How Flat Characters Are Used in Fiction

These Minor Figures Play a Supporting Role in the Story

Mixed race woman studying on laptop
••• Blend Images-Hill Street Studios/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images

As every reader and writer knows, novels and short stories have main characters, protagonists, and antagonists who are integral to the centerpiece of the plot. In writing lingo, these characters are called "round," or multi-dimensional. They change and grow over the course of the story. But the story needs minor characters that are involved in situations or provide information that affects the main characters.

While the main characters need to be believable to the reader, with a full range of personality traits and personal issues revealed, these minor characters have a much narrower purpose, so the reader only needs to know that character in one or two dimensions. This is called a flat character.

A flat character also does not undergo substantial change or growth in the course of a story. Also referred to as "two-dimensional characters" or "static characters," flat characters play a supporting role to the main character.

The Role of Flat Characters in Literature and Genre Fiction

Flat characters are often necessary to move a story along. Think of the characters of Crabbe and Goyle in the Harry Potter series. Telling their backstory, exploring their motivations and having them change over time would make it almost impossible to follow the story arc. Rather than attempting to flesh out these characters, author J.K. Rowling makes them "two-dimensional," or flat. Crabbe and Goyle are unintelligent, sycophantic followers — necessary to the plot, but otherwise unimportant.

A more classic example is the character of Mr. Collins in Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice." A flat character who is almost stereotypical in his pomposity, egocentricity and class consciousness, he serves a vital role in the story. Mr. Collins is at the center of a plot point through which protagonists Elizabeth and Darcy get together, and he provides comic elements to the story. But his character stays essentially unchanged; in fact, his lack of responsiveness is part of what makes him funny.

Flat characters are also a staple of genres that require particular personality types. For example:

  • Readers would be disappointed to discover that Sherlock Holmes had grown to become a warm, caring individual — or that Watson had, over time, developed top-notch detecting skills.
  • Few readers want to see reliably evil characters grow a conscience or feel guilt as a result of their actions.
  • Readers of series like "Twilight" choose the next book in the series because they want to revisit the characters they know and love. Authors of such series must be careful to avoid changing their characters too radically because this would undermine their popularity.
  • Stock characters, such as the wise adviser in "Quest" fantasies, are intended only to further the plot by providing critically important information to the protagonist. Should such a character change, his or her role in the story would come into question.

Creating Flat Characters

Creating flat characters is relatively easy since the writer needs to develop them only to the extent that the reader understands the context of that character's relationship to the main characters and whatever interaction that minor character has with the main character is believable.