyze. Sometimes we find that the person we think is our main character in an early draft, isn’t at all. We’ve spent far more time rounding out another character. And that might tell you something.
  3. For flats: What is their one-dimension? Their one attribute?
    • Is it a look?
    • A way of speech?
    • An attitude?
    • A desire?
  4. For rounds: What do we do know about them from the outside? The inside?
    • You should absolutely describe a character’s look. At least enough so that a reader can fill in the blanks and imagine them.
    • Perhaps even more critical though, is to describe a character’s inner self. Who they are when no one is looking.
  5. What distinguishes their voice in the story?
    • In my two novels, Delia’s voice is very clear. She has a way of talking that is wholly her. I could hear her distinctly.
    • Can you hear your character speaking to you?
  6. How does their name hint at their characteristic(s)?
    • In my new WIP, I have a young character named Twig. From that alone, can you picture him? A well-chosen name can help frame a character from the start.

Walk along a beach or a river and you’ll find all sorts of stones. Flat and round. And you need the same in your writing. So skip and splash, my writer friends, and enjoy the journey.

Shannon Wiersbitzky

Shannon Wiersbitzky

 

Shannon Wiersbitzky is a middle-grade author, a hopeless optimist, and a believer that anyone can change the world. Her first novel, The Summer of Hammers and Angels, was nominated for the William Allen White Children’s Book Award. What Flowers Remember, which released in May, tackles the subject of Alzheimer’s.

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100 comments on “Shannon Wiersbitzky: Do Your Characters Skip or Splash?

  1. Sandy Perlic says:

    What an interesting way to think of characters! Thanks for the insight.

    Like

  2. I love the examples from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. They make the “flat”and “round” characters crystal clear to see. Thanks!

    Like

  3. Very interesting post. Thank you!

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  4. Love the imagery created by the skipping and splashing stones. Thanks for another way to really think through these characters MC and all the rest.

    Like

  5. JEN Garrett says:

    I love this because I was a little worried about the “extras” in my MC’s world. I didn’t want the reader to care about the characters because I only have one scene with them. Since it’s told from the POV of my 11-year-old MC we just meet those characters in passing. But I was worried – are they too flat? I don’t think they are, because my MC can’t know EVERYONE in a rounded way.

    Like

  6. rlkurstedt says:

    Love this idea. Thanks.

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  7. Doing a quick “drive by” today. Thank you!

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  8. Wendy says:

    Honestly, feeling totally stressed out and going to read through again later before I tackle the exercise. Summer school has kicked my butt.

    Like

  9. sharon giltrow says:

    what a great way to see the world of our character they are not a solitary rock but one of many thanks

    Like

  10. Valerie Larson-Howard says:

    I have three boys, and we spend a lot of time looking at rocks too. So, I love the idea of comparing characters to stones. I’m in the middle of revising my first novel, and I’m now going to go back and think about the characters in this way. Thank-you.

    Like

  11. Sandee Abern says:

    Very interesting way of looking at characters…I love the round and flat concept. I need to look more closely at my MC and maybe give her more dimension. Thanks…this was really good!

    Like

  12. I read this post this morning, and didn’t have time to comment on it, but I thought about the stones while walking around a lake with my family later in the day. What a wonderful and unique metaphor you’ve provided us with–thank you.

    Like

  13. Pia Garneau says:

    Flat or round? Such a simple concept and yet so thought-provoking. Thanks for this post, Shannon!

    Like

  14. kpbock says:

    Great thoughts! It is really interesting to think of characters in this light, especially since I’ve always tended to think of flat as bad.

    Like

  15. Jenifer McNamara says:

    I’m not a people whatcher and I thought how you looked at rocks and how to write out characters in a story was very insightful.

    Like

  16. Laurie L Young says:

    I like the stone analogy. So many different kinds and all exactly what they are. I also like the idea that there can be characters that have a single trait and are not fully fleshed out. A MC might only know this other character briefly or in one situation where only the 1 trait would be seen. Very interesting things to think about. Thanks!

    Like

  17. Andrea Brame says:

    I love the idea that flat characters skip across the pond and round characters create a deep splash. I also love the check list!

    Thanks so much for giving of your time and advice in the webinar earlier, as well. 🙂

    Like

  18. I went people watching in the park today. I tried to capture as many details as possible by observing and used my imagination to fill out the rest.

    Like

  19. AuthorKaren says:

    very interesting post and love the idea. Thanks 🙂

    Like

  20. Sue Frye says:

    Surveying a few stones, and building stone soup:)

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  21. christy mihaly says:

    Great thoughts here. I think some of my characters may benefit from this “rock” analysis. Working on a rock star. 😉 Thanks!

    Like

  22. Pauline Tso says:

    “Character change is a function of the plot, not of the character” – hmmm, very interesting, very interesting indeed… Thanks for this tidbit to chew on!

    Like

  23. Whoa…nice post. I needed this one. I can be deliberate as I work on the two types of characters! Thank you!

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  24. Shannon: Such a unique way to compare characters to rocks and stones. Certainly makes me dig deeper when creating an outline for each one. Thank you. ~Suzy Leopold

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  25. Great analogy! I’d never thought to see my characters through a stone/rock lense! 🙂

    Like

  26. Eisen says:

    This is such a great post! Thank you for all your insights and the guidance questions. I’ve copied and pasted them for my notes 🙂

    Like

  27. Yunita says:

    Very wonderful metaphor about character. Made me think…think…think… Thanks for sharing a great thought, Shannon!

    Like

  28. Lauri Meyers says:

    What a great way to distinguish characters and embrace the role those flat characters play.

    Like

  29. Deborah says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed the questions for both flat and round characters!! Since I even had to buy the rock tumbler I have a lot of rocks from every vacation. We associate those rocks with the good times we had! Could be the same for characters! Loved the questions, very thought provoking.

    Like

  30. ssuehler says:

    Since I am a ‘tad’ round myself, I love the idea of a round, heavier rock making a bigger splash, sending out rings and rings of ideas. Not just on the surface but also deep into the water. The flat, lighter ones just graze the surface and sink to the bottom with ‘nary a ripple. Wonderful!

    Like

  31. Debbie Austin says:

    I now have a word picture for what my flat and round characters should be in my stories. Thank you!

    Like

  32. Lauren says:

    Hmm, this is a lovely metaphor – I particularly love how you described flat characters. Thanks!

    Like

  33. deborahholtwilliams says:

    I have this visual of that black and white photo of Georgia O’Keeffe’s elegant hand holding a smooth, dark stone. Rocks are a great way to think about characters!

    Like

  34. sbrands says:

    Number Six got my attention. I think I might be changing a few names. Thanks!

    Like

  35. Doris Stone says:

    Thanks for this post, I’ll never look at stones the same way again.

    Like

  36. writersideup says:

    I love the analogy, Shannon 🙂 Thank you! And I think I want my MC to do a double back flip on the way down 😉

    Like

  37. Carrie Brown says:

    Time for a rock hunt! Thanks, Shannon!

    Like

  38. Val M says:

    Excellent analogy about characters and whether they are “flat” or “round” and a key point re: making those choices deliberately. Thank you, Shannon.

    Like

  39. What a great way to work through one’s characters. Thank you for the ideas, and particularly, to pay attention to the characters you “round out” the most.

    Like

  40. Laurie says:

    This is a great (and helpful) tool for analyzing characters. The visual aspect of flat and round characters will add another dimension. Thanks!

    Like

  41. donnamcdine says:

    The rock analogy and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory references makes perfect sense. Thanks!

    Like

  42. sardyhar says:

    Thank you for the handy character sorting system.

    Like

  43. l8k8 says:

    Thanks for the post. Characters can be so many things.

    Like

  44. Tina Hoggatt says:

    Catching up on my lessons – what a wonderful post – clear and simple but with great questions to ask of the WIP. Thank you!

    Like

  45. Larissa says:

    Great analogy! Great post! Thank you!

    Like

  46. Charlotte says:

    Thank you, Shannon, for this interesting analogy. I had not thought of such a comparison and you have opened my eyes to something new. I appreciate the questions you posed for creating better characterization.

    Like

  47. Shannon I can tell that

    whatflowersremember

    is an elegant story because this post reads like a work of art.
    I am so much looking forward to settling it with it. Congratulations on
    the W.A. White Award

    Is the family vacation stone in the quartz family? – it’s lovely.

    This is one of the best explanations I’ve come across on well-rounded characters vs. the necessary one-dimensional ones.

    Thank you for using Road Dahl’s story as a example – I’m an RD fan, as obviously you are too. I recently had reason to look up something in an anthology of his poems, VILE VERSES & ended up spending too much time buried in it.

    More appreciations.

    Jan

    Like

  48. […] your character’s “usually” and “sometimes” adds three-dimensionality.  As Shannon Wiersbitzky wrote earlier in this course, characters can be flat (simple) or round (more fully-developed).  You want […]

    Like

  49. Nat Keller says:

    Great tips for rounding out characters!

    Like

  50. Amy Benoit says:

    Your advice along with Yvonne Ventresca’s makes so much sense. Thank you.

    Like

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