Have you been told you have “flat characters” in your story? Reel in your emotions and re-examine your characters. Does your character have little to no internal life? As your character moves through the story, does she overcome nearly every obstacle? Does she have a crystal-clear need? Is she unchanged at the end of the story? If even a few of your answers are yes, you probably have a flat character. Is that a problem? Probably. Flat characters are usually uninteresting and unmemorable. Got flat characters? Don’t worry. You can take your flat characters to genuine in 8 (sort of) easy steps.
If you guess flat characters are the opposite of round characters, you’re right. But let’s take it a step farther. Typically, when a reader says your characters are flat, they mean the characters don’t feel real. They want to read about realistic characters, people like themselves or people they know. Writers often call realistic characters round characters. A round character is a character who has multiple-dimensions to their personality.
In real life, we humans are a complicated bag of emotions, contradictions, and quirky bits. Our relationships with others are just as complicated as we are. We often make a whole range of mistakes in relationships, jobs, and every other aspect of our lives. In order to write a “simple” story, authors must be certain their characters come across the page as just as complicated, even if not all those bits show up on the page. So the first step in diagnosing flat characters is to see what IS on the page.
To fix a flat character, you must re-examine how that character appears on the page. Re-examining your character is harder than it sounds. You created these characters. You likely know them as well as yourself. Unfortunately, that may be part of the problem. As the creator, you read things into the story and character that may not be on the page.
If you don’t see why readers say your characters are flat, print your manuscript. Mark your primary character’s internal thoughts, emotions, dialogue, and descriptions. (Hat tip to Margie Lawson’s excellent courses.) Then take a step back and look at your pages. Missing one area? That’s a definite area of flatness. If one color dominates the page, lack of balance may be part of what makes your characters flat. Don’t despair. You can fix flat characters.
The short answer is no. Nearly every story has at least one character who is less developed than the primary characters. Some are observers, scene extras, or spear-carriers. Can they be flat? The short answer is yes. If every character is complex, your story will become an unending bog of details. However, your story’s verisimilitude will suffer if all your side characters are one-dimensional. Your story will be more interesting if some of these characters have one or two interesting traits, habits, or speech patterns.
Each author has a method for developing characters for a story. Some writers need to fill out a detailed bio for their characters and it works for them. If you’re like me, it may feel artificial or arbitrary and awkward. And if the author includes all those nitty-gritty details in their story, it can drive a reader away.
Some writers have a “feel” for a character and discover who the character is as they write the story. With a good (intuitive or educated) understanding of people, this can work very well.
If you are neither a deep-dive into minutia type or a discover-as-you-write creator, there are other options.
You may start with a theme, emotion, or plot you want to explore via your story. When you do this, you’ll be tempted to design a character entirely focused on your chosen story part. Is that a bad thing? No. Some genres are more focused on one aspect of the story. If it’s appropriate for your story to have flatter characters, so be it. Your complaining beta reader may not be your ideal reader. Too much focus can create a flat character that impedes your story’s flow. Depending upon the genre you’re writing, choose only one or two things to round your character a little more and make your story flow.
One way to avoid making your focused character flat is to complicate your character’s life. Give them a want that opposes that theme, emotion, or plot (which is their need.) For example: in a coming of age story, your primary character can want the football captain to fall for her, but her need is to be accepted for the nerd she really is. Choose solid reasons for your character’s want and give them opportunities in the story to learn what they need and why it’s important.
The first thing I do is look for their name. Note, it’s a feeling thing. I will know the right name when it feels right. Not very helpful, is it? But it’s more than my own feelings. One of the first things you learn when introduced to someone is their name. Often you associate that name with someone you’ve known and formed opinions about. You’ve attached your opinions to the name, even if the new person does not project those values. So when you choose a name, you instinctively or deliberately choose one for psychological reasons. Your story will be infinitely more interesting if your character’s name evokes a type or value that complicates their journey.
Characters with extremely detailed physical appearance can be successful. (Poirot anyone?) These characters and stories are successful because the primary character’s personality and appearance are unusual and presented in contrast to a reader-like person (Hastings or Dr. Watson).
Some characters have a flaw in their appearance that affects who they believe themselves to be or are hints about who they are. (Ugly Duckling, Hunchback, Harry Potter).
Skillful authors pepper the details into the story a small dose at a time. If a beta reader talks about how slow your story is or how the character just didn’t interest them, you may have overdone the details.
We humans like to think we are an open book, but most of us have a secret or two. Secret desires, secrets we think reveal what a bad person we are, or secrets we keep for the “good” of someone else. Characters who hide a secret create instant tension when other characters get close to figuring it out. That secret and the tension it creates are almost always instant wins with your readers. (Read more about character secrets in my Lies, Secrets, and Scars post).
A lot of advice for writers emphasizes giving your characters’ flaws. There are entire books on character flaws to help or confuse you. It doesn’t have to be confusing.
We humans are all flawed. Some of us may think we’re perfect, but none of us are. Anything, from a secret to a scar or tendency to exaggerate, can be a flaw. Tiny or big, flaws help make our characters more realistic.
One reason flat characters are unappealing is that they all look, sound, and act the same. Make each of your characters unique. By unique, I don’t mean give her an odd-ball characteristic or standout flaw. Small touches, like the words she uses in speech or self-talk, can make her unique. Often the small unique things make the biggest impressions on your readers.
Stereotypes are oversimplified, uncritical, and often prejudicial views of certain people. Many times, stereotypes are so ingrained in your background or society that it’s hard to recognize them. Stereotypes are often hurtful to a group of people. Use them with extreme caution (sensitivity readers can be useful for vetting this). Satire is one of the very few (if any) instances where stereotypes can be effective in fiction.
In certain stories, you can twist a stereotype against itself to make a point. Ebenezer in The Christmas Carol starts as a stereotype, a miserable miser. As the story develops, we learn why and how he became a miser. By the end of the story, he is the opposite of his miser beginning.
The best way to avoid stereotypes is to create a fully rounded character.
Internal conflict is when a person holds two sets of conflicting values or belief systems. A person raised with a strict religious belief system may confront a situation where she must violate one of her beliefs in order to help her dearest friend. Or a person can have the internal conflict of honesty vs. compassionate dishonesty. For example, someone values honest above all else but keeps a secret to protect a loved one from pain.
Many writers believe that the only way to convey internal is through internal thoughts. That is one way. A person’s compressed lips can express internal conflicts, or turning away without answering a question, or evasion of the question also shows a conflict.
Sometimes in a story the writer must tell, but a list of descriptive phrases drone unmemorable in a reader’s head. If you tell us your character is generous, it’s assumed to be the character’s own thoughts. The reader might interpret this as vanity and see it as a negative thing. Showing is often more effective. You can show beauty as an overheard negative comment or as a friend’s admiring comment. You can also show it in the way your character gives away possessions or time. Those conversations or acts make impressions on the reader and allow her to draw the conclusions you want. Bonus—often showing takes fewer words than telling the same thing.
These eight steps are only a piece of creating characters. There are great characters who have more traits and fascinating characters who only show a few of these things. The ease of using these steps is unfortunately on you. If you find it difficult to create genuine characters, give yourself an ongoing assignment or two.
Go to the park or local shopping mall and people watch. Take notes on what you observe that is different between the people you see. Jot down what your first impressions are and how those were right or wrong. Ask yourself what assumptions you make about them. Jot down some casual conversations and note what makes each person’s speech unique.
Read books on how to create characters but don’t stop there. Next time you finish reading a fiction book, record your impressions of the major characters. Then go back through the book and underline the sections that created those impressions. Journal about why those passages worked (or didn’t.)
It takes time and practice, but you’ll observe more differences and be able to capture differences in the characters you create. Soon, you’ll take your characters from flat to genuine.
Which book characters are your favorites and why? What is your best tip for creating realistic characters?
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Lynette M. Burrows is an author, a blogger, a creativity advocate, and a Yorkie Wrangler. She writes thrilling science fiction about women who make courageous choices.
Her Fellowship Dystopia series, Fellowship, My Soul to Keep and, If I Should Die, takes place in an alternate 1961. The first Prophet saved America from the Great Depression and the war overseas. Now the Fellowship guides the country and their rules aren’t optional. Miranda, a daughter of privilege, chooses to disobey and learns how dark and dangerous life beyond her privilege has become. Readers say the stories are unputdownable. Find your copy at Amazon or your favorite online book seller.
Lynette lives in the land of Oz. When she’s not procrastinating by avoiding housework and playing with her dogs, she’s blogging or writing or researching her next book. You can find Lynette online on her website, Facebook, or on Twitter @LynetteMBurrows.
Images purchased from DepositPhoto.
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I wish I had had a post like this when I first started writing. I didn't know why my characters were flat - I just knew that they were. Eventually, I learned...how to show rather than tell, how to make characters believable, how to set a scene.
Now I help run WITS because Newbie Writer Me had to struggle so hard to learn all these things. I like knowing that some new author will browse by this blog and see your post, and go "Ooooooooh. THAT's what that means."
Thanks, Jenny. There's so much to learn when you first start, I think nearly all of us could use posts like this.
I agree, Denise!