2

The way I understand it, the term flat character is used for a character that is both two-dimensional and has a flat character arc. Here, a two-dimensional character is character that shows a little, and not very complex, emotions and/or traits.

However, sometimes, I hear two-dimensional character explained flat character. Other times, I hear flat character explained as a character that has a flat arc, but one that's not necessarily two-dimensional.

From this Britannica definition, who defines the term in the first way, I suspect that maybe this is a case of these terms originally being well-defined, but after misuse, are now ambiguous?

EDIT:

I forgot to mention these further confuddling details. The Britannica definition cites E. M. Forster. That means that according to Britannica, E. M. Forster said a flat character is someone who is both two-dimensional and has a flat character arc. However, he also said that a flat character represents an idea, by being unchanging, almost like a force of nature. This feature however, only requires their arc being flat. In fact, in stories where the flat arc belongs the MC, they are often representative of an idea, yet whilst also being three-dimensional, naturally.

EDIT 2:

I think I have to be clearer. My question, and confusion, is caused by the contradictions of the multiple definitions. @Phillip's answer provides another definition, but doesn't explain why it is different from the two featured in my question: which definition, if any, is correct? What is the original definition? What definition is given by the most authoritative sources?

6
  • What is the question?
    – wetcircuit
    Dec 6, 2021 at 5:14
  • If you go by Foster's definition, he said that a flat character could not surprise you in a convincing way. A round character could, because they have enough traits that you would really be in doubt whether they would, say, tell the truth when it would save another character.
    – Mary
    Dec 9, 2021 at 3:35
  • Rather than asking what is the most common definition, you should either (1) if you have some text using the phrase, ask what they likely mean by it; or (2) if you want to describe something in particular, ask what is the best phrase to describe it. It seems as if "flat character" is not an unambiguous term and therefore should be avoided.
    – Stuart F
    Dec 9, 2021 at 11:01
  • [1/2] @StuartF "Rather than asking what is the most common definition (...)", I didn't ask what is the most common definition. I deliberately avoided that, as it'd a huge amount of work combing through different usages and interpreting them. Instead, I asked what most authoritative sources define it as, which would only involve figuring out what the authoritative sources on literary theory even are, and then going through their definitions. Then I also asked what the original definition is. These two questions are far easier than "what the most common definition is".
    – A. Kvåle
    Dec 9, 2021 at 14:22
  • [2/2] @StuartF "(...) you should either (1) if you have some text using the phrase, ask what they likely mean by it; or (2) if you want to describe something in particular, ask what is the best phrase to describe it." Although they would have been good questions, it doesn't mean " (...) [I] should (...)" have asked them. What if I don't have much problem figuring out what is likely meant in the different scenarios? What if I do have unambiguous ways to refer to these concepts? In such a case, there is no reason for me to ask your recommended questions. My question is what it is, nothing else.
    – A. Kvåle
    Dec 9, 2021 at 14:25

2 Answers 2

5

The TVTropes article on Character Depth describes the three dimensions a character can have as follows:

  • Height: The most outward traits of a character. One or two of these traits is most often enough for a "character" to be considered such.
  • Breadth: Variation within a character. The amount of different traits that define them and how well these interact.
  • Depth: How the audience's perception of the character changes the better said character is known. If your ogres are like onions, they do indeed have depth.

That means a "deep" character is a character with hidden depths. As the story progresses, the audience either learns new facts or experiences new personality trait which make that character appear in a different light. Or a character who undergoes considerable character development triggered by the events of the story, making them a different character at the end of the story than they were when they were introduced.

A "flat" character, on the other hand, is a character where all significant character traits are revealed as soon as they are introduced and which don't undergo any noteworthy change throughout the story.

An even less developed character is a "one-dimensional" character. This is a character who has only the bare minimum of character traits necessary to fulfill their purpose in the story. The cashier who is just a cashier, the police officer who is just a police officer, the innocent bystander who is just an innocent bystander. That's all they are, and often that's all they need to be, because adding unnecessary detail to irrelevant side-characters just steals the spotlight from the characters who actually matter.


As an example, let's take one of the most iconic movie villains of all times: Darth Vader. In the first movie (Star Wars IV: A New Hope), he is a rather flat character. He does have more character traits than, say, Greedo (a one-dimensional character who just exists to introduce the character of Han Solo), but they are all pretty superficial. Vader is introduced as an evil antagonist and he stays an evil antagonist throughout the movie. There is some new information which gets revealed about the character over the course of the movie, like that he has supernatural powers, that there are some conflicts between him and other imperial officers or that he once was a student of Obi Wan Kenobi, but none of that really changes how the character is perceived by the audience.

Then the second movie (Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back) reveals unexpected information about his background. We learn that he has a relation to the protagonist and doesn't just want to kill him but has more complex plans regarding him. This revelation gives the character depth.

And then at the end of the third movie (Star Wars VI: Return of the Jedi), he even undergoes character development by having a last minute redemption.

And then decades later the prequel trilogy was made, giving him an elaborate backstory and showing how he became a villain, adding further depth to the character.

4
  • I was going to use Star Wars as an answer too, but was going to point to three heroic characters and limit them to their introductory films: Obi-Wan (A New Hope), Yoda (Empire), and Leia (Hope). While the later two are explored in the prequel, Obi-Wan gets some character growth where Yoda is younger but still the old master. Leia in Hope is introduced as headstrong and obstinate and pretty much remains so in all of Hope. Pairing her with Han for much of Empire mellows her out a bit.
    – hszmv
    Dec 6, 2021 at 13:47
  • That said, Star Wars is such a HUGE story environment, that even Greedo gets backstory if you're willing to dig into the expanded universe (and let's not get into Legends vs. Disney canon here). Hell, as pointed out, Leia openly mocking Darth Vader in Hope would have gotten her killed in Jedi if she took the same tone with Jabba. But by this time, she's learned to better combine her diplomatic wit with her brilliant tactical and strategic mind to lure Jabba into placing her in a position where she'd have the ability to kill him.
    – hszmv
    Dec 6, 2021 at 13:51
  • @hszmv Indeed. The Star Wars franchise owners added backstory to pretty much every single irrelevant background character appearing in the movies. But most of those were added retroactively. Long after the movies were made. Fans and creators like to pretend that those characters always had those detailed backgrounds, but in most cases I highly doubt that. Which is why I believe that it makes most sense to look at the movies within the context of what was known to the audience when they were first released.
    – Philipp
    Dec 6, 2021 at 15:31
  • I agree. I'm just pointing out that "flat character" is relative. One of my favorite things about Star Wars is that everybody was given story, if someone half-assed. Like, people actually cared enough about the Drug Dealer in Attack of the Clones to demand not only if he did rethink his life (he did) but what he changed and if he became a better person (I believe he did.).
    – hszmv
    Dec 6, 2021 at 18:23
0

I've always thought of 'flat' as any character whose actions lack explanation, or backstory. A 'round' character is the opposite, a character who has backstory and you understand the 'why' of their actions.

2
  • I understand the actions of a waitress, without backstory or explanation. You don't need a backstory to understand what she is doing. Same for a cop, or a store clerk.
    – Amadeus
    Dec 8, 2021 at 21:45
  • 1
    @Amadeus When Murphy said "understand the 'why' of their actions", they may refer to a depth of understanding beyond what is self-evident. You understand why a waitress is waitering, because she is a waitress and needs to make money. But why is she waitress? Does she like it, and if so why? Does she hate it, and if so, why is she working as it then? That is the understanding you'd get from a backstory.
    – A. Kvåle
    Dec 8, 2021 at 23:45

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.