I’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?
Imagine 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.
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.
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.
- 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!
- 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.
- For flats: What is their one-dimension? Their one attribute?
- Is it a look?
- A way of speech?
- An attitude?
- A desire?
- 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.
- 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?
- 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 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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